25 Years Later, Jackson's Hit Still a 'Thriller' Since its release in 1982, Michael Jackson's hit "Thriller" has lured even the shyest dancers to the floor to take part in re-enactments of the music video's zombie dance moves. When did you first hear the classic album?
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25 Years Later, Jackson's Hit Still a 'Thriller'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And now…

(Soundbite of music, "Thriller")

CONAN: It's been 25 years since we first heard "Thriller." Last week, Michael Jackson released an anniversary CD, DVD. And this new thriller features remixes of the album songs with artists like Will.I.Am. and Kanye West. But the original is among the most popular records in history since its release in 1982 the video featuring a Jheri-curled Michael Jackson dancing with muddied zombies has been reenacted at weddings, by Filipino inmates and spoofed by others on YouTube. There's also a new commercial out with dancing lizards. And "Thriller" itself was just one of the mega hits on the album. "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" can still lure even the shiest of all flowers out onto the dance floor.

So, 25 years later what does the album mean to you, what was your "Thriller" moment? Our number is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address, talk@npr.org. You can also tell us your story on our blog, that's in npr.org/blogofthenation. To celebrate the 25-year release of the album this past December, Ebony magazine featured Michael Jackson on the cover. Harriette Cole, the creative director of Ebony, spent some time with Michael Jackson during the interview and the photo shoot. She joins us today from our bureau in New York City.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. HARRIETTE COLE (Creative Director, Ebony): Thanks to have - thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I know that you've had some, obviously, a personal experience with Michael Jackson. And thinking about - but what was your personal "Thriller" moment?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLE: Well, I tell you, you know, Michael Jackson is the type of celebrity that I think, like, he may be the last one. He is the mega celebrity. And to work with him, I've worked with many celebrities, but to work with him was very, very special. We didn't quite know what to expect. Although, working with his advanced team was - it took many months before we got to him. The most interesting thing about working with him was how lovely he was, how kind, how generous with his time. We met him - I met him first the day before our shoot for our fitting. And he came into the fitting room, in little hotel room that we had turned into a dressing room, with his youngest son whom he calls Blanket and he was not shrouded, his five-year-old boy, a cute a little boy. And they walked in hand-in-hand and he was very, very gracious. And just, he was with us for about an hour, hour-and-a-half looking at clothes, trying on clothes and talking. And it was - he was just like any other really nice person. And I say that because working with celebrities can also be a little tricky.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. COLE: And he was just kind. He tried on everything that we asked him to try on. And the other great thing is he has a dancer's body. And I guess he has been dancing for his whole life. So, he fit everything which was really great for us. But he was just fun and kind and we enjoyed his company. And I ended up talking to his son. I have a four-year-old daughter. And he was playing with the jewelry that we had. And I ended up talking to his son about television programs on the Noggin Channel that he knew too.

CONAN: I was going to say, what did he tell you about the production of "Thriller" that you didn't know?

Ms. COLE: Well, you know, when, when "Thriller" happened, I think, for me as a listener, I just remembered the sound and, you know, one after another of great hits. But I really didn't know the making of it. I knew Quincy Jones had worked with him. But what we learned in talking to him about making the album was "The Wiz" was really the entree for him to even work with Quincy Jones. He said that he knew as a child of Quincy Jones. And at that time, it was because his father played Quincy's old jazz albums. So, it never occurred to him that Quincy would be somebody who would work with him on his music. But when - actually, Michael was looking to make "Off the Wall," his first solo album, he called Quincy to ask if he could recommend someone to produce the album. And Quincy said, well, what about me? And Michael said he was totally floored. It never occurred to him, you know, Quincy was this incredible icon and Quincy worked with him to develop his sound on that album, "Off the Wall," which had many hits and then onto "Thriller."

And the description that Michael had working with Quincy and the various other people who came into play was just that there was this delicious, competitive environment where he and everyone were always reaching for the best - how to create the best sound. And for Michael, the foundation of that is he said that growing up and now, he's always had a love of classical music. So the layering that is involved in classical is what inspired him to make sure that on "Thriller," the instrumentation would be beautiful. The movement of the music would be beautiful. And on top of that, there would be these incredible lyrics. So he - it was fascinating listening to this master of entertainment and music, talk about his love of the creation of music and how Quincy really helped to harness that and capture it to turn it into something magical.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on this conversation. What was your "Thriller" moment? We'll turn to Tina(ph). Tina is calling us from Cleveland, Ohio.

TINA (Caller): Hi. The evening that "Thriller" was going to have its world premiere on MTV was my 11th birthday party. And I had a bunch of my girl friends over for a sleepover and it came on, we were all sitting there in front of the TV so excited. And then when he turned around with the yellow eyes, one of my girl friends got physically ill. She was so frightened because we had all been so desperately in love with Michael Jackson. And we ended up having to call mom to come get people to take them home.

Ms. COLE: Wow.

CONAN: Because they were just freaked out a little bit.

TINA: Yeah. It was a little too much. We didn't expect Michael Jackson would be that scary.

