How Thriller Changed Pop Music
Plus: Emo-Semitism, Richard Hawley, and Pimp C.
Michael Jackson's Thriller arrived in record stores 25 years ago this past week. The milestone will officially be celebrated in February with a 25th anniversary edition of the album, featuring unreleased tracks, DVD goodies (including Jackson's amazing performance of "Billie Jean" on the Motown 25 television special), and remixes by Kanye West and will.i.am, among others. In the meantime, Jackson has resurfaced in an exclusive Ebony magazine interview—looking more ivory than ebony in the cover photo —where he waxes grandiose about his famous album. Who could blame him for bragging? From the distance of a quarter-century, the release of Thriller looks like … the most significant event in popular-music history in the past quarter-century. It is the record that ended commercial pop radio's de facto apartheid, that ushered in the modern music-video era, that turned a former kiddie star into a new generation's equivalent of Elvis and the Beatles. Thriller sold 40 million copies during its initial run, and today the worldwide sales stand at 104 million. Those numbers may well represent the last great moment of pop consensus. At a time of intense musical fragmentation, it is charming to remember a record that seduced seemingly everyone: blacks, whites, grade-schoolers, grandparents. Even metalheads found their thrill on Track 5.
Today, we know Thriller so well that it is hard to hear it—to remember, for instance, the mind-bending novelty of hearing Eddie Van Halen shredding on a Michael Jackson hit. But the album's seductiveness masks its deep eccentricity. Consider "Billie Jean." The sound is a world away from the lush, beatific disco of Jackson's previous album Off The Wall (1979)—eerily stark, with that cat-on-the-prowl bass figure, cracking downbeat and multi-tracked vocals ricocheting in the vast spaces between keyboards and strings. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones sought, and got, weirdness. Jackson sang vocal overdubs through a six-foot-long cardboard tube; jazz saxophonist Tom Scott was brought in to play the lyricon, a wind-controlled analog synthesizer whose sour, trumpetlike lines answer Jackson's hiccups and "hee-hee"s. And then there's the lyric, a paternity-suit drama; a stew of shame, paranoia, and sexual terror; a parable about celebrity stalking. (Check out the creepy gumshoe who follows Jackson around in the "Billie Jean" video.) The darkness of "Billie Jean" is typical of the album. Forget the goofy B-movie title track and cock an ear to "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," a horror show disguised as a dance anthem: "It's too high to get over/ Too low to get under/ You're stuck in the middle/ And the pain is thunder/ You're a vegetable/ Still they hate you .../ You're just a buffet/ They eat off of you." Jackson wrote the words and music to that song, and to "Billie Jean," "Beat It," and the lovely, dopey Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine"—a reminder that in his prime, the "King of Pop" was also one of pop's greatest auteurs.
The Los Angeles group Say Anything, led by singer-songwriter Max Bemis, is the latest emo band to stake claim to the legacy of '70s rock, mixing emo's signature punk-pop song structures and hyper-verbosity with old school pomp: shifting time signatures, baroque genre-mashing experiments, "concept albums." The band's latest CD, In Defense of the Genre, is a total mess—in a good way, mostly. It sprawls out over 27 songs, zips between nu-punk and electronica and Andrew Lloyd Webber-style Broadway bombast, and it includes, yep, a defense of the emo genre. (In the title track, Bemis sings, apropos of his art: "I spew a comet of verbal vomit.") And Bemis continues his most curious project: leveraging his Jewishness for emo-cred points.
First came Say Anything's 2002 EP, the evocatively titled Menorah\Majora. Last year, Bemis moved into Jonathan Safran Foer territory with the hit "Alive With the Glory of Love," a love story set against the backdrop of the Holocaust, supposedly based on the real-life romance of his grandparents. The video is one of the most breathtaking—and confounding—pieces of Shoah kitsch ever concocted, a jumble of images and signifiers: The Sorrow and the Pity meets Life Is Beautiful meets Wet Hot American Summer. Two preteen lovers—little blond kids wearing Vans and hoodies and skate-rat mullets—escape from a death camp barracks (or is it a summer camp cabin?), flee pursuing SS officers (or are they counselors?), and wind up body surfing at a Say Anything concert in the forest while Bemis croons, "Our Treblinka is alive with the glory of love!"
