Archive by Author | Osvaldo Oyola

Thrills, Chills, and Safe Sexuality: The Sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

Next month may mark the 30th Anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but chances are that if you are going to a Halloween dance party this year –or have since 1982–the musical highpoint of the night will still be when they play the title track. While thematically and sonically appropriate for Halloween getting down, there is more to the song’s sonic exploration of fear, both its “scary sounds” and the lyrical references to sound–the stolen scream, the creeping from behind–in the role of scaring an audience. There is startling disconnect between the scariness the song describes (and the stock sounds of classic Hollywood horror films it samples) and its ability to make something potentially scary palatable to a pop mainstream. It is not so much the elements of horror themselves that Michael Jackson’s song makes acceptable, but the potential scariness of sexuality for which it is a metaphor.

There is a long tradition of horror movies as metaphors for sexuality, in particular adolescent sexuality.  Iconic examples include Michael Landon’s untrustworthy violent tendencies in 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf (a film clearly being referenced in the opening to the John Landis-directed video for “Thriller”) or more recent incarnations like Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where sleeping with your boyfriend can literally lead to the loss of his soul.

While written by Rod Temperton, a white Briton, “Thriller,” as performed by Michael Jackson and produced by Quincy Jones, takes on the horrors of emergent sexuality via a racial lens.  The pop song becomes self-referential, metaphorically about the very taboo thrills that have made young white people seek out black music, and their parents fear for the consequences.  And while 1983 was a far cry from the 1950s-era outrage over white kids listening to and making their own “black” rock n’ roll, we also can’t forget that it was an era of a newly-launched MTV almost completely devoid of black artists (before hip hop’s explosion among young white males). It was largely Jackson’s popularity, in fact, that prompted MTV to finally include more black artists in its programming.

Photo by Shaun Wong via Flickr

While references to race in “Thriller” may be oblique, the lyrical references to sex are fairly obvious. The menace of the sexual encounter is present throughout the song as it is in the genre—sex itself is thrilling, desirous despite its potential physical, emotional or even social dangers.The scariness of the late night creature feature on television becomes an excuse to “cuddle close together.” This comforting occurs “all through the night” and the singer “can thrill you more than any ghost would ever dare try” (and the use of “ghost” to make a distinction between it and the singer reverberates with racial meaning). There is a dichotomy present in the song, in that the speaker is both the comfort from the fear of violence, and potentially “the beast about to strike.” Of course “nothing can save you” from that beast, when it is also the figure you are counting on to save you to begin with.

Similarly, at the height of his popularity, Michael Jackson embodied a safe version of black male sexuality. (In contrast, consider Prince, who in the early 80s was putting it all out there with albums like Dirty Mind (1980) and Controversy (1981), and would not get anything remotely like Thriller success until 1984’s Purple Rain). Despite Jackson’s pelvic thrusts or his videos featuring dark alleyway dancing, he represented a form of sexless sexiness, as emasculated in the eyes of the public as his doll (as famously demonstrated by Eddie Murphy on SNL). Perhaps most indicative of that position was Jackson’s bringing Brooke Shields as his date to the 1984 Grammy awards, while having Emmanuel Lewis accompany them. At the time MJ’s Peter Pan latency meant that Brooke was safe from predation and Emmanuel Lewis was an innocent child-friend to the child-like entertainer. Michael Jackson’s persona would not be undone by the accusations of monstrous pedophiliac tendencies for another nine years.  Like the Thriller-themed doll pictured, Jackson was safe for both children and mainstream America, despite his ability to be transformed into something ostensibly terrifying.

