If you’re wondering why anyone bothered to re-release “Thriller,” check out Kanye West’s remix of “Billie Jean.” You know the original. The drums. Then the looping bass groove. Then the “doot, doot” synth figure. It’s an amazing call to dance, but such a delicate build that each finger snap is an event. And Michael Jackson’s vocals, which Kanye gives a lot of room by wiping the instruments and slapping on a generic beat, is riveting – listen to those gasps, coughs, pops and falsetto whoops! They’re totally weird over West’s sound-bite backdrop – like watching someone break dance to ambient music – but they’re fascinating.
And they make Kanye look really bad. No worse than Fergie, will.i.am or Akon, who also contribute remixes to the “Thriller” 25th-anniversary package. But bad enough that you should be worried about what we let our dance music get away with.
The genre has changed a lot since 1982. “Thriller” videos kicked off a decade-long run of extremely intense, hyper-serious mini-movies. Michael Jackson and the singers from a-ha, Duran Duran and other innovative MTV acts were music actors. They sang characters trapped in extraordinarily tense fantasies, caught up in a “Beat It” West Side Story gang fight, a “Take On Me” life-and-death chase through pencil drawings or a “Hungry Like The Wolf” Indiana Jones opera. These fantasies are a dangerous game, and there’s a huge pile of overblown ’80s schlock to prove it. But on the best tracks from “Thriller” — the touchstones of the genre — Michael Jackson and his team brought such commitment and craftsmanship to their scenarios that, unbelievably, they could make a line like “There ain’t no second chance against the thing with 40 eyes” exciting instead of stupid.
But it takes a lot of work to sell a line like that, and most singers can’t. Certainly Fergie, who trades lines with Michael’s original vocal on the “Beat It” remix, can’t touch his commitment to character and situation, or command anything like his vigor and dynamic flexibility. The original backing track is terrifically driving, and even the remix, after killing most of its subtlety, is energetic enough, but it’s a current she can’t ride; she’s drowning, and Michael’s surfing. Fergie wasn’t a totally stupid choice, either. After all, “My Humps” and “Fergalicious” were some of the most weirdly ambitious and character-oriented dance tracks in recent years. At least Fergie’s actually trying — unlike Kanye and will.i.am. To his credit, Akon makes a good effort on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” but it sounds like the first time he’s been pushed to bend his voice to work a song.
What do you expect? We haven’t asked our dance music for drama in a long time, and nowadays anyone who took himself so seriously would probably get laughed off the stage. And with good reason: A lot of ’80s singers were too ambitious and too self-important and should have cracked a smile once in a while. If Jackson brought some detachment and warmth to ballads from “Thriller,” they’d be much more interesting. Only “The Girl is Mine,” Jackson’s duet with Paul McCartney, is genuinely sweet, because Paul balances Jackson’s intensity with his charm.
Maybe if will.i.am, Fergie, Akon or Kanye had Paul’s gift for balance, we could dismiss “Thriller” as a dated extreme. But they don’t, as will.i.am thoroughly demonstrates in his version of “The Girl is Mine,” which he fills with autopilot phrases like “she like the way / I rock, the / way I rock” and “she mine, she mine,” delivered with total detachment. “So what?” you ask. “He’s not claiming to be a virtuoso. He’s just trying to make something to dance to, not a classic work of art.” But if that’s the standard we hold our musicians to, we’ll be very lucky to ever hear something as astonishing as Eddie Van Halen’s solo on “Beat It.” “Thriller” is an extreme, but maybe it can pull us back to center.