On In Defense of the Genre, Bemis adds two new songs to the canon. "Shiksa (Girlfriend)" is an ode to a goyishe goddess, with lyrics about "Hebraic neuroses" and "the ying and the yang of the afikoman." Then there's "Died a Jew," which tackles the question of Jesus' Jewishness. ("Haters know it's true/ Jesus died a Jew," goes the chorus.) But the key moment comes in the first verse: "My people were slaves before yours invented hip-hop," Bemis sings, and that line gives the game away. Emo is steeped in the mystique of alienation and victimhood, and for Bemis, Jewishness is a novel way to raise the authenticity stakes while playing the aggrieved other. (You think you've got angst? My girlfriend dumped me and Pharaoh's taskmasters afflicted my forefathers with heavy burdens!)Bemis is such a dedicated jive-talker that it's hard to take seriously that "My people were slaves" lyric. (Personally, I wish he would purge race-baiting from his verbal vomit.) Still, Say Anything's emo-Semitism is—at least for one connoisseur of Jewish pop and Jewish pop-passing—a fascinating shtick. Move over, Matisyahu.
Farewell, Pimp C
The rapper Pimp C, one half of the veteran Houston duo UGK, was found dead yesterday in a West Hollywood, Calif., hotel room. But he had achieved hip-hop martyrdom long before. In 2002, Pimp C (born Chad Butler) was sentenced to jail for a probation violation stemming from an assault charge, and for years cries of "Free Pimp C" filled the woozy, hypnotic rap records drifting out of Houston. By the time he was paroled on Dec. 30, 2005, the homegrown rap scene he had presided over with his UGK partner Bun-B had burst into the national spotlight, with Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Chamillionaire, Lil Flip, Paul Wall, and others racking up big hits and big sales. Pimp C's 2006 single "I'm Free" included some verses about the hardships of prison life, but his most emphatic lines were the ones about MCs biting his style: "It was 'Free Pimp C'/ But now see, the pimp free …/ They locked up my body but my mind never stopped/ 'Cause I was plotting and planning and scheming every day/ Getting ready for my release so I can steal the game away/ From all these clone type niggas try'na sound like Pimp C/ He's okay, but he's not me!"
He was right to be proud of his sound. UGK were pioneering drug-trade chroniclers (the group's 1996 hit "Pocket Full of Stones" helped lay the groundwork for today's crack rap), and their Houston boosterism helped spur the rise of Southern hip-hop—provincialism that made rap incalculably more cosmopolitan. But Pimp C's greatest legacy is his tone and timbre, the song in his spoken words. American Idol has refocused attention on the art and athleticism of pop singing, but it is rarely noted that today's great vocal stylists include rappers. Pimp C's father was a trumpet player, and his rhyme flow was as much a triumph of melodicism as rhythm. He rapped in a molasses-thick Dixie drawl, elongating his words as much as the meter would permit. You can hear Pimp C indulging the habit in his most well-known lines, the eight-bar guest verse in Jay-Z's 2000 smash "Big Pimpin'," rendering the mall as ma-aa-ow, noise as naw-uz, wood as woo-wud. Hip-hop is many thousands of syllables poorer today.
"I'm soft as a sack of shit," Richard Hawley told the audience at Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan last Saturday night. Hawley, a singer-songwriter from Sheffield, England, was saying that he's a hopeless romantic, and no one who's heard him crooning about valentines, roses, and "aged wine" on his latest album, Lady's Bridge, will doubt that he has a sentimental streak. But Hawley's music is not softheaded. He specializes in big, noirish ballads, with a lush sound and a fatalistic lesson: Love is everything, and love will crack your heart. He is spiritually at home in 1955: He slicks his hair into an almost-pompadour, plays a 50-year-old hollow-body guitar, and draws obvious inspiration from Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, early Johnny Cash, and the Frank Sinatra of In the Wee Small Hours. His string orchestra glissandi and tremolo guitar lines are timeworn sounds, but his vocals, carrying just a hint of his Yorkshire brogue, are blunt, quirky, contemporary; his records don't sound slavishly retro. And if Hawley has ever written a bad song, he's never recorded it. Lady's Bridge features 11 fine new originals, including his latest single, which on first listen seems like a departure, a sprightly country number with a clip-clopping double-time beat. But look at the title, "Serious," and listen to the words: "When you are in love/ Oh you feel the stars above …/ But when you are alone/ A kiss can turn your heart to stone/ Hearts breaking in the night." It's Hawley being Hawley: an old softie, mooning over the girl he's found—and is born to lose.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.