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THRILLER by Nelson George

THRILLER

The Musical Life of Michael Jackson

By Nelson George

Pub Date: June 8th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-306-81878-3
Publisher: Da Capo/Perseus

A sympathetic revisiting of the King of Pop's rich musical legacy.

In 1983, writes noted music critic and memoirist George (City Kid: A Writer's Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success, 2009, etc.), “Dell published my first book, The Michael Jackson Story, a pocket-sized quickie biography of the singer” that capitalized on his unprecedented success. Fittingly, the author now offers this reverent—but not wholly uncritical—blend of memoir, music journalism and pop sociology to commemorate the untimely death of the controversial but immensely gifted pop icon. George traces his own memories of the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson's solo career, both as a live act and through the recordings, while growing up in ’70s Brooklyn. He depicts the rise of the Jackson family from working-class Gary, Ind., as partly stemming from patriarch Joe Jackson's own frustrated ambitions as a musician. George expertly examines important turning points in Jackson's career, including the profound influence of disco (Saturday Night Fever, especially) on his work, leading to the smash album Off the Wall in 1979, which set the stage for the paradigm-shifting 1982 breakthrough, Thriller. That album's barrier-breaking influence opened doors for not only black performers but African-Americans as a whole. (George posits the success of Thriller as a catalyst for the rise to power of Oprah, and even Barack Obama.) The author helpfully acknowledges the behind-the-scenes session players and producers who kept the Jackson juggernaut rolling for so long—most importantly, Thriller mastermind Quincy Jones. But George also considers the downside of Thriller's runaway success. Jackson's newly inflated commercial ambitions, among other things, led to the infamous Pepsi ad rehearsal during which the performer's hair caught fire, an incident that may have begun his longtime addiction to painkillers. Sadly, the post-Thriller era ushered in the weirdly “eccentric” side of Jackson, which ultimately led to bad business deals, failed marriages and ignominious sex scandals.

A worthy postmortem tribute that admirably avoids both easy sensationalism and knee-jerk sentimentalism.