I'm Gonna Thrill Ya Tonight...

The general rule of generation is that you can't talk about Prince without comparing him to Mike. So from comments:

Prince always could play in many different styles and would out play just about anybody of that era. I saw Prince almost every time he came to Detroit, which is saying a lot because the D was his early home away from home. His expert showmanship and stage presence are worthy of several pages as are his musicianship and songwriting craftsmanship. Yeah his lyrics had many of us reaching for the softer sides of our personality- got us plenty of pussy-. Prince helped break open the door to diverse sexual escapades more than Michael Jackson. Mike was afraid of the pussy but Prince wallowed in it.

This is mostly (if profanely) true. But I think people underrate Mike's ability to sing about the sacred arts.  When I hear Mike on "P.Y.T." or "Way Your Make Me Feel" or the woefully underrated "Baby Be Mine," (something about that "Come on, girl") I know he's short of Prince, but I'm not sure that says much.

Prince aside , I think Mike deserves credit for one of the greatest acts of double-entendre ever achieved in pop music. Thriller is at once a homily to scary movies, and a kind of bubble-gum pop tune. But there's also a more sinister aspect to its lyrics--a kind thinly coded ode to the power of sex, and particularly, to male sexuality. There is the repeated invocation of Wilson Pickett ("The midnight hour is close at hand.") The awing, terrifying, physical power of desire ("a sight that stops your heart" "you're paralyzed" "they will possess you" "no mere mortal can resist.") The sense of being under the sway of great evil ("demons closing in on every side" "night creatures calling" "the jaws of the alien.")

And then of course, in that third verse, the very literal notion that the only escape is surrender. But the surrender isn't an escape, it's descent:

Now is the time,
For you and I to cuddle close together
All through the night,
I'll save you from the terror on the screen.
I'll make you see.

I'll make you see. Not, "I'll help you get away," or "I'll save you," but "I'll make you see" and then "I can thrill you more than any ghoul who'd ever dare strike," and then the promise "I'm gonna thrill ya tonight." Even "the funk of forty thousand years" references, not justthe stench of death, but in a George Clinton way, that ancient, overpowering desire.

When I was driving through VA we banged this constantly. I kept laughing as my son and nephew sang this. It was like listening to someone recite a very dirty joke, without knowing it. Kenyatta says I've destroyed a precious childhood memory. Meh. She knew what I was when we met.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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