May 09


FT + Popular/141 comments • 9,685 views

#516, 5th March 1983

Michael Jackson came to the title “King of Pop” in the style of a medieval ruler, carving out his realm piece by piece across a hard year of campaigning. He won some of his new subjects when he performed this song as part of a Motown anniversary special: others when he formed common cause with Eddie Van Halen or Paul McCartney. His fiefdom suddenly extended across my school playground with the release of the “Thriller” video and its body popping zombies. Through it all the album and its spin-offs sold, and sold, and sold. “Billie Jean”, its Wikipedia page claims, has now topped 800,000 sales as a digital download, a format invented close to 20 years after its release.

What few mentioned was how strange Thriller was, how odd and sincere and childlike in some places, and how nightmarish in others. Half the record is heartbreakingly tender, the other half hard-edged and horribly tight-wound. Jackson’s stuck in the middle, and the pain is thunder: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

“Billie Jean” itself is the album’s darkest moment, where the goblin babble pressing in on Jackson during “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” goes fully internal and the barely-together bundle of tics that became Jackson’s star persona steps into the spotlight. Jackson’s one-take vocal is a long shudder – the gollum-gulp on “her schemes and plans”, the betrayed moan of “his eyes were like mine” – and the real craziness happens on its fringes. That contradictory “do think twice!”/”don’t think twice!” collision; the constant “ooh”, “oh”, and “no!” echoes; the clucks and gasps; and especially the madman’s comic book laugh punctuating the track, that eerily deliberate “hee hee hee”.

And of course this near-meltdown is the album’s most grippingly commercial moment too. Jackson’s claustrophobic performance is boxed in by stalking bass and arid drums, underlined by clawing and skittering guitars, counterpointed by those sensuous flushes of strings. A song about the fatal irresistibility of a dancer really does need to be irresistible on the dancefloor: at a hundred million weddings and discos since, “Billie Jean” has proved its mettle in that respect. But when you follow Jackson’s performance down and in, none of that matters – “Billie Jean” is a disquieting, troubled record.



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  1. 126
    josie oppenheim on 14 Dec 2009 #

    As a baby boomer I followed Jackson not much past “Beat It.” I thought he was a genius but just didn’t get too excited about “Thriller” and so lost track of his work. Through the tragic years of disfigurement and scandal I felt always sympathetic and I did not lose sight of what I thought was genius. Still I was not interested, particularly. When he died I was surprised at how little I felt. Then a cousin sent me a video of a live performance of “Billie Jean.” I was stunned; it was so extraordinary the most extraordinary performance it seemed I had ever seen. So began my current obsession. I stayed up night after night watching the proceedings on Larry King and I watched the videos. My sense of tragedy is now unsurpassed by any public figure that has died in my time. There have been great men who have died but genius is genius. Genius is understood by the primitive and emotional centers of the brain to be supernatural and godlike no matter how destroyed is the personal life of the genius. Geniuses do things we could never do, they are above us because they can do more than we can. Michael Jackson is neither the “king of pop” nor “the greatest entertainer that ever lived.” He was a genius. I think that is why prisoners and nuns line up to dance his dance and sing his songs as tribute. If you don’t watch the videos of “Billie Jean,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Dangerous” and “Smooth Criminal” you don’t know what it’s about. But once you see these videos and more you will have to acknowledge, it seems, that this boy who grew up with us is in fact someone to revere for his genius and to grieve for as if a personal loss has occurred.

  2. 127

    piratemoggy and i determined by science — the science of watching telly — that the early stuff is quite halt and timid compared to the shock and awe of what was to come: we were insane raving born-agains by the time “earth song” began

  3. 128
    Glue Factory on 15 Dec 2009 #

    Re: 125 – that Shinehead track is fantastic. IIRC it was on one of the mid-80s Greensleeves comps.