Eddie Murphy shows what MJ has between his legs on SNL

The song is arranged and produced by Jones to echo this dichotomy of safe danger. The bass groove is a creeping disco loop never arriving, but suggestive of the warning music of the slasher genre. The hook is introduced with a sudden and shocking chords on a synthesizer, like the title screen music of an old monster movie. The high-pitched synthesizer whine that warbles during Vincent Price’s rap emulates the sci-fi spookiness of a theremin. The availability of Vincent Price was a coup for Jones and Jackson—a well-known figure of the genre, but even by 1980s, he was already a throwback to an older and out-of-date notion of horror—known for his low-budget work in Roger Corman films like Masque of the Red Death (1964) and appearances on Scooby-Doo. Furthermore, the song is marked by stock creaks, footsteps, thunderclap, slamming doors, wind and howls, sounds that enter the realm of kitsch. The sound effects are so exaggerated and artificial as to undercut the sense of the scariness the song describes and potentially represents. It disguises the supposed threat of black sexuality so successfully that it is now performed at many a white American wedding.

The campiness of the song’s excess, both sonically and lyrically, takes the edge off the sexual desire—the very thrill the song is meant to evoke. Even John Landis’s vision of the song in his 14-minute long video that remixes the album track for cinematic effect, mixes its film-quality monster effects with a playfulness evident in Jackson’s multiple incarnations in the video. In the movie inside the dream inside the video narrative, he seems more concerned with teasing his date about how easily she is scared (and scaring her some more) than sleeping with her—but his mischievous grin signals an unspoken desire that comes alive in his date’s alternating desire and fear of him. The dangers of werewolves and zombies are always arrested to reveal a level of artifice, a gotcha moment for his date–and for the audience–that undermines any real risk.

Michael Jackson transformed into a literal “black beast.”

The title track on what remains one of the best selling albums in history, “Thriller” evinces the ways in which Jackson and Jones figured out how to perfectly package and promote this tamed sexuality through their manipulation of sound. Sonically, the song (and other songs on Thriller such as “Beat It,” Billie Jean,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”) evokes the tantalizingly forbidden and yet makes it accessible. The infectiousness of “Thriller”‘s  groove, along with the appeal of pop hook sung by Jackson’s unmistakable voice, threatens possession of the listener but always allows for her to “change that number on your dial.” Part of what made this music broadly appealing (aside from Jackson’s obvious talent) is its success at dissembling, avoiding the backlash against the figure of “the black beast” rapist while subconsciously evoking the fear of it.

But there is a price to be paid for this sonic disconnection. There was certainly something horrific in Jackson’s physical transformation in the years that followed his Thriller apogee. Could it be that MJ’s desire to further improve on this formula led to what Richard Middleton describes in his book, Voicing the Popular (2006): a change from black child star to a “simulacrum of white middle-class woman” (128)? The extremity of such camp collapsed on itself, allowing that sexual anxiety to flow back through the disconnect his “safe” persona was supposed to shore up. Whatever fear that the sexless sexiness of Michael Jackson was actually a cover for queerness was brought to the fore because he stood accused of molesting little boys, allowing for a depiction of monstrousness that works across both gender and racial lines (and also highlighting a difference in attitude from when girls are the victims).

“Thriller” re-enactment held in October 2010 in Springfield, MO.
Photo by Darin House via Flickr

Jackson’s fall from grace may have come in the form of molestation accusations, but it still provides insight into the long history of fear of black America and black music that still lingers, proving that the mainstream’s love can turn to suspicion, even hate, in a heartbeat. Jackson’s broad appeal narrowed significantly when there was even a chance he wasn’t the sexless figure he appeared to be. As James Baldwin, whose writing and social criticism was always focused on the intersection of race and sexuality in America, wrote in 1985’s “Here Be Dragons” in regards to the hysteria of Michael Jackson’s popularity:

The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. . . Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated–in the main, abominably–because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.

 

Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.

