Lyric Theory: “Thriller” and more, Michael Jackson (1982)

They’re out to get you
There’s demons closing in on every side
They will possess you
(from “Thriller”)

A chance conversation can shape a career trajectory and a life. Nichelle Nichols almost jumped ship from struggling TV series Star Trek long before it ended its original three-year mission in the bottom half of the Nielsens, but Martin Luther King, Jr. advised her to stay on board, as an example of a black woman enjoying a successful career. Granted, she was basically a space receptionist whose jobs were answering the phone and sitting on a platform in a dangerously short miniskirt. Seriously, her costume is on display at the Science Fiction museum in Seattle, and if I tried to put it on, it wouldn’t cover my navel. Tiny person! But as Mad Men reminds us, “secretary/eye candy” passed for female professional advancement in the 1960s, so Nichols stuck with Star Trek not only through the failed TV show, but through its remarkable syndicated resurrection into a pop culture phenomenon.

MLK knew that when a group wants acceptance by the broader society, one can be seen as normal simply by doing normal stuff: having a job, raising a family, going shopping, brushing teeth, whatever. Though Star Trek addressed  racism memorably and explicitly,  it never raised the issue of Uhura’s race, and the show’s team of seasoned Sci-Fi authors protected her from the era’s stereotypically black character tropes, except perhaps her penchant to burst into song.

Tired of injustice
Tired of the schemes
The lies are disgusting
So what does it mean?
(from “Scream”)

Elsewhere in the popcultureverse, the Motown record label advanced civil rights not by marching or sitting in, but by singing. Berry Gordy’s studio crew offered a revolving door of fresh-faced, dapper young men and women with songs of love and optimism during a time of national stresses. Diana Ross broke out of the Supremes as the runaway favorite of the mid 1960s, but the end of the decade brought a family of twelve from Gary, Indiana to the fore. The Jackson 5 thrived as part of the bubblegum pop scene, charting four consecutive #1 singles in 1969 and 1970. They appeared on Saturday Morning cartoons, on lunchboxes, on board games.

Little brother Michael’s endearing and precocious renditions of R&B hits made him the media darling on both group and solo projects, and a wave of competing “family bands” fronted by kids sprung up: real ones like the Osmonds (six Top Twenty hits 1970-4, including one trip to #1), and fake ones like The Partridge Family (five Top Twenty hits in the same time period, one #1). Others like Keith Green tried to cash in on the kids’ music craze but would have to wait until adulthood to hit their professional strides.

The Osmonds and Jacksons both came from separatist religious sects, Mormon and Jehovah’s Witnesses, respectively. Both groups had begun generations before with sharp “us vs the world” rhetoric, but by the 1970s, the Osmonds formed the vanguard of a Mormon gambit to be accepted into the crazy quilt of American popular culture, so that by 2012, a Mormon running for president could garner 47% of the vote.

They’re out to get you
Better leave while you can
Don’t want to be a boy
You want to be a man
You want to stay alive
Better do what you can
So beat it
(from “Beat It”)

In case anyone was wondering.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in contrast remained aloof – no military service, no pledge of allegiance, no holidays, a creed so exclusive that only 144,000 of their own members hope for heaven. Michael Jackson’s pop stardom posed challenges for his JW obligations such as frequent door-to-door proselytizing, and his standing within the organization became even tenser when the centerpiece title track of his “Thriller” album extolled the escapist fun of 1950s sci-fi B-movies about aliens and monsters. The music video depicted Jackson transforming into a werewolf and running from, then becoming, a zombie. Under pressure from JW leadership, Jackson added a needless disclaimer to the front of the video, in case anybody thought that making a zombie movie meant one was a witch doctor.

No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities…
People say I’m not okay
‘Cause I love such elementary things.
It’s been my fate to compensate
For the childhood I’ve never known.
(from “Childhood”)

Amidst the whirlwind of the touring and recording, Jackson can’t have had much time to develop peer skills. He was a superstar on stage but just a little brother behind the curtain. A USA Today reporter embedded on Jackson’s “Bad” tour told me that when the entourage rented out two floors of a hotel in the city du jour, Jackson would wander the halls, looking for someone to talk to. Painfully shy, he preferred the company of animals and kids.

Here abandoned in my fame
Armageddon of the brain
KGB was dogging me
Take my name and just let me be
(from “Stranger in Moscow”)

Jackson’s music began to reflect the pressures he felt from family, faith, paparazzi, music industry, fans. His musical persona changed from smiles to scowls. Instead of the torch songs, love songs, and life celebrations of his late ’70s disco days, the ’80s saw Jackson chased by Thriller’s monsters, conniving groupies (twice) , gangsters, gang-bangers (twice). Even when he did release a song of infatuation, the video derailed it into stalker territory, casting Jackson as the leader of a street gang blocking the path of a lone club-bound woman on dark streets.

She waits at backstage doors
For those who have prestige,
Who promise fortune and fame,
A life that’s so carefree
(from “Dirty Diana”)

In the ’90s, amidst murmurings about vitiligo therapy and collapsed nose jobs, his songs protested the inescapable gaze of the media, of racists, of life in general, and particularly of “Dom Sheldon,” a thinly veiled version of Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon, who twice investigated allegations of child sexual abuse among the young visitors to Jackson’s Neverland ranch/amusement park. Even the thrilling, morphalicious “Black and White” video undercut itself in the original extended ending in which a were-panther Jackson vandalizes racist cars while stroking his crotch. Jackson’s composite message came through clearly: “Leave Me Alone!”





Tell me, what has become of my life? I have a wife and two children who love me. I am the victim of police brutality, now. I’m tired of being the victim of hate. (from “They Don’t Care About Us”)

Life imitated art imitated life. Is it still paranoia if people really are out to get you because your paranoia makes you a target? The “Thriller” video also added ambiguity to the situation by casting Jackson as the victim in the middle section, but as the monster at its beginning and end. None of this fit well with the MLK/Berry Gordy strategy of success through normalcy, which Jackson seemed not to need after amassing enough power in his own right to become the first black artist heavily played on then-New Wave-centric MTV, which in turn ensured his further hegemony. But the stress of ultra-fame and its thrills proved too much, and the most famous man in the world joined the sad ranks of celebrities who over-medicated their pain first into a stupor, and then into a casket.

Though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller


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