"Thriller" conquered racial divides and evolving platforms at MTV, radio
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Despite the obvious quality of the Jackson videos, MTV initially resisted playing them, claiming it was a rock station and Jackson didn't fit the format. There is to this day some disagreement as to what led the channel to change its policy and add "Billie Jean." At the time, a story was widely circulated that CBS chief Walter Yetnikoff resorted to threatening to pull all of his label's videos off the channel if MTV didn't play "Billie Jean," but this claim has been refuted over the years by original MTV honchos Bob Pittman and Les Garland. They concede that the channel initially assumed it would not play the video, as its thumping beat and urban production did not fit the channel's "rock" image. They contend however that in mid-February, after seeing the clip--which was possibly the best that had ever come across their desks--they began to re-think things. Coupled with the fact that even without MTV, the song had just leaped in one week from No. 23 to No. 6 on the Hot 100, the MTV execs concluded they should give it a shot.
MTV's -- and Jackson's -- timing was perfect. MTV debuted "Billie Jean," on March 1st, just four days before the song hit No. 1 on the Hot 100, making it the first uptempo urban song to accomplish that feat in over two years. Simultaneously, "Billie Jean's" momentum was the thing that finally pulled the "Thriller" album all the way up to No. 1 on the album chart in its 10th chart week. But a number one single and album turned out to be only the beginning-for both Jackson and MTV.
Featuring Jackson's videos for "Billie Jean" and two weeks later for "Beat It" widened the video-clip channel's appeal as much as airplay on MTV widened the appeal of Michael Jackson. MTV was already at the white-hot center of the pop universe, but it was only when they added Michael Jackson that they found their real star. The idea of the hottest pop star in the world being shown on TV throughout the day-between the two clips, you didn't need to sit in front of your TV for very long to catch Michael on MTV-made the network even more talked-about than before. New viewers watched MTV because they'd heard how great the Michael Jackson videos were; at the same time, MTVs core audience was blown away by videos featuring a type of music they weren't supposed to like-except it turned out they did. To use a modern term to describe what was happening back then, MTV and Michael Jackson made each other go viral.
Jackson's second MTV video, for "Beat It," was yet another master stroke, incorporating live sound effects, real L.A. street gang members and the mass choreographed dancing which would become a signature part of Jackson's videos. The "Billie Jean" video had been a revelation because it showcased the brilliance of Jackson's performance. "Beat It" did that too, but it also set a new standard of production for music video itself, and in fact it became the more popular and acclaimed video of the two, despite the fact that "Billie Jean" was a bigger hit song. "Beat It" also represented another step in Jackson's master plan to appeal across all musical boundaries, with its rock feel and Eddie van Halen guitar solo. It achieved that goal, being played on rock radio stations and earning Jackson yet another category of fans that would not otherwise have gravitated to his music (In this regard Michael Jackson was actually beaten to the punch by his older brother Jermaine, who featured the new wave band Devo on his 1982 hit "Let Me Tickle Your Fancy," which had also garnered some rock airplay) .
Then, just when it didn't seem possible that Jackson could get any bigger, he did. On May 16th, with "Beat It" at No. 1 and "Billie Jean" still in the Top 10, Michael debuted the moonwalk on the Motown 25th Anniversary TV special on NBC. Drawn by a desire to see Michael Jackson's first performance on a stage since the release of "Thriller," 47 million Americans tuned in, many of whom did not yet have cable television and thus could not see Jackson's videos on MTV. The performance Jackson gave that night hurled his career even further into the stratosphere.
A full year after "Thriller's" release, after the record-setting seven Top 10 singles and countless weeks at No. 1 on the album chart, making it the best-selling album of all time, Jackson still had one more trick up his "Thriller" sleeve: On December 2nd, he debuted his nearly 14-minute John Landis-directed video for the album's title track. It was immediately acclaimed as perhaps the greatest music video ever made and it reignited Michael-mania. A commercial videocassette featuring the short film shot to the top of the video chart and went on to become the biggest selling music video of all time. Meanwhile, the "Thriller" album, which had fallen out of the No. 1 position nearly six months earlier, now jumped back into the top spot just in time for Christmas and stayed there well into the new year. The Grammy telecast two months later, during which Jackson won eight Grammys, served as the formal coronation of Jackson as King of Pop, although now by that point the fact was obvious.