Monday, August 10, 2020

Musical Monday - Beat It by Michael Jackson

#1 on the Billboard Hot 100: April 30, 1983 through May 14, 1983.
#1 on the Cash Box Top 100: May 7, 1983 through May 14, 1983.
#1 on the U.K. Chart: Never.

Beat It made Michael Jackson the King of Pop. Thriller in general was a huge titanic hit of an album that produced multiple top ten hits, and Billie Jean stayed at the top of the charts for longer, but Beat It was the extra kick that transformed Jackson from "successful pop star" to "biggest musical superstar on the planet".

Billie Jean is a good song, as are most of the rest of the tracks on Thriller, but when you get down to it, they are basically the same sort of thing that Jackson has been putting out for the better part of a decade. Most of the songs on Thriller aren't really any different in kind from previous Jackson hits like Rock With You and Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough or even Jackson 5 tunes like Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground). Had the album not had Beat It on it, it still would have been hugely successful, but it would have just been more of the same danceable R&B Michael Jackson music that everyone had grown familiar with.

Beat It, driven by a hammer blow of a synthesizer opening, an Eddie Van Halen guitar riff (which Van Halen provided for free, just because he was asked to), and a hard-edged rock beat, was different from anything else Jackson had done before. People who didn't particularly like Michael Jackson's music liked Beat It. Essentially, Jackson made a bold statement with this song: He could make a song that sounds like something a hard rock band would put out but that is still unmistakably a Michael Jackson tune, and make it into a huge hit. This song broke Jackson out of being just a superlative R&B performer, and made him into a superstar.

Oddly, this is one of the few Michael Jackson songs of the 1980s where the song is actually better than the associated music video. The music video isn't bad, it just isn't all that groundbreaking. Billie Jean, for example, was a decent dance song with a really innovative music video. Beat It was a breakout song with a fairly ordinary music video. The idea behind the video - depicting two rival gangs getting into a rumble before Jackson the peacemaker shows up and stops the fracas - is fairly well-meaning, and fits the lyrics of the song, but there's nothing particularly notable about it other than the fact that they hired actual gang members as extras for the production. The video really dives into ridiculousness when Jackson more or less makes peace with the power of dance and no other explanation as to why these people who were ready to knife one another seconds before are now doing coordinated group body rolls.

Even though the video was kind of ordinary - well except for the fact that Jackson's dancing always elevated anything he was in - the song was what made Thriller into the life-changing event that it was for the pop star. It is odd to call something that happened to a music artist after he already had multiple number one hits a "breakout hit", but functionally, that is what this was. Beat It was the birth of the King of Pop.

Previous Musical Monday: Is There Something I Should Know? by Duran Duran
Subsequent Musical Monday: Let's Dance by David Bowie

Previous #1 on the Billboard Hot 100: Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runner
Subsequent #1 on the Billboard Hot 100: Let's Dance by David Bowie

Previous #1 on the Cash Box Top 100: Mr. Roboto by Styx
Subsequent #1 on the Cash Box Top 100: Let's Dance by David Bowie

List of #1 Singles from the Billboard Hot 100 for 1980-1989
List of #1 Singles from the Cash Box Top 100 for 1980-1989
List of #1 Singles on the U.K. Chart for 1980-1989

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