Why He's a Thriller

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

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Jackson and his five brothers are scheduled to hit the concert trail in June in what is billed as the biggest music tour in history. Pepsi is sponsoring the tour and has already given the Jacksons $5 million. Co-Promoter Don King has kicked in an additional $3 million. The Jacksons will receive 85% of the net receipts; King and their parents, Katherine and Joseph Jackson, the remaining 15%. King, a congenially bombastic presence whose recent show-business experience has been limited to booking prizefights, estimates that "if the boys decide to exploit every avenue of merchandising and marketing available to them—T shirts, pay-per-view TV concerts, clothing lines, perfume lines, product identification—the tour could gross $100 million."

Jackson and his brothers, both as the Jackson 5 and later simply as the Jacksons, made up one of the most appealing and popular rhythm-and-blues acts of the '70s. (There are nine brothers and sisters in the family: Maureen ["Rebbie"], 33; Jackie, 31; Tito, 29; Jermaine, 28; LaToya, 27; Marlon, 26; Michael, 25; Randy, 21; and Janet, 17.) But with the release of Off the Wall, Jackson's first solo album on Epic in 1979, it became clear that the group's leader was setting a pace that would be tough for anyone to follow. Off the Wall, which came out during the record-biz doldrums, sold 8 million copies worldwide and fielded four Top Ten hits. Those are impressive numbers by any standard, except the one that Jackson has just set with Thriller. "Michael's doing this tour to help his family," according to King. "I feel this will be the last tour that Michael will do with them." Lest he sound too much like the last flower child to bloom, we have Attorney Branca to remind us that "Michael is very informed and aware of what is going on in his life, to an amazing degree. He's his own Rasputin."

For a record industry stuck on the border between the ruins of punk and the chic regions of synthesizer pop, Thriller was a thorough restoration of confidence, a rejuvenation. Its effect on listeners, especially younger ones, was nearer to a revelation. Thriller brought black music back to mainstream radio, from which it had been effectively banished after restrictive "special-format programming" was introduced in the mid-'70s. Listeners could put more carbonation in their pop and cut their heavy-metal diet with a dose of the fleetest soul around. "No doubt about it," says Composer-Arranger Quincy Jones, who produced Off the Wall and Thriller with Jackson. "He's taken us right up there where we belong. Black music had to play second fiddle for a long time, but its spirit is the whole motor of pop. Michael has connected with every soul in the world."

Thriller does not have the mean, challenging immediacy or weird fervor of a rap record like White Lines (Don't Don't Do It), and it lacks most of rap's snappy, snazzy street smarts. But it is consummate contemporary rhythm and blues. Jane Fonda, one of Jackson's pals, puts it as neatly and nicely as any music critic: "Michael's got a fresh, original sound. The music is energetic, and it's sensual. You can dance to it, work out to it, make love to it, sing to it. It's hard to sit still to."

Since Fonda's litany tidily summarizes the full range of contemporary American leisure activity, it is no wonder that Jackson is in the air everywhere. The pulse of America and much of the rest of the world moves irregularly, beating in time to the tough strut of Billie Jean, the asphalt aria of Beat It, the supremely cool chills of Thriller. Thriller has been on the Japanese charts for 65 consecutive weeks, and local teen idols are copying Michael's moves and even singing some of his songs. Thriller is also South Africa's top seller: "Jackson, you might say, bridges the apartheid gap," muses one record executive. The Soviet press has, of course, denounced Jackson, and his fans cannot buy his records in any stores. But bootleg cassettes are swapped and treasured. Says one Soviet high school senior: "His music is electrifying. His beat is the music of today."

"Michael used to say, when he wrote, he'd write for everyone," says his mother Katherine, "even though the music business would list it as rhythm and blues because of him being black." The combined evidence of the bottom line, the hard listen and the long view is difficult to resist: Jackson is the biggest thing since the Beatles. He is the hottest single phenomenon since Elvis Presley. He just may be the most popular black singer ever.

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