CONAN: But in terms of the level of your excitement, I guess he lived up to it.

TINA: Oh, definitely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLE: You know, it's funny when you described that because Michael talked about the creation of that video and how he decided to look at the - that product, the music video in a different way and to create something that was really like a film that would have that same kind of texture and drama that could exist in a film with all the kind of direction - attention to detail and in camera direction that would go into a film which was very different in terms of the texture and the three-dimensionality.

And so that you were frightened is probably exactly was supposed to happen. Not to frightened, though, I hope.

TINA: Oh, no. and we ended up - I think everybody ended really enjoying it. It just - it doesn't - he took us by surprise.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Tina.

TINA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's see if we can go now to Mark(ph). And Mark's with us from Elkhart, Indiana.

MARK (Caller): Hey.

CONAN: Hi.

MARK: It's great to be on the show today.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MARK: Well, I would like to just make a comment on the, particularly, the video like (unintelligible) person are dead. It just amazes me that - if I'm not wrong and your guest will have to correct me but the video was still one the number one videos of all time. And I just - I love watching it and it always reminds of being a little kid around Halloween time and scaring me a little bit and still does a little bit to this day. And I'll just - I'll take my comment on the air.

CONAN: Okay, Mark. Thanks very much for the call.

MARK: Yup.

CONAN: And Harriette Cole, that video did a lot more than just promote this album; it did huge things for MTV too.

Ms. COLE: Oh, my goodness. Prior to - Michael talked about the fact that he was told by MTV that his music and music videos would not be allowed on MTV at this time - this is his recollection of that time period because there were no black artists featured on MTV. And he said, I am not going to allow this to happen, I am going to make this door open. And so he says, he made the best music and the best videos that had ever been conceived of, and so that they would not be able to say no. And sure enough, that's what happened and the executives from MTV acknowledged too that with Michael Jackson, they - MTV was transformed and reached a much broader audience than perhaps they had ever imagined, certainly, that he had imagined.

So together, they expanded this business dramatically. And it is true that the "Thriller" remains the one of the most popular videos. And I think it's because of the mastery of vision that Michael Jackson had. And I think that is something that is true about his entertainment value, his music, again, the creation of the music itself and how it was visually presented that has lasted him over all these years.

CONAN: Let's get Tanya(ph) on the line. Tanya is with us from Rocky Mountain, North Carolina.

Tanya, are you there? Tanya?

TANYA (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

TANYA: Oh. I wanted to talk about the impact that "Thriller" had on my life in that Michael was the first man that I ever noted as a young girl. And it wasn't so much the "Thriller" video but - and then it was commented about as thus far, "Billie Jeans" really transformed the video genre because up until the video, "Billie Jean," music video were basically concert performances. And I remember staying up at 12:30 to watch "Billie Jean," that firs night and thinking to myself, this is the man I'm going to marry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TANYA: And I had it figured out. He's 14 years older than me, I would - when I was 21, he'd be 35, perfect age. My mom couldn't object. I was going to California because I was in love.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLE: He's single again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TANYA: Exactly. But he's not quite the same way while in '82.

Ms. COLE: Well, that is also true. It's funny - you know, I'm glad you mentioned "Billie Jean" because that was the first single, and it was incredible. "Billie Jean" was the transformative entry point for him. And then it just continued with "Thriller." But many people have talked about how much they love "Billie Jean," and many people grew to love Michael Jackson as a solo artist as a result of that single and the video that accompanied it.

CONAN: Tanya, thanks very much for the call.

TANYA: Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck to you in your pursuit of Michael.

TANYA: Gee, thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

TANYA: Bye-bye.

CONAN: But as she intimated, I guess, subtly in that conversation, people's images of Michael Jackson have changed a great deal…

Ms. COLE: Sure.

CONAN: …obviously, the charges against him - that sort of thing - has tarnished a lot of this for a lot of people. Did you get a chance to talk to him about that at all?

Ms. COLE: You know, we did not talk about the trial. We didn't talk about those things. We really talked - we focused on his artistry. But he did talk about how over these years he has come to - he certainly has matured, and he's come to look at his life in a different way that now - he's especially focused on being a father. And how being a father, he reflects a lot about how to teach his children and how to guide them in the world. And he talked too about having been in the spotlight from age six. And that there are some difficulties that go along with that especially just being able to have meaningful relationships with folks because you should have seen - I mean, our observation of him, grown folks falling all over themselves, men and women because Michael Jackson was in the room. So it's an interesting life for him.

CONAN: Harriette Cole, thanks very much for your time today.

Ms. COLE: Thank you.

CONAN: Harriette Cole, creative director of Ebony magazine, talking with us about spending time with Michael Jackson for the cover story on 25 years of "Thriller."

This e-mail we got from Stephanie(ph) in Columbus, Ohio.

(Reading) My first album when I was four years old was the Chipmunks sing Michael Jackson's greatest hits. I used to walk around the house carrying my portable cassette player listening to "Thriller." It was the first song on the tape, so I'd listen to that song then rewind it and listen again.

(Soundbite of music "Beat It")

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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