punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

Deconstructing "Thriller"

Recently, due to grabbing one too many songs onto my MP3 player, I found I had inadvertently added Michael Jackson's 1983 hit, "Thriller," from the album of the same name. That song really defines the beginning of 1980s pop music. A little R&B, a little dance, and a whole lot of synth. Michael even had John Landis, director of such famous 70s hits as "An American Werewolf in London," "The Blues Brothers," and "Animal House," shoot the video.

But what is the point of this song? I mean, seriously, what the hell? Being stalked by a monster? Seeing a film with your girlfriend? After listening to it for a long time, I have broken down the main issues I have with this song. Now, keep in mind, I actually LIKE this song, but when you break it down, it loses its "OMG DEFINED A GENERATION" appeal, and shows a lot of ...strangeness.

Yes, I am aware this post is 22 years too late.

First, I found out while getting the lyrics, Michael did NOT write this song, but it was produced by Quincy Jones (who also did "We Are the World"), and written and composed by Rod Temperton, a famous British musician and songwriter who wrote a lot of big disco hits, including "Boogie Nights", "Groove Line" and the memorable ballad, "Always and Forever." Blecch. But you can really feel Rod's influence, as I will illustrate later on.

The song first starts out with a weak door. I say weak, because if this is supposed to be a scary house, I would think the door would have more heft to it. This is a squeak of a wooden-framed screen door, like on some old porch in Georgia, not some huge oak door in Transylvania. Then the footsteps are obviously from a different sound effects tape, since not only do they have a different echo, but go from left to right, whereas the screen door seemed to come from all around you. It almost sounds like you opened a screen door to the outside, where someone with dress shoes is walking down a boardwalk, and there's lightning, winds howling, and wolf howls that come from "An American Werewolf in London," and not, as I was told growing up, Michael Jackson himself. I am sure Landis was in charge of the sound effects tape library. Maybe MJ did some wolf howls, I don't know, but anything where he tries to be manly creeps me out.

The song starts with a special effect that would have been right at home with a cheesy TV sci fi show of the late 60s, but fades quickly to the synth, which carries the melody at first.

Any band that was anything in the 1980s had synthesizer music. British new-wave pop used it heavily, and while I like that era for that reason, I still respect the restrain used in this intro where the synth sounds more natural. But in the background are two things that stick out when you first hear them: the lounge guitar and the cowbell. The "lounge guitar," which I call because I am not a musician and don't know the riff used, seems sort of like when men in powder blue tuxedos try to play an R&B song. Like a sort of white-bread funk. The cowbell... well. Bruce Dickinson has a fever, and the only prescription.. is more cowbell! [clunk clunk]

But then the intro rises into the... preamble of the melody with a bass guitar funk and more synth. The cowbell shifts tempo, and suddenly you go... "Hey, waittaminnit, this has roots in DISCO!"

For those of you born in the late 70s or later, Disco, a sort of dance-funk of the the late 70s, had died horribly under the crush of corporate music, trying to squeeze out the very last morsel of moisture from anything they try and force the public to swallow. The backlash in the early 80s was "Disco SUCKS!" and suddenly, the corporations had to find some new, fresh music, and MTV led the way with British new-wave pop. Both the synth and disco we can trace right back to Rod Temperton in the album, "Thriller."

But the singing is definitely Michael Jackson. His voice strains in this song ever so slightly, like there's a desperation to sound more powerful than he really is. I am not sure if this is the case, since if you look at his singing as a child, he does the same thing. While most of the music from "The Jackson 5" in its prime is classified as good soul and R&B, it seems even as an adult, MJ is trying not to sound like a kid by straining over his lyrics like a blues singer on helium.

It's close to midnight and something evil's lurking from the dark.
Under the moonlight you see a sight that almost stops your heart
You try to scream but terror takes the sound before you make it.
You start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes,
You're paralyzed...

This is the first verse, and I don't take much umbrage with it, except for the line, "as horror looks you right between the eyes." Right between the eyes? Like at the bridge of your nose? Maybe he means your "third eye," and that the "horror" scares you so bad, it reaches your psychic core or something. Eh. The setup seems to be you're being stalked by some horrible nearsighted monster.

