Why He's a Thriller

Michael Jackson's songs, steps and sexy aura set a flashy beat for the decade

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Snap question, no time to think: Which one is Michael Jackson?

The svelte young man with black curls and two-lane grin who steps out of a Mercedes into the glitz and glare of Los Angeles' Melrose Avenue, wearing a bright red leather jacket with chain-mail yoke and 27 zippers, as, trailed by mother and manager, he goes shopping for clothes?

Or the young man in the tie and sweater holding a copy of the Watch tower, who stands at the door of an apartment in suburban Thousand Oaks, 40 miles and several dozen life-styles northwest of Melrose, fixing the uninterested girl who answered the door with his deep eyes, saying, "Today I'm here to talk about God's word"?

The girl shut the door on Michael Jackson. The Melrose Avenue counterfeit is Eric Evans, 17, who is fleshing out a fantasy and slapping down $550 for a red leather jacket that duplicates the one Jackson wore in Thriller. The jacket that Eric is already wearing is exactly like Jackson's in Beat It. It is a fairly innocent dream, really. Eric only wants to look like the biggest star in the world.

Star of records, radio, rock video. A one-man rescue team for the music business. A songwriter who sets the beat for a decade. A dancer with the fanciest feet on the street. A singer who cuts across all boundaries of taste and style, and color too. Michael Jackson, 25 years old.

The numbers, which are incredible, are also becoming indelible. How many Beatles were there? How many homers did Babe Ruth hit? How many Grammy Awards did Michael Jackson win on Feb. 28? How many copies of Thriller have been sold? Well, the Grammys are easy. Jackson won an unprecedented eight. The album question is tricky, simply because the record keeps selling, long past the point anyone expected it to: Epic Records sells more than a million copies a week worldwide; to date it has sold more than 30 million copies. The figures pyramid into a crazy crystal that throws off light from any angle. There are nine songs on the album; seven have been released as singles; all have hit the Top Ten, and two of them have reached No. 1. "I don't think the album's sales are finished," says Walter Yetnikoff, president of Epic's parent company, CBS Records Group, with just a light dusting of facetiousness. "There are some 200 million people in this country, and we've sold only 18 million copies here so far. There are a few more to go."

No sulking in competitive corporate quarters, however. Says David Lieberman, whose Lieberman Enterprises stocks more than 2,000 record outlets: "The best thing for a record company is to have a hit. The second best thing for a record company is for somebody else to have a hit." Comments Gil Friesen, president of A&M: "The whole industry has a stake in this success." The fallout from Thriller has given the business its best year since the heady days of 1978, when it had an estimated total domestic revenue of $4.1 billion.

Thriller has been the No. 1 album for 33 weeks. It is the bestselling album, of any kind, of all time. Keep in mind that, as Jackson's attorney John Branca points out, "Michael has the highest royalty rate in the business." That translates into approximately $2 for each of the more than 18 million albums sold in the U.S. Now you have some idea of what Jackson is using for pocket money these days. This does not, of course, count revenues from compact discs or the sale of some 350,000 copies of a $29.95 videotape called Making Michael Jackson's Thriller. Or continued royalties from the sale of old albums. Or the sales of Thriller abroad. Or the impending arrival of novelties like the Michael Jackson doll, due to appear in stores in May at a price of $12.

Portents of a huge phenomenon are not found exclusively on sales graphs or balance sheets, however. When Jackson's hair was burned in an accident during the filming of a Pepsi-Cola commercial in late January, the mishap made headline news around the world. Once completed, two Pepsi commercials featuring Jackson and his brothers premiered on MTV. The next day on their national morning news shows, CBS, ABC and NBC all aired one or both spots as hot stories, not paid ads.

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