February 12, 2008

Thriller: My First Fascination With Music

1983 was a big year in my life. I graduated kindergarten with flying colors. I finally succeeded in riding my bicycle without training wheels. And, thanks to a supposed game of “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine” with Carrie Brobeck, my best friend and already a bombshell at 6, I’d been apprised of a striking difference between girls and boys. (I say “supposed” because, since she went first, I cleverly figured I’d won that game before hightailing it home, much to her chagrin.)

So I’d been educated by a few things, but I’d yet to be fascinated by music. An only child, I listened to whatever my parents played on the record player in our living room. While my mother enjoyed the pop sounds of Neil Diamond and the Carpenters, my father preferred country music, predominantly the traditional variety of George Jones and Loretta Lynn. Their tastes converged with an eternal penchant for Elvis Presley. And though I absorbed all of it, nothing really struck me on a visceral level.

What had already struck me, unfortunately, was illness. At 4, I’d suffered from encephalitis and spinal meningitis, which almost killed me and ensured that I would not only receive vigilant medical care for years thereafter, but also special (and often overbearing) attention from my teachers and family. As a result, my early childhood was marked by circumstances I had yet to fully understand and, indeed in 1983, I still struggled with them.

It was at that time and within this context that music assumed greater significance with me. Unlike most everything else in my life, this represented something I could engage in and appreciate by myself, mercifully requiring no adult assistance or supervision. My parents recognized my newfound interest and bought a portable stereo with turntable for my bedroom. I felt like I’d been given the freedom to explore unchartered territory and, in a way, I had.

Boom. Swish. Boom. Swish. Boom. Swish. Urgent yet unfamiliar, this slithery groove with a ruthless drumbeat reverberated through my bedroom, its bassline thumping my walls. A voice in distress sang out, “People always told me, be careful what you do/Don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts.” I caught part of this infectious song on a pop station, turned the dial to find it playing on a rock station, then a Top 40 station, and then an R&B station. Either my new stereo was defective, I thought, or everyone in town must’ve requested this song.

Before long, I’d want to hear “Billie Jean” all the time too.

With that song, Michael Jackson lit the spark that ignited my fascination with music. And with “Billie Jean” symbolizing the spark, Thriller epitomized the big bang. It was the first album I ever bought, the first music that truly belonged to me. Sure, my parents knew of Michael Jackson and his Motown classics with the Jackson 5, but they weren’t hip to his latest songs like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and “Beat It,” much less his mind-boggling music videos. I’d discovered this burgeoning enigma moonwalk and one white glove included all by myself.

Thriller’s staggering statistics
87 consecutive weeks in the Top 10, 37 weeks at #1, 7 Top 10 singles didn’t register with me at the time. The album's phenomenon, however, was inescapable. Illustrated to modest extent by my initial encounter of “Billie Jean” on 4 different radio stations at once, Michael Jackson his music, his videos, his image and likeness on every conceivable product saturated popular culture at that time. Like many other Michael Jackson fans around my age, I amassed my own Thriller-themed paraphernalia: a “Beat It” leather jacket (with silver sequins on the shoulders and zippers everywhere), trading cards, a plastic microphone, a glittery cloth belt, a keychain (for which I didn’t even have keys), and a giant poster on my bedroom door. I wasn’t old enough to be cynical (or even mindful) of product placement campaigns, but on the other hand, I was young and idealistic enough to be mesmerized by the music as well as the mania.

25 years later, I still hold Thriller in high regard, if only for how it instigated my appreciation of music. At a time when my life was characterized more by confusing health concerns than ordinary childhood activities, I connected with this album in ways that expanded my imagination and enlivened my spirit. I’ve since discovered other albums that resonate with me more than Thriller, songs that mean more to me than “Billie Jean,” and artists who inspire me more than Michael Jackson. Yet, the music I enjoy today and the extent to which I value it are reminiscent and resultant of my original response to this landmark album.