On Nov. 30, 1982, Michael Jackson’s iconic album, Thriller, was released and immediately shook the world of entertainment, later becoming the best selling album in history with 47.3 million certified sales.
At the time of release, Michael was only 23 years old and had been riding the success of his bubblegum pop career as a child entertainer, where he was the lead singer of the Jackson Five (later called The Jacksons) alongside his brothers.
Michael became the lead singer of the Jackson Five at age five, quickly showing natural talent as a singer and dancer. Other famous entertainers that took young Michael under their wing, such as Diana Ross and Sammy Davis Jr., remarked that he had an old soul and natural talent unseen in anyone his age.
The young brothers signed onto the legendary Motown Records label, a mecca for Black music in the U.S.’ post-civil rights era, in 1969. In 1970, the group’s single “I Want You Back” went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and they became an overnight sensation. Motown’s executive, Berry Gordy, who had seen promise in the Jacksons, predicted the success of the band. Executives at the label later groomed Michael for a solo career.
Michael became the top Black child star of not only his era, but of all time. In a Rolling Stone article remembering the legacy of MJ, Q-Tip remarked, "He (Michael) meant everything to Black culture." The Jackson family had a symbolic role for Black people in the United States, as the Rolling Stone article notes, soon after the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson released the Moynihan Report, which “declared the Black family dead”, the Jacksons were a strong, united, and fiercely talented family with all of the success to back it up.
Here you had Michael and four brothers," said the Rev. Al Sharpton to Rolling Stone, "all talented and all cute and the strong father and the mother who was matriarchal and Janet, and it was like, 'Wow, all this talent in this family, showing we could do something.' We were proud of that."
"Way before Tiger Woods or Barack Obama, Michael made Black people go pop-culture global," he says. "You had people in France, South America and Iowa comfortable with their kids imitating a Black kid from Gary, Indiana. And when some of those people in Iowa grew, they were comfortable with voting for Barack Obama because they got comfortable imitating a Black kid named Michael Jackson when they were young. Obama is a phenomenon, but he's the result of a process that Michael helped America graduate to."
In 1978, Michael won an NAACP image award for his role as the Scarecrow in The Wiz, a reimagining of The Wizard of Oz geared towards a Black audience.
In 1979, Michael released his famous “Off The Wall” album that went on to become a global hit and his breakout solo work featuring songs like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You”, which proved to the world that Michael would remain a powerful player in the music industry into adulthood. Despite the album’s success, it didn’t receive satisfactory praise at the Grammy Awards.
Michael teamed up with legendary producer, Quincy Jones, and legendary composer, Rod Temperton, to work on his next big project - Thriller. The young pop star was determined to make every single one of the nine songs on the album a hit. Upon release, the album hit #1 on the charts in 13 countries and was #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 for 37 consecutive weeks - a record. It was also the first album in history to stay in the top 10 for the first year and a half of its release. Of the albums nine tracks, seven went on to hold top 10 positions on U.S. charts.
The album’s supporting music videos, which were then frontier territory for musicians, would became legendary. Michael ended MTV’s policy of not playing Black musicians’ work on their program when the video for “Billie Jean” was aired marking a milestone for civil rights in the music industry. And of course, Michael’s famous 14 minute video for the album’s title-track, Thriller, became the greatest music video of all time, according to MTV and VH1. The success of the Thriller music video made video a viable medium for music artists.
Michael was nominated for an Emmy in 1983 for his performance of “Billie Jean” during a TV special for Motown’s 25th anniversary that featured his first performance of the moonwalk, which would become his signature dance move.
In 1984, Michael was met with much more praise at the Grammy Awards where he was nominated for 12 awards and won 8 - another record broken decisively by the King of Pop. Michael took the world by storm and revolutionized the world of entertainment, with Thriller becoming not only the anthem of the 80s, but the anthem of pop culture in the contemporary United States.
In the most symbolic move of the singers success, Jackson purchased a catalogue of songs from ATV in 1984, shortly after the success of Thriller, which included 251 Beatles songs including the hits "Yesterday," "Let It Be" and "Hey Jude." The US$47.5 million purchase marked a historic shift in the world of entertainment, as Rolling Stone wrote:
“Not only did he become as big as the Beatles, he bought them too. A century after American whites owned blacks, a black performer owned the product of the most elite white group in the world.”