Study Guide

Thriller Technique

  • Title

    When writer Rod Temperton (who wrote the late-70s hit "Boogie Nights") was asked to work on the album, producer Quincy Jones casually suggested that Temperton should try to come up with a name himself.

    Temperton's first try was Starlight. Hm.

    Luckily, someone told him this was a bad idea, and in an evening of intensive brainstorming (he says he wrote down two or three hundred titles), Temperton came up with Midnight Man. It's a little easier to imagine this title working for a hit, but something came to the writer overnight. As he tells the story: "The next morning I woke up and I just said this word. Something in my head just said, 'This [Thriller] is the title'. You could visualise it at the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as 'Thriller'." Supernatural visitation, much?

  • Calling Card

    On the first day that star producer Quincy Jones got together with Michael Jackson and the group of musicians who made the Thriller album, these were his words to the crew: "OK guys, we're here to save the recording industry." The record business was on the outs, and they wanted to make an album that would be full of hits, changing the whole music scene and revitalizing the industry.

    Incredibly enough, the album they came out with was in the Billboard Top Ten for over a year, and stayed at the number one spot for much of that year. Epic records released seven singles for radio play from the album, a record for singles released off of one pop album. As the album's success hovered at an astonishing high, Epic and CBS also finally managed to pressure MTV into taking work by a black musician seriously for the first time. They worked to convince both MTV and Showtime that a 15-minute music video with a complex plot would be a hit with fans.

    It's hard to overstate just how popular the video went on to become. The budget for "Thriller," at $500,000, was the largest budget for any music video to date. The producers also chose to have a theatrical premiere (rarely done for a music video). At the end of the premiere, when the star-studded audience demanded an encore, Eddie Murphy actually jumped up and suggested that they just "show the goddamn thing again"—so they did. At the height of the popularity of the "Thriller" video, the 14-minute piece story appeared on MTV twice an hour. The video, according to director John Landis, "changed everything."

    We would be hard-pressed to come up with an example of a music video in the nearly thirty years since that has had such a defining effect on the industry. Even recent run-away video hits like Lady Gaga's "Telephone" or Eminem and Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie" owe something to "Thriller": before "Thriller," complex plots and acting were just not a big part of music videos. And, of course, the "Thriller" dance lives on, inspiring literally tens of thousands of people around the world each year to dance like zombies. Michael Jackson has died, but his un-dead influence lives on.

  • Songwriting

    In addition to revolutionizing music videos, the lyrics to "Thriller" may have been a minor revolution in songwriting. The lyrics and music combine the traditional style of the scary story with the newer genre of the pop song, to an odd but catchy effect.

    Gothic horror stories (like The Red Room or A Rose For Emily have been around for hundreds of years, dating back at least to the European Enlightenment (apparently the Age of Reason was a little scary for some). Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is probably the most famous monster of Gothic horror (did you know she wrote the book when she was 19 years old?), and Bram Stoker's 1897 book Dracula brought vampires out of folklore and into written literature. But aside from the cheesy (yet still creepy) theme songs for horror and suspense films, horror has not made much headway as a musical genre of its own. So when Rod Temperton penned the lyrics to "Thriller," it was a little bit of creative innovation to write in the style and tone of a horror story.

    The minds behind "Thriller" went all out with the horror theme, hiring Vincent Price—a horror flick actor with a famously sinister voice—to "rap" on the track. Add a set of horror film sound effects (howling wolves, creaking doors, thunder, and footsteps on the floorboards) and you have all the materials for a soundtrack scary enough to give little kids nightmares.

    The effect is a little goofy in retrospect, but the daring track somehow still succeeds as a pop song. What do you think? Does "Thriller" make fun of the horror genre, or just make good pop music out of it?