With the 40th anniversary of Thriller, I’ll be marking the occasion by reviewing all seven of its Top 10 hits. I also reviewed the album in full last year if you want to check that out.
Michael Jackson & Paul McCartney- “The Girl Is Mine”
PEAK: #2 on January 8, 1983
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Darryl Hall & John Oates’ “Maneater”
It seemed like a good idea at the time. With the release of Thriller at the end of 1982, Michael Jackson was making his play to be the biggest pop star in the world, one that would transcend race, genre, radio format, and whatever else stood in his way. In making this play for monocultural dominance, he enlisted Paul McCartney, who as a member of the Beatles, was one of the few people in the world that had experienced the kind of stardom Jackson was aiming for. A Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney team-up seemed like a great way to introduce Thriller to the world. Unfortunately, “The Girl Is Mine” is what we got out of it.
Listening to “The Girl Is Mine” today 40 years later, it’s baffling to think that this uncommitted soft shrug of a song launched a then-record 7 Top 10 hits from the biggest-selling studio album ever. The song did achieve what it set out to do. It got radio play and became a #2 hit being the kind of adult-contemporary schlock that wouldn’t offend anyone, which combined with the star power, helped to make it big. But even in the moment, audiences and critics alike were negative about the song; Robert Christgau wrote that it was “Michael’s worst idea since “Ben.” Thankfully, the rest of Thriller wouldn’t sound like “The Girl Is Mine,” but today, it’s easily the weakest song on the entire album.
Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney first got together in the late-‘70s when McCartney had a song he had written for Jackson called “Girlfriend.” McCartney released it first on London Town, the album his band Wings released in 1978, but Jackson eventually recorded his version of “Girlfriend” for his 1979 solo breakout Off The Wall. The two kept in contact with Jackson calling McCartney one day to discuss writing songs together eventually meeting in London to record some songs before going to McCartney’s ranch in Arizona to work on a duet for Thriller which is how we wound up with “The Girl Is Mine.” Aside from McCartney and Jackson, several veteran session guys play on “The Girl Is Mine,” including a few members of Toto and ascendant corporate schlockmeister David Foster.
“The Girl Is Mine” is a slight song, almost on purpose. The song is based around Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson arguing over a girl, trading lines back and forth stating why this girl is theirs. A love triangle song premise can make for fire music, such as what Brandy & Monica brought 15 years later on their #1 collab “The Boy Is Mine,” a song itself inspired by “The Girl Is Mine.” But “The Girl Is Mine” isn’t fire at all. Real-life differences aside, McCartney and Jackson aren’t all that convincing on record as two guys fighting over a girl. They deliver their lines in a very playful tone, oblivious to the drama they’re supposed to be conveying, down to the friendly spoken banter they get into at the end.
The lack of drama is also a problem with the music. You can tell a bunch of professionals were involved in the song’s making with its slick sound. Quincy Jones’ production goes for a very relaxed and breezy style that I don’t mind, but it’s also the kind of production that easily fades from my memory pretty quickly. If there’s a part of the song I like a little, it’s the bridge where Jackson and the music seem to ramp up a little in intensity before everything calms down. Overall, “The Girl Is Mine” isn’t hugely terrible, but in the context of Thriller, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s the one song on the album you can easily skip over. For a song by two legends, you’d expect it to hit a lot more than this.
It’s important to understand “The Girl Is Mine” in the context of the pop charts in the early-‘80s. The disco backlash that started in 1979 found many Black artists struggling on the Hot 100, which combined with the rise of specialized radio formatting, helped to segregate white and Black music in the early-‘80s. Add to that, 1982 saw only two Black artists go to #1 on the Hot 100 which were Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie and they got there with adult-contempo leaning tracks with Wonder himself teaming up with McCartney on their #1 hit “Ebony and Ivory.” That’s the world “The Girl Is Mine” came out in. With that context, I get why the song was picked to be the lead-off single for Thriller fitting into the album’s mission to cater to every audience possible as indicated by it going to #1 on both the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. It still doesn’t make the song any better though.
When “The Girl Is Mine” peaked on the Hot 100 in the early days of 1983, Thriller was at #9 after a #11 on the album charts a couple of weeks earlier, a pretty high debut for an album in the pre-Soundscan tracking days. For much of the winter, Thriller slowly but surely worked its way up through the Top 10 and at the end of February, lept from #4 to #1 ending the long reign of Men at Work’s Business as Usual. By that point, the album was already certified platinum, but that, along with “The Girl Is Mine,” was only a warmup for the success to come. Thriller would soon come to dominate popular culture in a way no other album has before or since. Many more hits were to come, all of them better than “The Girl Is Mine.”
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ashanti interpolating a bit of “The Girl Is Mine” on her 2008 song “Good Good”: