Sadly, this Saturday will mark two years since the passing of Michael Jackson. And I’m not alone at Tor.com in thinking that the King of Pop has always had a connection to science fiction. From his time-travel antics in “Smooth Criminal” to turning into a robot and a spaceship in the movie Moonwalker to flying in zero gravity with Janet in “Scream,” and so much more; MJ was always living in various worlds of genre fiction. One of the most obvious genre homages is the Jackson mega-classic “Thriller” in which a zombie/monster dance takes center stage. But it may have been very, very different. WNYC recently interviewed music scholar Patrick Rivers and sound engineer Bruce Swedien about how this funky love song became the chilling hit we shuffle around to today.
Apparently the original concept for Michael Jackson’s second solo album, Thriller had a completely different angle than what we’re familiar with. Rod Temperton, one of Quincy Jones’s songwriters, came up with the album title Midnight Man that would have featured a song called “Starlight” as one of its primary singles. Everything about “Starlight” is identical to what would become “Thriller”—except for the lyrics. Instead of all the second person pronouns like “you feel a creature creeping up behind,” the original version is heavy on “we” with lines like “deep in the night we’re holding on to someone else’s dream.” This gives the song a quality of “We are the World” or “Heal the World” with a little bit of a sensability from MJ’s love ballads like “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”
Of course, “Starlight” also didn’t contain the famous Vincent Price monologue about monsters and zombies. When Quincy Jones decided to change the entire concept of the album and the song, he told his sound engineers, including Bruce Swedien, to think of Edgar Allen Poe. After that, “Starlight” quietly imploded and “Thriller” emerged.
Naturally, we’re all the better for this change, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of bizzaro world we’d be living in if “Thriller” had never popped up out of that crypt and terrified us into a dancing frenzy. Surely, we’d still have “Billie Jean.” Michael Jackson’s entire popularity isn’t totally dependant on “Thriller,” not one bit. “Beat It” is still a mega song and a memorable video. Earlier hits like “Rock With You” and “Don’t Stop Until You Get Enough” are also catchy as hell. (Also the music video for the latter contains multiple Michael Jackson clones dancing with each other!)
Still, there is something iconic about “Thriller” that puts MJ way over the top in terms of cultural iconography. You could even argue we wouldn’t all be so excited about The Walking Dead if it weren’t for this seminal video. Did dancing zombies make way for the fast zombies in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later? The music industry and Michael Jackson’s career were obviously changed forever after “Thriller,” but it seems clear that the rippling effect to all edges of the culture was much bigger than just music. In short, I think we should all be thankful we live in this universe and not the “Starlight” one.
What does the “Starlight” dance look like anyway? An exploding sun?
Check out the interview with Patrick Rivers and Bruce Swedien on WNYC’s website and listen to the full audio track for “Starlight” below.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. You don’t want him in a bar when Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” comes on.