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Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' turns 30: How zombies changed pop music's tune

CBS Records/Epic

"Thriller," Michael Jackson's sixth studio album, was released Nov. 30, 1982. 

The fame-changing chart-killing record celebrates 30 years on Friday, and to underscore the album's achievement, Billboard revisited the exceedingly grim context of its release.

Watch the videos below

Jackson's previous record, "Off The Wall," had been a success by all widely accepted measures, but that was 1979. 

In 1982, the near-radioactive fallout of disco, combined with the mass-migration of mass-appeal listeners from AM Top 40 to FM stations, led to segregated audiences splintering along musical sub-genre lines.

More to the point, "Thriller" was released at a time when "black artists [were] being ghettoized on urban contemporary radio, while disappearing from pop radio," says Billboard.

Precision targeting of audiences meant that radio stations needed to avoid playing anything that fell outside their target listeners' most narrowly-defined tastes...In all of 1982, only two No. 1 records on the Billboard Hot 100 were by black artists.

"The Girl is Mine," a duet with Paul McCartney, was the first single off "Thriller," a strategically soft entrance into Oct. 1982's inhospitable musical environment. Here's how bad it looked according to Billboard:

Not one record by a black artist could be found in the Top 20 on the Top 200 album chart or the Hot 100 singles chart for three consecutive weeks that October — a phenomenon unseen since before the creation of Top 40 radio in the mid 1950s.

Meanwhile, MTV was being born. The station emerged amid the whitewash of pop radio, and it operated similarly, until one day it didn't. Jackson's videos were initally rejected on the grounds of not fitting the rock format, and what ultimately led to the programming change-of-heart is apparently a matter of some debate. Nevertheless, it happened.

With the video for "Billie Jean" came the introduction to "a standard of choreography previously unseen in music videos," says Billboard — and Jackson had the light-up floor to himself, at least for a while, in part because the industry "hadn't in recent years nurtured artists who could dance." 

The symbiotic relationship between Michael and MTV quickly caused the other to "go viral," as Billboard put it.

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.

"Beat It" was next, and at that point, the already-famous-for-a-decade solo Michael was just a moonwalk away from bonafide King of Pop status. The zombie-heavy video for "Thriller" was released, followed by an eight-Grammy win.

Once MTV found success with Michael Jackson, videos by other black performers quickly appeared on the playlist.

This development single-handedly forced pop radio to reintroduce black music into its mix: After all, pop fans, now accustomed to seeing black artists and white artists on the same video channel, came to expect the same mix of music on pop radio.

The influence and record-setting status of "Thriller" is only part of the legacy, however. The near-supernatural superstardom Michael Jackson reached in its release is perhaps "the rarest trick" of all, says Billboard.

Try imagining J.K. Rowling suddenly coming out with a series of books that were so much better and more popular than the Harry Potter books that they rendered them a mere footnote to her career and you'll get the idea of what Michael Jackson accomplished with "Thriller."

Point of local interest, the "Thriller" house can be viewd with your own demon lizard eyes the next time you're strolling through Angelino Heights. The video's Victorian setting was not a backlot creation, but rather an 1880s-built Queen Anne located on historic Carroll Avenue.



"Billie Jean"

"Beat It"

Eddie Van Halen & Michael Jackson - "Beat it" (Live in 1984)