Retro Review: Thriller by Toto feat. Michael Jackson

No, this isn’t an actual retro review.  It is a click bait headline.  And another edition of DJ Bear over thinking things.  But before when even get into Thriller and the associated commentary I must tell you a lesson learned from my own life.

When I was a youth in 6th grade, Tiffany was still going strong with her hit, “I Think We’re Alone Now.” I liked it just fine, probably more so for the dance beat than any serious appreciation of musical quality it may or may not have.  But by high school, I was more or less done with the current mainstream music and the zeitgeist fervor that came with it. I hate hype now and I hated it then. I felt mainstream music in the early 90s SUCKED for the most part.  Nirvana meh-, Snoop Dogg ehhhh… *shrug*  At that time I had started to listen to what was then called “oldies radio” meaning music from the late 50s to the about the late 70s.

I would record songs like, “Sugar Shack” & “Good Vibrations” off the radio onto cassettes making 2-hour mixes of various doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll hits. I was basically educating myself on pop music history while also making me totally uncool to my peers.  At some point in my mixtaping, I was presented with Tommy James and the Shondells, “I Think We’re Alone Now”.

The foundations of all I thought I understood about music crumbled.  I thought Tiffany wrote that song.  I thought it was her song, meaning, her thoughts and emotions. The idea of a cover version was not in my musical lexicon at that time, despite my affiliation with golden era jazz/show tune performers, whose successes were built on various versions being sold to the public.

It was depressing.  In part because I thought singers wrote their own material but also because, how dumb could I be, at 12.  Liner notes were still a major thing back then but I wasn’t reading them.  I just figured one wouldn’t sing somebody else’s words.  How could they be meaningful if you didn’t write them yourself?  The irony of recording oldies radio (which was made up of TONS of songs sung by people who didn’t write them).

But there it was, Tiffany’s hit was a cover of a 60s tune.  And so, I just gave up trusting any artists I liked (i.e. Paul Abdul, Amy Grant, Gloria Estefan).  Even if they actually wrote their own lyrics… Even Sting for a moment was called into question.  Though somehow, and honestly, I don’t know how or why, with certain artists like Sting or Melissa Etheridge just hearing the music I felt like NO ONE else could have written those words.  They sounded too authentic to just be written by anyone else and so escaped my youthful wrath.  I was right on those two accounts but not always.  Linda Ronstadt built a career selling songs authentically that she never wrote and I LOVE her.  So at some point I got over it and accepted cover versions and song-writing for others as part of the business.  This was especially true of artists like Madonna, Tina Turner, Whitney, Paula Abdul, and J-Lo (more on her later) where I kind of accepted them as entertainers and so they got a pass because they had other talents as entertainers.

But this was the 90s and hip-hop was storming the Bastille as it were.  So after the shock of song-writing being its own category came the onslaught of sampling!  Not subtle sampling but obvious sampling (at least to me). Remember, I was listening to oldies radio so when I heard Naughty by Nature and “O.P.P.”  I looked around thinking, Doesn’t anyone else know this ripped off ABC by The Jackson 5? And of course, the Jackson 5 didn’t even create that riff (it was the Funk Brothers at Motown).  By the time I entered the queer clubs in the late 90s not only were cover versions in abundance on the dance floor but so to was sampling for many of the biggest floor fillers of the era.   Nothing was safe.  And the more I listened to the 60s and the 70s the more I discovered the origins of songs and samples of some of the best loved dance songs of the day (pre-internet mind you).  And so then it called into question for me what authenticity and artistry meant.

Jennifer Holiday’s club Smash “Think It Over” had been a hit in clubs once before by Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mama).  “Naked Without You” by Taylor Dayne was originally a 70s ballad…. You really couldn’t trust anything in the clubs and certainly not anything the Hot 100 to be wholly original.  “AM Radio” took it’s hook from “Mr. Big Stuff” compliments of Motown again.  The best part of “Steal My Sunshine” was the best part of “More More More” a disco staple by Andrea True Connection.  And then No Doubt went and covered “It’s My Life”.  And I heard my peers SWEAR it was a No Doubt original.  But they too would get the same rude awakening, when local DJ Dave Morey played the original by Talk Talk on the morning show to prove it No Doubt’s was a cover version.

And nothing has really changed in this regard, DJ Khaled lifted an obviously sample from Santana’s big hit “Maria Maria” so there I go thinking Ooooo they are playing a throwback classic only to be utterly disappointed.  I have at this point accepted this as a part of the popular music realm.  It just is there and will always be there, fine.  The thorn in my side here though is people acting like this new work is now somehow original and hit worthy solely because of their chosen artists “genius” when it’s more like- Your song was a hit because Santana created a great riff that you sampled.  Not because your lyrics or the rest of the production is anything revolutionary.

