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April 21, 2024

The permanent joy of Michael Jackson's Thriller

By MATTHEW RITCHIE | November 17, 2020



Ritchie reflects on how important Michael Jackson’s Thriller has been to him over the course of his life.

It’s impossible to nail down the exact percentage of memories I have that are explicitly tied to music. In fact, it might be necessary to add a qualifier in order to get closer to a more concrete answer. If I adjust the question to ask, “What percentage of my happy memories are tied to music?”, it becomes easier to figure out a precise number. That number exists in the 90 to 95% range. In the bustling interchange of memory encoding and storage, many of the positive memories I have are attached to some sound or song. 

This is because memories, like feelings or people, are fleeting. It is in their nature to be brief, as our brain attempts to hold onto them like sand slipping through our fingers. Any memory that we are lucky enough to capture and lock into our minds is either a powerful event that becomes a cornerstone of who we are or is tied to another sensation that grounds it. But we can’t depend on those central memories all of the time.

Due to the seemingly endless catalog of music available through streaming services, music, unlike memories, is permanent. All songs and albums, good and bad, stand the test of time because we can always access them. Given the amount of time that I’ve spent listening to music, I’m unable to think of a single moment when melodies aren’t flowing through my ears. Every positive memory becomes tied to a musical moment.

Driving to and from middle school basketball games will forever be associated with Drake’s only classic Nothing Was the Same. The best family reunion memories never arise without the sounds of McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” to accompany them. Intimate nights with close friends are often soundtracked by our favorite songs at that time, granting power to the likes of Snoh Aalegra and Durand Jones & The Indications. 

This practice of bonding music and happy memories together probably started in the backseat of my dad’s Dodge Neon between the years of 1998 and 2003. Strapped into a car seat that I never dreamed of escaping, my dad would drive me around the neighborhood when I got antsy, plopping in the CD of his choice. And honestly, shoutout to him for having an amazing taste in music. From my first foray into rap music through 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and Biggie’s Life After Death to an inexplicable amount of Mary J. Blige, I was exposed to it all. But the crown jewel, the album that never seemed to be taken out of rotation, was Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

It’s hard to encapsulate how important Thriller is to both my happiness and my memories. It is the first album that I can remember listening to from start to finish. The other works I named only register with individual tracks like “In Da Club” and “Hypnotize,” but the entire tracklist of Jackson’s most famous work has been permanently tattooed on my brain. The sheer number of times I listened to it should be a world record. Whether it was driving home from another Baltimore Orioles’ loss or to my grandmother’s house for church and lunch in my Sunday best, it was always playing. I’d continually drift off to sleep as Jackson’s prime crooning would seep into my brain, nestling comfortably in my memory banks with ease. 

Each track holds a special place in my head, representing a different emotion and the warm feeling of a familiar, loving memory. The pure, unbridled joy of the first time that I remember experiencing “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is unmatched. It’s the perfect song for a child to get introduced to an artist. Michael’s over-the-top energy, the fast-paced funk beat ripe for dancing, the angelic chorus of background voices devolving into a joyous collection of scatting at the end hit all the marks for four-year-old Ritchie. It’s like if 200 milligrams of caffeine were captured in a six-minute song, which never failed to get me up and moving, whether it was around the house or at a birthday party. “P.Y.T.” and “Billie Jean” fall into the same category aptly named “auditory cocaine.”

Two of the most iconic tracks, the titular “Thriller” and “Beat It,” became directly associated with a different form of excitement. “Thriller” became the official soundtrack for everything Halloween and scary. There’s a picture of one-year-old me in a pumpkin costume, and I can definitely be sure that this song was playing. From the creaky door at the beginning to the haunting monologue outro, it matches every child’s image of what Halloween should be like. The only thing that kept it from paralyzing me with fear on each listen was the inherent ability to groove along with it.

The infectious rhythm tied to Jackson’s voice brings the fun to the fear of the season. “Beat It” has a forbidden feeling to it, with the rock elements and guitar solo creating an awesome environment that you shouldn’t be privy to. The song rips along as Michael sings about standing your ground and striking out against your enemies. I get my first taste of riotous energy. Even in the face of the cautionary tales, the spirit of “Beat It” sparked a sort of rebellious streak that still lives inside of me now. 

The rest of the songs are forever tied to feelings of both love and serenity in my life, as they become emotional safe havens with every listen. “Baby Be Mine” was probably the first time that I began to understand what love felt like to someone else. It’s the simplicity of Michael’s statements as he sings, “I don’t need no dreams when I’m by your side / Every moment takes me to paradise,” that hits the hardest. I’d look up and see my parents reveling in each other’s company, doing nothing but sitting there, and I began to understand what love and devotion meant to me. 

While “The Girl Is Mine” is centered on a point of contention between Michael and Paul McCartney, the sentiments that both expressed as they argued over the subject of their desires felt and sounded like love. I’ve listened to this song so much that I can perform both Michael and Paul’s verses on command, without fail.

“Human Nature” is the perfect lullaby. There’s no official record of what was playing in the car as I drifted off to sleep during every car ride, but I would not be surprised if my parents just pressed repeat on the track so I’d shut up. It’s the sweetest that Michael’s voice sounds on the entire album, and it feels like I’m just watching streetlights go by without a care in the world. As he gives up on even singing words, with his lyrics devolving into intelligible nonsense, I felt like I achieved inner peace for a brief moment.

“The Lady in My Life” exists in the same vein. The slow, building ballad closes the album as Michael croons about devotion and dedication to one woman. The track was etched in my brain from the moment the serene background introduced the drums and horns in one fell swoop.

Any time a song from Thriller gets played, I’m transported to a hazy vision of a memory from what feels like eons ago. The details are scattered and even borderline nonexistent. What remains is the feeling of the memory. In a time where positive feelings and joy can be hard to come by, these little pockets of happiness feel like little golden nuggets of luck. They never fully leave you. Even when it seems like the memory has disappeared, all it takes is a couple of chords to restore the joy once again.

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