I Can’t Hear You Now, I’m Too Busy Listening: Social Conventions and Isolated Listening

Editor’s Note: I hate to interrupt our busy readers, but I just wanted to mention that today’s post by Osvaldo Oyola marks our last entry in SO!‘s July Forum on Listening.  For the full introduction to the World Listening Month! series click here.  To peep the previous posts, click here.  Also, look for our #Blog-O-Versary 3.0 post coming up on July 27th, a multimedia celebration of three years of Sounding Out! awesomeness (complete with a free, downloadable soundtrack compiled by our editors and writers for your listening pleasure). Now for some pure, uninterrupted reading (we hope!).–JSA

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In calling attention to listening as an activity, July 18th’s World Listening Day made me think about our social conventions around listening. While it is not uncommon for folks to pay lip service to listening’s value, this ignores the variety of ways that listening is actually socially prioritized (and the multiple meanings housed in the term “listening”).  Case in point, the officiant at my recent wedding exhorted my about-to-be-wife and me to listen to each other:  “listen for what is consistent and familiar, but also for what is new, emergent, even sweetly radical in your partner.”  When used in this sense, listening refers to a focused attention to the meaning of sound, particularly language. His words suggest that our relationship would be strengthened by listening’s ability to convey interpersonal knowledge.

While listening is certainly crucial to social bonds, my own experience as a careful and engaged listener of music suggests that some of the most crucial listening we do happens as an isolated–and isolating experience–especially when listening involves recorded sound. However, its importance to our individual well being often seems directly inverse to the (lack of) seriousness other people seem to give it. Not my now-wife, of course, but uninterrupted musical listening was not an official part of our vows, either.  There is an inherent tension between social and isolated forms of listening.

Sign o’ the Times,  still my fave 25 years later.

As a teenager, for example, whatever my arguments with my mom might have really been about, a frequent instigator of a blow-up was her reaction to my annoyance when she’d interrupt my listening at her whim. I’d be sitting in my room listening in anticipation for what I have often called my favorite recorded human sound–that moment in Prince’s “Adore” on Sign o’ the Times around 2:55 (music nerd correction: on the album version it is actually at 2:48) when Prince makes a little moan before the second time he sings “crucial”–and mom would burst into the room to ask me a question, giving no heed to the stereo. I often responded to this in the same way: “If I were reading or watching TV, you’d say ‘excuse me,’ to get my attention, just like you always taught me a polite person should do. But when it is music you just go ahead and interrupt as if I weren’t doing anything, but I am doing something. I’m listening to music. It’s an activity.” (Of course, you have to imagine that response laden with all the snottiness only a teenager could muster). You would’ve thought she’d understand, since my obsessive love of music was influenced in no small part by her huge collection of salsa records, but my mom’s listening is mostly predicated on embodying the music through dance. This kind of listening is not so much about close attention to the details of the sound, but rather on a visceral reception of its physicality. Again, like listening to speech, the form of listening given to dance commonly reinforces social bonds—between dance partners, among dancers in a crowd, between dancers and DJ or band.

The kind of listening I am describing cuts us off from the immediate social world. It requires that people who want your attention must rudely interrupt your listening pleasure or ask forgiveness for the interruption. Theoretically, they could wait patiently, but this rarely happens, so the listener often feels forced to downplay the annoyance that comes along with interruption, lest they break a social bond and/or belie how important this kind of listening really is to them.

“Tuning Out” by Flickr User CarbonNYC

Of course, the ubiquity of headphones suggests that there are many people who want to be focused enough on their listening as to avoid interruption. (Though, that may be a chicken-and-the-egg situation, as I can’t help but wonder to what degree the headphones become an excuse for social disengagement.) Either way, it is noteworthy that the wearing of headphones become a visual clue for a desire to be isolated in the listening practice, even when in an otherwise public environment. If you are going to ask a stranger on subway for directions, you are less likely to choose the person with headphones on, and if you do choose to ask them, the headphones direct the form of social action required to get their attention and ask. It calls for a visual signal, like a gesture to remove the headphones, or even polite physical contact, like a tap on the shoulder—but you certainly would not pull the headphones off their ears and just start talking at them, as you might talk at someone listening to music through speakers if you happen to walk into the room. The invention of things like the Doffing Headphone handle, which allows headphone listeners to greet others by “doffing” their headphones like one used to do with a hat, arises from the need for isolated listeners to interact with the social world  even while enmeshed in their portable bubble of personal space. However, be that as it may, the handles have not exactly caught on.

