The world changed on 1 December 1982. On that day, Michael Jackson released the album Thriller. Barriers broke, as it was showered with awards in pop, rock, and r’n’b categories. Records toppled: it stayed 37 weeks at the top of the US charts, 80 weeks in the top 10. And it went global, becoming a planet-wide hit that 25 years later remains the biggest selling album of all time.
It was a landmark not only in music, but also in dance. Jackson was already a brilliant mover; Thriller sharpened his act, crystallised his style and launched it on the world. Performing the song Billie Jean at a special broadcast to celebrate another 25th anniversary, for Motown Records, Jackson cut an unforgettable figure. Joints alternately jagged and juicy, he’d flick and retract his limbs like switchblades, or snap out of a tornado spin into a perfectly poised toe-stand. Audiences were gripped. Then he stepped purposefully forwards. Except – how did he do that? – the action made him glide backwards. It was the ‘moonwalk’. We skipped a few heartbeats, did a collective double-take, and surrendered. Michael Jackson ruled.
In fact, tap dancer Bill Bailey had performed the step back in the 1950s, and pioneering West Coast bodypoppers the Electric Boogaloos had their own version in the late 1970s. Jackson himself was taught by Jeffrey Daniel, the ultra-smooth mover from 80s pop outfit Shalamar, who went on to choreograph some of Jackson’s subsequent routines for Bad and Smooth Criminal. But it was Jackson who made the moonwalk his own, and Jackson who appeared on the mental karoake screens of countless people practising their dance moves in clubs, streets and homes across the world.
That was thanks also to three videos from the album, which, with their classy choreography, production values and cinematic structure, changed music television for ever. They’re called music videos, but their real secret was dance. In Billie Jean, the drab pavement slabs of a windblown street light up with every step Jackson makes, electrified by each dapper footfall. For swagger and attitude, the gang scene choreography in Beat It beats its counterpart in West Side Story, from which it drew inspiration. As for Thriller, it became the best-selling music video ever. The album had already been number one for the best part of a year, but the 14-minute mini-movie, directed by John Landis, catapulted it back to the top slot and doubled its sales. With its horror-film plot and innovative effects – the busting out of graves was literally groundbreaking – it seemed destined for cult status. But its lifeblood was dance. Jackson, bug-eyed and hollow-cheeked, leads a squadron of zombies in the sharpest manoeuvres ever cut by the living, the dead, or indeed the living dead. They swizzle around, pop into and slide across the jaunty rhythm. They mix the fast with the loose. They bulge over the bassline and then strike skeletal shapes, notching the beat as sharply as finger snaps. Just watching Thriller sends a twitch through your bones and reanimates your flesh. No mere mortal can resist. Go on, try it. Even if you don’t move a hair, I guarantee your insides will be doing a crazy zombie dance.