And as you can imagine people will waste no time in pointing out samples and covers as if to take dump all over a song and rain on the pop parade.  But in my experience, people don’t care, dump all you want.  The new song is hype.  The rare occasion that a song enters into a lawsuit because of its sample, people will rush to the artists defense saying, “People wouldn’t even know the old song if it were not for the sample,” or “They are bringing exposure to the older song and artist”.  I call bullshit… if there was any altruism in the sample well, I’m not hearing it from the artist and I don’t see new audiences flocking to the sample’s origins en masse, putting the original back on the charts.

I am much older now than my 90s Club days and “Wild Thoughts,” as has been pointed out, is not “for me” whatever that means.  But I definitely can see some kids hearing that song then growing up and running into the original Santana source material and having their mind’s blown.  It still happens to me, only now I kind of like it because the contrarian snob in me can say, I knew that song wasn’t all that in the first place!  And more importantly if I am not being immature, I learned something new (that I can ram down others’ throats).

“Hot in Herre”, a Nelly hit that was everywhere in the early 00s I recently discovered on accident samples music and lyrics from, “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers.  Remove the sample from the Nelly hit or the sample from “Wild Thoughts” or “Steal My Sunshine” or countless others and you haven’t got much worth bending your ears too in my opinion.  But I give Nelly a bit more of a pass because his lift went a bit deeper.  Khaled just straight took the hook from a major pop hit like it ain’t no thang… that to me is lazy.

I dissected Dee-lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” once to explore all of its samples and it did help me come around on samples when done “right.” And when executed in not in such an obvious way it feels less offensive, hacky, or lazy.  Of course, what is obvious to me will likely not be obviously to many others.  Again, I listened to oldies radio and was calling out 90s chart hits for theft.  But there are always exceptions, Madonna had a big hit with the banger, “Hung Up” that obviously ripped ABBA and ripped ABBA when ABBA on a mainstream boom thanks to that musical.  So, one didn’t even need liner notes to know where the sample came from both were in the mainstream culture.  Now, while “Hung Up” isn’t any more game changing lyrically than “Hot in Herre”, the queer in me sure does like it more.

Let me restate, in my youth I didn’t even think of liner notes (outside of MAYBE reading the lyrics).  I repeat this because it has to do with giving credit and so often people will cite liner notes as proof of credit given.

1. Most people these days do not read liner notes.

And this assumes people prior to “these days” read liner notes.  Sure, there were some nerds out their going deep looking for every track Buddy Harmon or Bernard Purdie played on… But let’s be real, the average bedroom hairbrush mic singer did not.  Most people just want a good bop to get them through the day no matter who had a hand in creating it.  And others just assume, like I once did, that the artist or band name on the album cover is the one who wrote it and likely played on it.  Milli Vanilli didn’t lose their Grammy because they committed murder, after all.

  1. Streaming music doesn’t have liner notes and most people have no interest in googling the information (assuming the information is accurate).

Yeah, you can scour metadata or do a Google search but… “let’s be real, most people just want a good bop to get them through they day no matter who had a hand in it.  And others just assume like me the artist or band name on the album cover is the one who wrote it and likely played on it.”  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the music elites or Stans on YouTube chiming in at every sample or cover.

When it came to cover versions and performing them, John Belushi of the Blues Brothers would always cite the original artist in live shows before performing a song.  And maybe I’d be less peeved about obvious samples and cover versions if modern artists did more public announcements educating their audience on the source material (this assumes though that these artists know the source material and it wasn’t just handed them buy producers or whatnot).  The average audience I suspect more or less won’t care or more likely will be annoyed (they just want their current bop after all) but at least it will have been publicly stated so the act has acknowledged on some level it wasn’t all their own magical doing.

OK but giving a shout out to Santana, is that the right person to holler to or do we fist bump Wyclef Jean who produced the track?

Side Note: Royalties are another topic brought up where people say the artist is getting paid for the sample or for the lyrics.  Sooooooo naive…. The copyright holders get most if not all of the payout for use of samples or lyrics, NOT the original creator.

Let’s pause here for a second (I swear Thriller is coming but bear with me) and discuss ghost-writers and producers.  There are people who get paid to produce or write songs for other people.  They get a payout but usually none of the credit.  I would imagine in most cases there is a non-disclosure agreement.  This practice is apparently very prevalent in the EDM world of DJs, many of whom are too busy touring or doing festivals and TV shows to produce their own work anymore if they ever did. The Reddit rabbit hole on this is vast and wide. Enter if you dare.

