"Thriller" conquered racial divides and evolving platforms at MTV, radio
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History has been unkind to early MTV's exclusion of black music from its format, but this is somewhat unfair. Launched at the height of radio playlist segregation, the channel at first could not fathom the idea that its target audience--teens in the overwhelmingly white suburbs and small towns who were the first to receive MTV on their cable television systems in late 1981 -- would want to hear black records, with which they were unfamiliar. In a world without mass appeal Top 40 radio, the idea of mass appeal Top 40 video was far from obvious. But at least on the radio dial, there were choices for those who wanted to seek out black music. On television, MTV was the only game in town. And its power to steer pop tastes was quickly becoming apparent, as hits began to gather steam in the hinterlands simply due to MTV exposure, without any radio play.
MTV's true impact was not fully felt until the channel made its debut on cable systems in the New York and Los Angeles areas in September of 1982. Suddenly, that which had been a rumor wafting in from the heartland became a loud thunderclap waking up the cultural agenda setters in the nation's twin media capitals, who accurately hyped MTV as the Next Big Thing. It is no coincidence that the aforementioned nadir of black music's presence on the pop charts occurred in October, 1982 -- a moment when all of pop radio and the only music channel on television excluded it from the mix.
Enter Michael Jackson. By the time he delivered "Thriller" to CBS's Epic label in 1982, Jackson had been one of the top recording stars in the world for over a dozen years, both with and without his brothers. However, his most recent album, the mega-hit "Off The Wall," which spawned four Top 10 singles, had been released in 1979, a year when 40% of the songs that reached the Top 3 on the Hot 100 were by black artists, before the wall separating black and white music on the radio arose.
"The Girls Is Mine"
CBS Records was well aware that there were no black records at all in the pop Top 20 the week they sent the debut single from "Thriller" to radio in October of 1982. Faced with the very real possibility that Jackson's record would fail to become exposed to a crossover radio audience, the record company took no chances. That first single, "The Girl Is Mine," was a gentle, easy-listening leaning duet with the ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, most recently Stevie Wonder's duet partner. The presence of McCartney, still very much a pop radio mainstay in the early 80's, virtually insured the song's acceptance at white radio. And, aware that MTV didn't play videos by black artists, CBS simply didn't make one for Jackson's first single from "Thriller."
"The Girl Is Mine" debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 6th, 1982, the date on which, not coincidentally, the rebound of black music's presence on that chart began, after a three-year steady decline. The fluffy single was not well received by critics. "Michael's worst idea since 'Ben,'" was how Robert Christgau, writing in the Village Voice, judged it. For an album that not long after would be viewed as a masterpiece, this was an inauspicious beginning, although it did get on white radio as intended.
The "Thriller" album itself was released three weeks later, November 30th, and on the chart dated December 25th it debuted at No. 11. This was a highly respectable chart debut in those pre-Soundscan days, although unexceptional, as even back then it was not unheard of for albums to debut inside the Top 10 or even at No. 1. In January, the album inched into the Top 10, moving to No. 9 for two weeks, then No. 8, before stalling for three weeks at No. 5, which was as far as the momentum generated by "The Girl Is Mine" would take it. While the album could already be considered a hit, "Thriller's" chart performance in those early weeks gave no hint of the juggernaut it would turn out to be.
On the strength of the No. 2 pop chart peak of "The Girl Is Mine" just after Christmas, CBS Records knew their strategy to lead at radio with the McCartney "Trojan Horse" was a success. As 1983 began, the label prepared its campaign for the album's second single, the more "urban" sounding "Billie Jean." With the table already set, pop radio immediately started to play this follow-up single, and skeptics were indeed happy to find that "Thriller" had more thrilling things to offer than the McCartney duet. "Billie Jean" was nothing short of breathtaking, the kind of single that makes you stop in your tracks and always remember where you were when you first heard it. But with MTV the rage of the music world that winter, there was no way Jackson could occupy the central spot in pop culture without its support. And MTV didn't play black records.
CBS gambled and filmed expensive videos for both "Billie Jean" and the next single, "Beat It"--videos that were a joy to behold. Jackson was a natural video star, his era's premiere song and dance man. The two videos introduced a standard of choreography previously unseen in music videos, arguably surpassing even James Brown's 1960s live work, until then the gold standard against whom all R&B dancers were judged.
As a visual art form, music video is naturally suited to choreography. Yet with the exception of Toni Basil's "Mickey" clip from the previous fall, there really hadn't been any accomplished dancing featured in videos shown on MTV. This was largely due to the fact that the music business hadn't in recent years nurtured artists who could dance-even the stars of disco music weren't consummate dancers themselves. All that would eventually change after "Thriller," with the coming of Madonna, Michael's sister Janet, and Paula Abdul, among others. But in the meantime, Michael Jackson had the MTV dance-floor to himself.