Top of the Charts: Michael Jackson's "Thriller"

Written by: Shelby Morrison

On February 26, 1983, Michael Jackson’s Thriller hit Number One on the Billboard 200 chart.

The 1982 release was revolutionary, a watershed moment in the history of rock and roll. It earned a record-breaking number of Grammy awards, sold in record numbers, resulted in music videos that changed promotional possibilities, broke down racial barriers and left a legacy of influence that continues to this day. 

Thriller was recorded with a production budget of $750,000 in 1982 and was produced by 2013 Hall of Fame Inductee Quincy Jones. Jackson and Jones combed through more than 700 demos – some Jackson had committed to a voice recorder – to find songs for his new album, eventually settling on a handful of tracks that included Jackson originals “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “The Girl is Mine,” “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” All four of the songs that Jackson composed were reflections of both personal and social issues surrounding the "King of Pop": In “Billie Jean,” Jackson speaks about an obsessive fan who alleges that Jackson has fathered a child with her; “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” was a rebuttal against gossip surrounding his life and the media; “The Girl is Mine,”was a song about interracial love;  and “Beat It” was an anti–gang violence masterpiece that was Jackson’s first successful rock-cross over. All four songs reached the Top 10 on the Billboard charts.

The album remained in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart for a full year, and it spent 37 weeks at the Number One spot – more than any other Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee (Fleetwood Mac's Rumours spent 31 weeks). Thriller was released on November 30, 1982, and in a little over a year had become – and still remains – the best-selling album of all time. It is estimated that Thriller has sold between 65 and 110 million copies, worldwide. Thriller also won eight Grammys in 1984, including Best Pop Male Performance, Best Rock Male Performance, Record of the Year and Album of the Year. The album also won Jackson eight American Music Awards and three MTV Video Music Awards.

The video created for the title track, written by Rod Temperton, is among the most influential music videos of all time. The idea to create a music video for this song came in the summer of 1983, when the album’s sales began to decline. Jackson’s manager at the time, Frank DiLeo came up the idea to create a video for the title track of the album to reinvigorate sales, telling Jackson, “It’s simple – all you’ve got to do is dance, sing and make it scary.” The nearly 14-minute video was directed by John Landis (who had previously directed such films as Animal House and The Blues Brothers), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jackson. “My idea was to make this short film with conversation… in the beginning – I like having a beginning and a middle and an ending, which would follow a story," explained Jackson. "I’m very much involved in the complete making and creating of the piece. It has to be, you know, my soul.” The video starred Jackson, actress Ola Ray, noted actor Vincent Price (who supplied voiceover for the album recording) and a host of dancing zombies.

In addition to “Thriller,” videos for “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” received regular rotation on MTV. At the time, Jackson’s blending of film and music to create an entertaining story helped usher in more MTV airplay featuring African-American artists. Jackson effectively shifted the perspective of the video channel, broadening the mix from a more straightforward focus on pop music and opening the doors for other black artists to utilize music videos as a wildly effective promotional tool.

Jackson was one of a kind, and his music and legacy will live on, according to friend Steven Spielberg: “Just as there will never be another Fred Astaire or Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley, there will never be anyone comparable to Michael Jackson – his talent, his wonderment and his mystery will make him a legend.”

Michael Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 2001 and is among the artists featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland's Legends of Rock exhibit.