But seriously, if the name is on the track, I expect the person to have had SOME hand in it.  But it is VERY possible the DJ underneath the light show is just pressing play on something he bought and put his name on.  Honestly, that is a common practice in many fields, period (i.e. Autobiography for example, or even standup comedy where comics by jokes).  It takes teams of people to produce some things that wind up with one name on the poster, album, or digital file.  But at least with music and other arts we sort have a societal standard that the name is representing work that in some way was created by them.  Tiffany actually sang on the big hit cover version.  She added some part of her to that.  Whereas on many J-Lo hits, it has been verified she is not singing, especially during the choruses.  But lest we just pick on candy pop divas, no less than TLC, a well-respected hip-hop trio has been accused of using ghost-singer Debra Killings even on their most loved track, “Waterfalls”.  Now TBF, TLC, ghost singer or no, could sing the song it live at the end of the day.  I’m not so sure about J-Lo…

Stop.  Don’t go there.  Hollywood is a different animal.  Yes, Marni Nixon sang the vocals for Natalie Wood in West Side Story.  But playback singers have a long history in film, especially in Bollywood where people like Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar are superstars unto themselves.  But more importantly Natalie Wood never released a proper record acting like she could sing.  This isn’t comparable to Milli Vanilli taking credit and a Grammy for hits their lips never touched or the theories abounding about Myah Marie doing Britney’s vocals for “Hold It Against Me.”  Honestly, I don’t know if it is true or not but why would Britney ever need a ghost singer since she never was sold as a top tier vocalist.  Her selling point is the image/entertainer angle not artist. Nobody ever tuned for a Spears high a C.

Touring singers are the main attraction so of course it’s problematic when they have ghost-singers.  Ghost producers – nobody really cares… True.  I’ve heard it time and time again.  A good song is a good song no matter whose name is on it.  Credit Schmedit.  Well, yes… I agree a good song is a good song but if credit didn’t matter music journals and average fans wouldn’t be spouting music stats all over the internet as some kind of validation of greatness or talent.  And this brings us to the biggest selling album of all time in the world, Toto’s Thriller.

If you know, well I applaud you.  If not… The band Toto were the studio band on Thriller.  I really hope you didn’t think Michael played all those instruments himself like Stevie Wonder or Prince.  And in full disclosure my own snarky article title could’ve been even snarkier.  Quincy Jones and Toto (feat. Michael Jackson) since Quincy produced it.  Oooo… I just realized I should added feat. Michael Jackson & Eddie Van Halen).

You see, quite a number of songs with credits that read; DJ Tiesto, Avicci, Carl Cox (feat. So and So) and supposedly they are all producers of some sort, so following that line of thinking….  Why wouldn’t one call it Quincy Jones Thriller feat. Michael Jackson?  But you have to include Toto because unlike EDM producers, Quincy was making music with studio players not just himself and a computer. And even today, we now know many famous DJ/Producers have been collaborating with others on their biggest tracks if not outright hiring ghost writers.

But back to Thriller, let’s remove Quincy from the equation and see if Michael Jackson still had what it takes to make Thriller the massive game-changer it was… Probably not.  He co-produced four of the tracks on Thriller and wrote only four of them as well (granted they were the singles and some of the albums biggest hits).  But let us look at his releases before he hooked up with Quincy.  Outside of The Jackson 5 and the single “Ben” he didn’t do much chart-wise as a solo artist.  And when the mood of the public shifted to the sounds his sister Janet was pushing in the late 80s, Michael didn’t lead the way,  he followed in her footsteps releasing the New Jack Swing-flavored Dangerous after Janet had dropped the New Jack Swing opus Rhythm Nation 1814 (but that’s another discussion).

That said, though as the face of the Quincy Jones brand, Jackson delivered beyond all expectations from every angle and as an overall entertainer there were few who could beat him in the concert arena.  But he gets all the credit for having that huge collection of number one singles on the Hot 100 just like The Beatles, Mariah Carey, Rhianna and Elvis.  Not to mention The Supremes before him, who without Motown’s Funk Brothers (mentioned earlier) and the writing of Holland Dozier Holland would likely have not done much.

And thus, we would not only have lost only the music of the Supremes but Diana Ross and her entire solo career, which in part shaped disco.  Or to pull from one the reigning queens of today’s music sphere how much Taylor Swift is in Taylor Swift’s music and how much of it actually Martin Shellback or Antonoff?  They are all getting paid but when we talk about the album, we usually only say one name and we usually say it as though they are sole creator of the work in question.  Hell, we could ask the Shellback question of the 2020s reigning champ singe by The Weekend, “Blinding Lights”.  But maybe the artist name is just cultural shorthand for the collective (though for that to stand people would have to know the names of the collective).  Ella and Billie never wrote a lyric and yet those even mildly versed in these singers or that era of jazz know at least SOME of collective behind them (Mainly songwriters like Ellington and Cole Porter and Irving Berlin).

Still, this is such a quandary for me. Stans seem to have no trouble using a single name for a collaborative work however.  And yet, and yet in my own life I find it ironic that this bothers me more than other cultural artifacts produced by teams of people with one name on the completed project like Michelangello’s Sistine Chapel.

Fun Fact: Michaelangello painted SOME of the chapel.

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