About Michael Jackson's "Thriller"

Release History and Chart Performance

Michael Jackson accepting an award
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

On November 30, 1982, 24-year-old singer Michael Jackson released his album Thriller, which, in addition to the title track of the same name, included such popular singles as “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Thriller remains the best-selling album of all time and has sold over 104 million copies to date; 65 million of those copies were within the United States.

A year later, on December 2, 1983, the “Thriller” music video premiered on MTV. The video, which featured a now-famous zombie dance, forever changed the music video industry.

The extreme popularity of Thriller cemented Jackson’s place in music history and helped secure his title as “The King of Pop.” 

Michael Jackson's Early Career

At age five, Michael Jackson broke onto the music scene as a member of the family group,​ "The Jackson Five." He was the group’s youngest, baby-faced member and stole the hearts of Americans. By age eleven, he was the group’s lead singer on many of their popular Motown-produced tracks, including “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” and “I’ll Be There.” In 1971, 13-year-old Michael Jackson also began a successful solo career.

Prior to the release of Thriller, Michael Jackson released five other albums. His first major commercial success was the 1979 album, Off the Wall. This was his first collaboration with Quincy Jones, who would later produce the Thriller album. Although the album generated four number-one hits, Jackson felt that he had the capability of achieving even greater commercial success.

The Release of Thriller 

Production of Thriller began in the spring of 1982 and released on November 30 of the same year. The album featured nine songs, seven of which became number-one hits and were eventually released as singles. The nine songs were:

  1. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”
  2. “Baby Be Mine”
  3. “The Girl Is Mine”
  4. “Thriller”
  5. “Beat It”
  6. “Billie Jean”
  7. “Human Nature”
  8. “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”
  9. “The Lady in My Life”

Two of the songs featured famous artists—Paul McCartney sang a duet with Jackson on “The Girl Is Mine” and Eddie Van Halen played the guitar in “Beat It.” 

The album became immensely popular. The title song “Thriller” was ranked number one for 37 weeks and remained in the Billboard Charts “Top Ten” for 80 consecutive weeks. The album also garnered numerous awards, including a record-breaking 12 Grammy nominations, winning eight of them. 

The songs were just part of the Thriller craze. On March 25, 1983, Michael Jackson first introduced his famous dance move, the Moonwalk, while singing “Billie Jean” for the taped, Motown’s 25th Anniversary TV special. The Moonwalk itself became a sensation.

The Thriller Music Video

Despite the Thriller album being hugely popular, it didn’t become iconic until Michael Jackson released his “Thriller” music video. Wanting the video to be spectacular, Jackson hired John Landis (the director of Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and An American Werewolf in London) to direct it.

At nearly 14-minutes long, the “Thriller” video was almost a mini-movie. Interestingly, Jackson, who was a Jehovah’s Witness, inserted a screen at the beginning of the video that stated: “Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.” Then the video began.

The video featured a narrative story that started with Jackson and an on-screen girlfriend (Playboy Playmate Ola Ray) watching a movie about a werewolf. The couple left early from the movie and as they started walking home, ghouls began emerging from a graveyard.

When the ghouls met Jackson and Ray on the street, Jackson transformed from a handsome young man into a decomposing zombie with incredible make-up artistry; he then led a posse of undead in a choreographed dance routine that remains popular today.

The rest of the video had Ray running from the ghouls and then when she was almost captured, the scary images disappeared and what was left was Jackson in his regular form. However, as a surprise ending, the final scene shows Jackson, with his arm around Ray, turning back to the camera with glowing yellow eyes, while you hear the cackling of horror-narrator Vincent Price in the background.

When the video first appeared on MTV on December 2, 1983, it captured the imaginations of young and old and impressed everyone with the intensive make-up and special effects. At the video’s peak, it was often played twice per hour on MTV and won some of the first MTV Video Music Video Awards. 

In a way, it was a short film as the “Thriller” video was also nominated for an Oscar in 1984 in the short film category after completing the requisite one-week run in Los Angeles as a lead-in to the Disney film, Fantasia.

A brief documentary, entitled The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller was also released to showcase the effort that went into the making of the music video. The video itself became the first music video added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. The entire Thriller album was added to the Library’s National Recording Registry, a spot reserved for albums of significant cultural value.

Thriller’s Place Today

In 2007, Sony Records released a special 25th Anniversary edition of the Thriller album. Until Jackson’s death in 2009, the album was actually ranked number two in all-time sales; however, this event catapulted the album above the Eagles’ Greatest Hits: 1971-75 into the top spot.

The Thriller album continues to remain popular and has been named as one of the most significant albums of all time by music industry media outlets including Rolling Stone Magazine, MTV, and VH1.

Oh, and Thriller wasn’t just a U.S. craze, it became popular around the world.