An incredible thing happened on July 17, 2007. A video of several hundred inmates wearing orange jumpsuits and performing an immaculately choreographed dance to Thriller appeared on a small website called YouTube. Two years later, Michael Jackson was dead, and YouTube had changed history.
You might argue that Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance did for YouTube what his original Thriller music video did for MTV.
The video of inmates reenacting the original dance in a Phillippine prison was not only one of the early viral successes of YouTube. It was also one of the first times that a viral video became a meme with dozens of copycats uploading videos of similar performances from all over the world. Early adopters, of course, were college kids. Within a few months, the Thriller dance meme combined with the flash mob theme:
Suddenly, MJ’s jam from the early 80s was cheering people up all over the world, all over again. Michael Jackson died six years ago, but what’s remarkable is that the meme lives on. Two years after his death came this Thriller dance tribute in LEGO:
The Thriller dance has also become a mainstay at weddings. One could even argue that the Filipino prisoner Thriller dance was inspired by a grainy wedding clip from 2006, but it’s hard to say if prisoners in the Phillippines had access to high speed internet back in those dark ages before widespread Wi-Fi. Now, it’s self-evident that the meme is still being reenacted and reinvisioned. As with any meme, you know it’s hit mainstream when it’s being used as marketing materials. Case-in-point: the Thriller dance in a viral video from the Denver International Airport.
What’s inevitably remarkable about this little internet history factoid is the simple fact that it’s pure MJ. It’s a perfect encapsulation about how his music brought people together from all corners of the globe, from all cultures, and from every ethnicity. It’s fun to dance to!
I’d been living in New York City for less than a month when Michael Jackson died. That night, my friends and I wanted to pay our respects the best way that we could. We wanted to boogie. And apparently the entire city had the same plan. Wherever you went — in bars, in clubs, on the streets, in taxicabs — Michael Jackson’s songs were playing, and people were dancing. Everyone was so happy.
So let’s remember how Michael Jackson’s music inspires the best in us. It can make anyone from prisoners to minifigs dance. It can inspire an internet meme. It’s inspired a generation of memes. And for reasons like that, Michael Jackson will remain, in his own way, immortal.