'Cause this is thriller, thriller night

One of the MAIN problems I have with the lyrics leaps out at me from my teen age years, and I am still wondering what the hell he is saying here. The song is called "Thriller," and I believe the lyrics are correct on the album sleeve here, but what it sounds like he is saying is either "Dilla," "Dealer," or "Dillard," for most of the damn song. I hear no "th" except for a few passages here and there. In fact, it's almost like he's saying the "silent D" used in Spanish in such terms as "de nada."

And no one's gonna save you from the beast about to strike
You know it's thriller, thriller night
You're fighting for your life inside a killer, thriller tonight...

The last line sounds like, and I am sorry, but I have played this over and over to make sure, "kedda, tidda, deny." But onto the second verse. What does our monster do?

You hear the door slam [BOOM] and realize there's nowhere left to run
You feel the cold hand and wonder if you'll ever see the sun
You close your eyes and hope that this is just imagination...
But all the while you hear a creature creeping up behind
You're out of time

Okay, so now it's taken two lyrics, and the monster has us by a cold hand. Frankly, once I felt the cold hand, I wouldn't care what I heard after that. I would think you hear the monster, THAN feel the hand, but hey... maybe you're used to cold hands feeling you, but when added with the sound of a creeping monster... woah... look out! A nice "disco horn section" has now joined, by the way. Boogie on down! And what's with that errant phrase, "GIRL!" It's almost like he has to identify that this song isn't really about some bad horror film, but involves a girl somehow. Yeah. Right, MJ. You like girls... we know.

'Cause this is thriller, thriller night
There ain't no second chance against the thing with the forty eyes, girl.
You know it's thriller, thriller night
You're fighting for your life inside of killer, thriller tonight

Wait... the beast has 40 eyes, and none of them look you in the eyes, but between them? And apparently, you get no second chance with him, buddy... or girl. First time, you better... what? Run? The door's closed! Now you have to fight for your life against the ... kedda tedda deny.

Night creatures calling and the dead start to walk in their masquerade
There's no escaping the jaws of the alien this time (They're open wide)
This is the end of your life

A masquerade is defined as "A party or assembly of people wearing masks, and amusing themselves with dancing, conversation, or other diversions. A dramatic performance by actors in masks. Acting or living under false pretenses; concealment of something by a false or unreal show; pretentious show; disguise." What are the dead telling us? Are they ashamed? That the night creatures are calling?

When night creatures call, they call collect.

The last line of that bridge, I swear, sounds like "you feel something in your behind." I was stunned this was the NOT lyric I got off his fan page, and I don't hear "this is the end of your life," at all. I mean, I thought all this time the 40-eyed, cold-handed alien monster was also a twisted ass freak.

Here we also experience one of the main "sound bytes" that celebrity impersonators and comedians would use forever when doing Michael. "Oooh!" Later on, we hear the famous, "Heh hee hee!" I am sorry, Michael, neither one of those make you sound macho, but more like a bitch.

They're out to get you, there's demons closing in on every side [sound of loon]
They will possess you unless you change the number on your dial
Now is the time for you and I to cuddle close together
YEAH... uh huh...
All through the night I'll save you from the terror on the screen,
I'll make you see

"The demons closing in..." sounds like a weather front. "There's a bunch of dragons coming from the west, and demons are closing in on every side. Expect major traffic delays as the 270 exit off of 495 is consumed by the God of Hellfire."

So, now I'm guessing that this isn't really happening, but in a movie, and that's why he yelled "GIRL!" back in the previous verse: he's seeing the film with a girl. This does seem supported by the video, except then afterwards, he turns into a zombie and does a line dance number. The sound effect of the Canadian loon in this verse is rather foretelling, IMHO.

"They will possess you unless you change the number on your dial" sounds more like "before you dial," although it's hard to hear. I am not sure if this song is about regret in choosing a boyfriend, or a reference to "we traced the phone call, the stalker is in your house!" genre.

