From the Voice Archives: Vince Aletti Reviews Michael Jackson's Thriller in 1982
In honor of Michael Jackson, we're raiding our archives. Here's Vince Aletti on Jackson's Thriller in 1982.
E.T as Mr. Entertainment'Michael Jackson: intense fame, dreams of flying, and a paranoid undertow'
By Vince Aletti
Dec. 14, 1982
Michael Jackson, who has been "touring, singing, dancing" since the age of five told Interview recently that he had only vague memories of growing up in Gary, Indiana: "little things like the corner store or certain people in the neighborhood. The high school behind us always had a big band with trumpets and trombones and drums coming down the street--I used to love that--like a parade. That's all I remember." When Andy Warhol asked him if he ever thought he'd grow up to be a singer, Michael said, "I don't ever remember not singing, so I never dreamed of singing." Instead, Michael says in this month's Ebony, he dreamed of flying, "and I still dream about it all the time." Not flying in a plane, of course, but flying like Superman or, more to the point, like E.T., who holds Jackson in a creaturely embrace on Ebony's cover. This tantalizing dream is one of the reasons Michael agreed to narrate the E.T. "storybook album," he says--that and his feeling that E.T.'s "story is the story of my life in many ways." Not many profound ways, it turns out. But he seems to be getting at something when, at the top of his list, he puts being in a "strange place" and wanting to be "accepted."
Maybe this remark is just another bit of showbiz chat, but if Michael Jackson really sees himself as a stranger in a strange land, I suspect it's only because he's both running away from and constantly reinventing "home." His past is not Gary, Indiana, faded now to a few storybook images--the corner store, the parade--but the cool march of song titles, chart positions, and awards across the pages of his record company bio. Intensely famous since the age of 11, Michael, now 24, grew up like a forced plant in the hothouse of celebrity, at once overprotected and overexposed. He emerged with a bruised, hard-won innocence--part artifice, part armor, part dreamy escapism. No wonder he aches to fly. It's hard to tell how much of Michael's vulnerability and naiveté is genuine and how much a mask; clearly there's a savvy toughness just below this tender surface and a ferocious drive for accomplishment that is almost second nature. Still, the real person is especially elusive here. Questioned by Interview on his impulse to "act a lot in everyday life," Michael says, "It's escape. It's fun," and suggests that it's not acting when "you really believe it," it's almost a matter of faith. What he loves to do, he says, is "totally forget" and become another person. Will the real Michael Jackson please stand up? Of course, one wonders just what Interview and Michael know about "everyday life;" perhaps more than they care to. But pop society--particularly the rarefied sort that Jackson has traveled in for the past few years--provides the perfect atmosphere in which to "totally forget." Two phrases cropped up repeatedly in Michael's Interview interview: "It's magic," and "It's unreal," he kept saying. He wasn't talking about what it's like to be Michael Jackson, but he might as well have been.
He might also have been describing his new album, Thriller, as stunning and satisfying a piece of showbiz escapism as anyone has turned out in years. Don't get me wrong--this is no retreat to spunsugar sentiment and jerky romance. Michael's escapism is more aggressive and muscular, even in the ballads--he's closer to Speilberg than Disney, calculated and relentlessly refined but driven by a brilliant obsessiveness. There's something so warm, so generous about Michael's compulsion to entertain here; it's passionate, pushed to the limit, wonderfully seductive, even at its most showoffy. (This impulse is not quite so convincing on the E.T. album, where Jackson is frighteningly hammy on the narrative and a touch too tremulous on the song.) In the absence of personal revelation and soul-searching, Michael's giving-it-all intensity is the emotional core of Thriller, but it burns so brightly you never feel deprived.