Doffing Headphones

Perhaps headphones are the just the logical evolution of crafting a listening space. They are certainly much more feasible than the ‘Yogi Enclosure’ Kier Keightley discusses in his article “’Turn It down!’ She Shrieked: Gender, Domestic Space, and High Fidelity, 1948-59.”  The “Yogi enclosure” was High Fidelity magazine’s tongue-in-cheek (and highly gendered) 1954 solution to a man’s inability to enjoy his hi-fi in a space where he is likely, the article suggests,  to be harangued by his wife and annoyed by his children.  This masculinizing of listening speaks to the social contours of what is ostensibly an individual practice. In the case of my teenaged self and my mother, I wanted my 1000th listen to Dark Side of the Moon to dictate her behavior in the way that other individual activities in a shared space dictate behavior through social conventions.  Looking back, I was also trying to claim space in her home.  I never considered how as a mom she was expected to always be available, never free from interruption no matter what she was doing.  Keightley’s article demonstrates this through explaining the construction of listening technologies as a domain of men that requires women and children to be quiet in order to allow him the pleasure of his equipment.  I could imagine my right to be uninterrupted, for my listening to be taken seriously, considered a productive activity, by virtue of my gender and my youth.   While, now that I think of it, even the majority of my mom’s record-listening and salsa dancing  accompanied household chores that fierce adherence to gender roles demanded time she might have preferred to dedicate to listening alone.

Listening by Flickr User Alessandra Luvisotto

While gender politics have changed significantly since 1954, careful music listeners of any gender still seek to define the use of space through the use of sound, intentionally or unintentionally. There is a satisfaction that comes with filling a space with sound that I feel cannot be matched by even the highest quality noise-canceling headphones. Sound emerging from speakers and moving through the air creates a presence. It demands attention. It dictates behavior.  It is a kind of power.

Image by Flickr user Ken Schwatz

Another case in point: I can remember my college roommate and I (the same fellow who’d end up being the officiant at my wedding, coincidentally enough) traveling from store to store to try out different stereo speakers, carrying a CD copy of This Mortal Coil’s Filigree & Shadow and getting salesmen to play the soft sounds on tracks like “Thias (II),” as a test. These were the days before online comparison shopping, so in order to achieve this idealized listening experience–which for us meant the loudest and softest sounds were equally clear–we had to annoy salesmen with our self-important discussion of miniscule differences in sound quality and failure to actually purchase the costly speakers we were trying.

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What I am trying to convey with this anecdote is that, while the idealized listening experience we imagined was an isolated one (probably something involving staring at the glow-in-the-dark star stickers on the ceiling of our darkened dorm room), it was born of the sociality and power I mentioned above. We were exercising a form of privilege (or at least practicing for an imagined future masculine power over the domestic sphere).  This imagined idealized listening not only required a developed understanding of what we were listening for, but a shared sense of the ideal circumstances for those focused, uninterrupted, close listening sessions.  And those ideal circumstances required a freedom from the responsibilities of social bonds, that we, as young men, never doubted we could access.   There is no part of listening (as opposed to merely hearing) that isn’t social, and both isolated and more explicitly interpersonal forms of listening feed each other, but only when both are valued, nurtured, and made possible.

I thought by exploring these isolated listening experiences that I might come closer to understanding the primacy of the visual in the social etiquette of interruption, but I am no closer. Instead, I am left to consider the dynamics of power that (dis)allow that space for close listening. All I have learned about the matter since those teenaged arguments with my mom is that, if I plan to do some real listening, I either need to be alone in the house or that the onus is on me, the listener, to make an announcement: “I will be listening to music now.” Still, more often than not, I put on my headphones.   The fact remains that without the visual signals that let others know that listening is occurring–headphones, dancing–listening as a solo activity is so often devalued and interrupted. Sound alone is not enough.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I just got Jonathan Lethem’s book on Fear of Music, and I plan on closely listening to each track of the Talking Heads’ record before and after the associated chapter in Lethem’s book. Let’s hope I won’t be interrupted.

Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.

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