  4. 129
    wichita lineman on 18 Jan 2010 #

    Re: MTV colour bar breakthrough, at a respectful distance… before Billie Jean, MTV showed videos by Eddy Grant, Tina Turner, and Donna Summer, with Musical Youth’s Pass the Dutchie on heavy rotation. At least, that’s according to this intriguing if slightly curmudgeonly piece:


    The tragicomedy, the fact the story of his life now begins with demise, the long twilight of the presciption drug hermit… I think Elvis much the greater figure but the Citizen Kane scale of the two lives and deaths are remarkably similar. The classic American pop life. As such, I’m another born again, fiendishly collecting all he post Off The Wall 45s I never bought at the time. .

  5. 130
    thefatgit on 22 Jan 2010 #

    Well if there’s a heaven,it might sound like this…..


  6. 131
    ciaran 10 on 5 Apr 2010 #

    Didn’t like this much when I was younger but now see it as the masterpiece that it is.
    Would give it 10 only for the annoying way jacko screams “but the kiiiiiiiddddd” during the chorus.9 is about right.

  7. 132
    MildredBumble on 7 Jun 2010 #

    Really belongs on the exquisite Off The Wall – that and this are by miles the best stuff MJ ever did. Thriller was gimmicky and musiclly over-rated ditto Bad and all.

  8. 133
    Jimmy the Swede on 23 Mar 2011 #

    Hey-ho, Liz Taylor’s just gone for a burton. I mention it here because the old gal was quite friendly with Michael and Bubbles, was she not?


  9. 134
    Cumbrian on 23 Mar 2011 #

    Totally overshadowing Fred Titmus’ death.

    Fuckin’ hell, it’s Liz Taylor (as Half Man Half Bisucit might put it).

  10. 135
    Erithian on 23 Mar 2011 #

    What a shame the Biscuits aren’t going to trouble Popular (unless of course they’d care to re-release “Fuckin’ ‘Ell It’s Fred Titmus” as a tribute – there’s plenty of profanity in the top 40 these days after all).

  11. 136
    enitharmon on 23 Mar 2011 #

    It’s a shame that Nina Simone doesn’t figure in our deliberations. Nina even gave the lass a name-check.

  12. 137
    swanstep on 24 Mar 2011 #

    @Rosie, there’s also that Bob Dylan track from Freewheelin’ which kind of dissolves into laughter where he speak/sings:

    I catch dinosaurs
    I make love to Elizabeth Taylor . . .
    Catch hell from Richard Burton!

  13. 138
    punctum on 15 Dec 2013 #

    For what it’s worth; TPL on Thriller: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/michael-jackson-thriller.html

  14. 139
    thefatgit on 16 Dec 2013 #

    Thriller made for fascinating reading. I’m still unsure if this is TPL’s full stop, or the ending of one chapter before the beginning of the next. I know one thing: as I read TPL’s latest entry, it felt like a huge wound had been opened and the blood, so much blood was draining out and pooling on the floor. All those vibrant colours faded. The vigour, the vitality and the life of the patient hung in the balance. The greying around the eyes, lips losing their rosy hue, eyes turning dull. But there is still a pulse, with each new entry, the chambers fill and the walls constrict pumping life through those narrow channels. The patient isn’t dead yet. Hope remains. A slim, maybe forlorn hope, but hope nonetheless.

    Long live Then Play Long.

  15. 140
    punctum on 13 Mar 2014 #

    “These bloody people,” he shouted. “Why won’t they let me be?” http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/michael-jackson-plus-jackson-5-18.html

  16. 141
    mapman132 on 29 May 2014 #

    Guess what just re-entered the Hot 100 at #14? Yep, a viral video is responsible as usual, apparently this time by a high schooler in California. Ironically, in June 2009 when MJ tunes were all over the radio and the iTunes charts, none of them appeared on the Hot 100 because of a policy against old songs. Apparently due to the egg on their face at the time, Billboard soon revised the policy to allow old songs in the top 50 under special circumstances. Apparently those circumstances include a teenager dancing on your song on Youtube. Whatever…

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