1980s: Thriller or Killer
The late king of pop, Michael Jackson, thawed out a multitude of smash records, Thriller being one of the most successful commercial records from his icy catalog. Thriller caught the eyes of many fans and skeptics with its exhilarating video as well as catchy lyrics. However, when putting both the video and lyrics under a microscope, the picture Michael painted starts to resemble much of the events taking place in the 1980s including the rise of drugs and gang activity. When analyzing the video and lyrics this theory may not seem so far fetched. Jackson not only uses his platform in Thriller to show off his flashy dance moves and voice, but also uses the theme of the video and lyrics to shed light on the rise of drugs, gangs, and possibly disease in the 1980s.
Before reviewing the video and lyrics it is good to have a clear overview of the rise of drugs, gangs, and disease that followed the 1970s into the 1980s. The war on drugs during the 1980s was led by President Ronald Reagan(Ben-Yehuda). According to Erich Goode, author of “The American Drug Panic of the 1980s”, the cocaine and Heroin epidemic was so bad “Mario Cuomo, governor of New York State, called for a life sentence for anyone convicted of selling three vials of crack, a quantity of the drug which sold on the street for $50” (1994). Upon reviewing the lyrics to Thriller, I noticed several lines that can draw allusions to the drug epidemic of the 1980s. “…And though you fight to stay alive your body starts to shiver, for no mere mortal can resist the evil of the thriller” sings Jackson. According to Foundation for a Drug-Free World, “next to methamphetamine, cocaine creates the greatest psychological dependence of any drug, sending shivers through your spine” (2006). When Michael insists “no mortal can resist the evil of the thriller”, I believe he is drawing a correlation to the strong addiction Americans were experiencing with the drugs used in the 1980s (ex. cocaine, heroin). Also, when he says “your body starts to shiver”, he can be alluding to the effects of the drugs had on the human body.
Furthermore, drugs were one of the prominent issues of the 1980s, but disease did not follow far behind. I interviewed a neighbor of mine by the name of John Abraham, who’s life has been permanently affected by the use of heroin which plagued the 80s. “The use of heroin changed my life for the worst the moment I touched the needle”, exclaimed Abraham. John admitted to freely sharing needles with groups to intake heroine dating back from the 1970s all the way up until 1986, exactly. In 1986, John contracted HIV from sharing a needle with his cousin, whom was HIV positive. In the Thriller video, when Michael and his girlfriend are walking home from the movies zombies start approaching them, trapping them in a circle. Michael is touched and is infected becoming a zombie himself almost instantaneously. The zombie infection itself can draw correlations to the spread of disease in the 1980s as well as how easy it was being transferred as Michael was turned into a zombie with a mere touch. However, after being infected Michael sings, “…cause’ I can thrill you more than any ghost would ever dare try…so let me hold you tight and share a killer, diller, chiller, thriller here tonight”. When interpreting these lyrics an assumption of sexual desire from Michael can be made, further shedding light on the spread of disease in the 1980s because diseases were primarily transferred across hosts via sexual activities according to the U.S National Library of Medicine (2007).
Additionally, the theme of the Thriller music video shows strong ties to the rise of gang activity in the 1980s. The first small but subtle clue given for this analysis is when Michael first turns into a werewolf after running out of gas on the road. Although Michael is alone upon his transformation, wolfs do tend to travel in packs. According to Marcus Hoover, author of “Poverty & Prejudice: Gangs of All Colors”, two of the largest gangs, the Crips and Bloods, were started by low income African Americans in California to protect their neighborhoods against police brutality, racism, and prejudice offenses (1999). “It was not until the 1990s when the gangs started targeting each other”, says Hoover. During the Music video when Michael is turned into a zombie and begins to walk in the pack with them, terrorizing his date, a stronger connection to gang relations is made. Simultaneously, Michael sings “…Creatures crawl in search of blood to terrorize yawl’s neighborhood and whoever shall be found without the soul for getting down must stand and face the hounds of hell”. Hoover explains, gangs were territorial and usually did in fact terrorize the neighborhoods of rival gangs, almost exactly as depicted in the Thriller music video.
In essence, upon analyzing both the music video and lyrics for the Thriller record by Michael Jackson, many allusions to gang activity, drugs, and disease can be made. However, whether the King of Pop was glorifying these components in his music or shedding light on the epidemics of the 1980s is an entirely separate conversation. Thriller is an American classic, and regardless of its meaning fans and skeptics have no choice but to respect the late music genius.