If "Billie Jean" is the cornerstone track of Michael Jackson's 1982 album Thriller, and Thriller is the album that saved pop music, then Hall & Oates, in some not-insignificant way, rescued pop music in the early 1980s, at least according to The New York Times Magazine's Rob Hoeburger. This much will be clear when you read Hoeburger's revisionist history of Thriller (it turns 30 this year) in the Magazine's Riff column. It's an interesting look at how the musical aesthetic of Thriller cut through “the ruins of punk and the chic regions of synthesizer pop” at the time and revitalized the music industry. According to Hoeburger, the key moment was when Jackson heard Hall & Oates' 1981 single "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do) and borrowed its baseline for "Billie Jean." Per Hoeburger:
Of course, in the end, “Thriller” had several money tracks. There were four solid cornerposts: a blistering rock song (“Beat It”); a sublime ballad (“Human Nature”); an R&B dance sizzler (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ”); and a video-friendly story song (“Thriller”). And at the center of it all, connecting the entire work and providing access routes to its outer regions, was a song whose musical basis came from the lone bastion of hope on pop radio in those dark days, Daryl Hall and John Oates. Their solid amalgams of pop, soul, rock and even light electronica had been breaking through the dross for a few years. In January, their “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” logged a week at No. 1 ... Jackson liked “I Can’t Go for That” and heard in it the basis for his own album’s elusive unifier. He lifted its bass line for a song that made him want to dance. (And no wonder; that bass line was itself an echo of ’60s soul.) He could hear it. He could see it. That track was “Billie Jean.” It was one of the last songs completed for “Thriller” — it was reportedly mixed 91 times — and even though Quincy Jones fought Jackson about its inclusion, Jackson insisted. By early November, he was finally satisfied, and the album was rush-released into stores at the end of the month.
We can sort of hear what he means: Both songs have that steady thumping baseline that drive the melody, and Jackson has certainly copped to this in the past. But It's certainly nowhere near Vanilla Ice-David Bowie caliber theft. Still, you be the judge:
Read Hoeburger's entire New York Times Magazine riff can be found here.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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