That this is thriller, thriller night
'Cause I can thrill you more than any ghoul could dare to try
This is thriller, thriller night
So let me hold you tight and share a killer, diller, chiller thriller here tonight

That this is thriller, thriller night
'Cause I can thrill you more than any ghoul could dare to try
This is thriller, thriller night
So let me hold you tight and share a killer, thriller

I always thought repeating this was superfluous, but hey, maybe they had to pad the song before the final part that ALL of us recognize. Now, I don't know, but when I think about urban rap street cred, I think of Michael Jackson and Vincent Price. This is actually called, on fan sites, "The Thriller Rap."

Darkness falls across the land
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
To terrorize y'awl's neighborhood
And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell
And rot inside a corpse's shell

[MJ does his sound bites, including "Heh hee hee!" and "Oooh!" as his voice goes from speaker to speaker, saying various "Dealer. Dealer Night. Oh Darlin' Oh bay-bay.]

NONE of this "rap" makes sense. Okay, it's dark, near midnight, and then creatures crawl in search of blood. Why? To scare the Cajuns. "To terrorize y'awl's neighborhood." Oooo-wee! Det gonna be some swomp beast to-nat, I gar-un-tee! Note that "blood" and "hood" don't rhyme very well; they don't even try. At least Bruce Springsteen made "land" rhyme with "enemy" in "Born in the USA." I am trying to picture Vincent with this sheet in front of him at the recording studio. "I'll just read this text, shall I?" he asks, looking at the poorly-scrawled words in front of him. "You know, this reminds me... when was in London in 1967, I recall the BBC had... what? Okay, fine, I'll just read it, then..." Now, for you kiddies out there, Vincent Price was a spooky-assed character used in a lot of voiceovers, horror specials, and movies in the 50s and 60s. Doing a rock album was not a new thing for him, he made a short speech about the black widow on Alice Coopers "Welcome To My Nightmare" album. But I can just imagine him looking at this pseudo urban schtick, and trying to say the words without ANY idea how to pronounce them right. A half-way decent rap artist could make "blud" rhyme with "hud." But Vincent was an annunciator, and it was all nonsense to him, I am sure. So when you won't "get down" and boogie, you'll face "the hounds of hell." Now think of those two phrases: "soul for getting down" and "face the hounds of hell." That's a total clash of style right there. Like mixing Shakespeare and rap. Can you imagine, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," this?
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
So I bust a cap and popped the bro'
And now he ain't loving Titania no mo'


Oh, and "rot inside a corpse's shell." Nice. I was eating my dinner, you prick. Seriously, when I was a kid, I thought it was "rocked inside a corpse's shell," like a lullaby, and that was pretty creepy. "Hush little baby, don't you cry, mommy's corpse is withered and dry..."

But I digress.

The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grizzly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller

[cue Vincent Price brand "Maniacal Laugh" with deep echo]

I SWEAR TO GOD, UNTIL THE DAY I DIE, VINCENT PRICE IS SAYING "THRIMMER." I played it over and over. I always wonder if the light in the recording studio was dim, or they only did one take for cost purposes, or they didn't discover the mistake until too late. Thrimmer isn't even a word, and I laugh, because the main point of this song, to me, is not about some scary movie you watch to cuddle with your gal, but that two people from totally different entertainment backgrounds could not pronounce the simple word, "Thriller."

The name of the song AND the album.

In addition, does the "funk of 40,000 years" mean "George Clinton style" funk or "smelly gamer body odor" funk? Does it mean, "The horrible smell of old corpses," or, "The combined dancing R&B style of 40k?" I may never know. Those grizzly ghouls, did they perform with Grizzly Adams, and when they close in to seal your doom, does that include contract fees?

The song ends with a weak screen door shut/bounce. Not the heavy SLAM of a huge Door of Doom, but more like that annoying laundry room door where you have to juggle the doorknob to get it to stick.

I still like the song, but after listening to it several times on my mp3 player recently, combined with my teen angst, I had to let this out. In the immortal words of John Astin,

"But I'm feeling much better, now!"
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