Three decades on, and one spooky video still stands tall above all others.
ON Dec 2, 1983, MTV premiered Michael Jackson’s new music video, Thriller. It was an event – MTV’s first world premiere. And it lived up to the hype. Nearly 30 years later, when people consider the best music videos, Thriller often comes out on top.
That success is remarkable given the disposable nature of music videos. Essentially, these clips are just ads for new music. Around the time of MTV’s launch in 1981, little effort or money were put into these short clips. For every band (such as Talking Heads) that approached videos like experimental art films, there were thousands of acts that stood around in a studio or on a stage and pretended to play their new single in front of a few cameras. The vast majority of videos were shot in a day, if not a few hours.
This was the way things were done long before MTV, dating back to the mid-1960s and the “promotional films” made on the cheap, featuring a new single and aired on TV variety programs. Even The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, the 1964 feature film with sequences that came to be understood as the genesis of the music video, was made on a shoestring budget.
Now, back to the 1980s – an era in which many artists struggled to get comfortable with presenting themselves on MTV. Jackson was not someone who had a problem with this. Having come up as the adorable lead singer of the Jackson 5, he seemed to be born with an innate charisma as a performer, as a dancer, as a star.
His early videos displayed this, even if they forced the one-gloved pop singer to exist in a seizure-inducing world of disco lights (Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough). By 1983, Jackson began to function a little less like a music star and more like a movie actor. The clips for Billie Jean, Beat It and Say Say Say (featuring former Beatle Paul McCartney) told stories to the audience, enhancing the music with visuals borrowed from film noir, West Side Story and vaudeville. Between the quality of the music and videos, Jackson became the first significant African-American presence on MTV.
And then came the video for Thriller. It was bigger, bolder, longer, more expensive and more interesting than any music video conceived at that time (and, some would say, since). Thriller was the third video released from its namesake album. To help boost the sales of an already blockbuster LP, Jackson wanted to break new ground.
To make this happen, he contacted movie director John Landis, because Jackson had loved Landis’s 1981 horror film An American Werewolf In London. At the time, big-shot film directors considered music video shoots a significant step down, but Landis was intrigued by Jackson’s enthusiasm and concept. The director and the musician collaborated on a script that extended a mere music video into a 13-minute horror flick. Extensive zombie makeup and “werecat” effects were developed by Rick Baker (who also worked on American Werewolf). Dozens of dancers were cast. Actress Ola Ray was hired to play Michael’s love interest – and victim. The whole thing ended up taking multiple days to shoot, costing about US$500,000 (some say even more). Regardless, it was the most expensive music video made in that era.
As it turned out, Jackson, Landis and everyone involved gambled and won. The video was a monster success for MTV, which aired Thriller as often as possible. Most people who were alive in the early 1980s have distinct memories of the video – a significant fact considering that MTV used to air videos one after another in those days. I was a toddler at the time, and my memory is seeing zombie Michael on a wall of big-screen TVs at an appliance store. I freaked out when I saw one of the dancing zombies rising from a grave. As such, I would stop my Mom from listening to the song Thriller when she played the LP at home. For many years, Side One ended with The Girl is Mine.
I was traumatised, but the rest of the music world was enthralled. Music videos became big business, with record labels throwing money at bands, directors and special effects, hoping that enough cash would result in “the next Thriller.” They tried. And some really interesting videos were created – from videos that brought a cinematic sweep to the small screen (Guns N’ Roses’ November Rain) to clips that featured some of the earliest uses of computer animation (Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing). In the 1990s, music videos became a stepping stone for film directors to get to Hollywood. Some of today’s most creative and successful film directors (David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michael Bay) got their start at the helm of a five-minute music video. Francis Lawrence, the director of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, once made videos for Britney Spears, Aerosmith and Jennifer Lopez.
While everyone else was trying to out-do Thriller, so was Jackson. He continued to work with A-list directors (Martin Scorsese on Bad, John Singleton on Remember The Time and Landis again on Black Or White). The budgets got bigger, the concepts grew more elaborate, the co-stars became actual celebrities (including Eddie Murphy and Marlon Brando). Yet, even MJ couldn’t top Thriller. Not even with 1995’s Scream, directed by the great Mark Romanek, featuring Janet Jackson and boasting the largest budget in music video history: US$7mil.
When it came to videos, Jackson never quite escaped the long shadow of Thriller. How could he? Long after MTV stopped showing videos and started getting “real,” we’re still fascinated by Thriller. Convicted criminals choreograph their own Thriller videos. Towns host Thriller festivals. A Thriller Broadway musical is in the works. Years from now, after a million more viral videos have gone the way of Gangnam Style, we’ll still be talking about Thriller.