Legacy is a few months late (the original "Thriller" came out in November 1982), but it's a milestone worth marking nonetheless, mainly because of one central question: What made "Thriller" such a phenomenon?
Yes, fine, it's totally awesome. In fact, it's one of the first cassette tapes I can remember having. But "Purple Rain" by Prince and "Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen (both released in June 1984) were pretty awesome, too, and to my ears, each holds up better all these years later.
So how did "Thriller" become such a cultural touchstone?
There are a few reasons.
First, "Thriller" is pure pop. Produced by Quincy Jones, the songs are crisp, distinctive and catchy, and their easy accessibility made for wide appeal. "They just sound good," says my friend Harold, a musical omnivore just as likely to listen to Mr. Bungle, Billie Holiday or Run DMC. "Thriller" is also fluffy and innocent, with none of the socio-political allegory of Springsteen or sexual overtones of Prince. Hell, "Billie Jean" is basically 5 minutes about having not slept with a woman, which runs counter to everything Prince stood for at the time. And rivalries are rarely as affectionate as "The Girl is Mine," Jackson's duet with Paul McCartney — you get the feeling neither of them much cares about winning her affections.
Second, there were the videos. MTV was in its infancy then and still afraid of black people, and Jackson's videos — the long-form horror-movie homage for "Thriller," the light-up floor tile thing for "Billie Jean" and the gang-war-averted theme of "Beat It" — were revolutionary. Not only did they put a non-white face on the fledgling music channel, they made music videos an essential promotional tool of the '80s and '90s.
Third, Michael Jackson had yet to become weird. He wasn't far removed from the cute little kid fronting his family band, the Jackson 5, and he hadn't yet exiled himself to the Neverland Ranch or made out awkwardly with Lisa Marie Presley. Teenage girls were still in love with Michael circa "Thriller," which marked the apex of the potential he showed from a very young age, before it drained away in a wash of plastic surgery, pet chimps and unsettling legal allegations.
All those elements (and others, probably) combined to elevate a really good (er, totally awesome) album into something more. "Thriller" made made Jackson a mega-star, spawning seven Top 10 hits from a 9-song track list. Naturally, that changed the way major labels thought about the relationship between albums and singles, which looks more like a mixed blessing with the benefit of hindsight. It's probably even fair to say that "Purple Rain" wouldn't have become as big a hit without "Thriller" having first cleared the way.
Still, the album sounds dated to me now, like an artifact of an era that has become prized largely for its pop-culture kitsch. Good music rarely goes out of style, but maybe "Thriller" is the exception that proves the rule.