May 09


FT + Popular/145 comments • 13,832 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. 1
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    Plus for me, unlike Come On Eileen, it’s not tarnished by past affection. This attitude isn’t necessarily the right one to take but I feel that Billie Jean is not JUST “cooler” than COE. Its (or at least MJ’s) exoticity as an event, its modern sound (no less ‘thrilling’ than the nostalgic euphoria of COE)…I mentioned it before but the sense of Jackson initiating his transformation process(es) and the resulting excitement. ‘Planet Rock’ portrayed the future but maybe MJ was more directly honouring Kraftwerk, desperate to escape his human form, but here so as to deal better with unparalleled global fame and fortune (and tragically the perceived imperfection he felt and blamed on his father’s brutal disciplinarism iirc)…at least for an entertainer. Maybe that’s all bunk but these ideas and associations seem to dominate his career from hereon, setting up a nightmarish descent – so for now marvel at the highest heights. Looking back it does seem extraordinary that he was not able to score as many #1s as his imminently emerging female counterpart (the Queen of Pop).

    I can see that aside from all that Billie Jean IS troublesome. WHY tailor a song so traumatic and thematically specific for the dancefloor anyway? Where’s the creepy line? Isn’t this only problematic in theory tho? It’s never stopped people having as a good a time to this as any song. ‘Thriller’ itself would’ve made probably just as great a #1 and probable 10 from my pov.

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    pinkchampale on 18 May 2009 #

    think it would be a ten from me. much of the genius of this is the claustrophobia. it’s like a hermetically sealed system, with the funkiness coming from the tiniest inflections, particularly in the guitar part. mj himself is all over it, both trapped inside the system (yes, i love the ‘eyes like mine’ moan) and – when he lets go with the odd intakes of breath, strangled cried and all the rest of his ticks – startlingly outside it.

  3. 3
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    Well I realised recently you wouldn’t be giving this a 10 but for me it’s one of the most deserving tens for mostly obvious reasons. Pop genius at the top of his game. Possibly the most popular (yet “credible”) floor filler of the last 26 years? Iconic both sonically (the deep warm nocturnal enigmatic two note synth hook chiefly) and visually (pavement as disco dancefloor). That’s quite enough reasons for me personally. Untouchable (and yet he touched too much, ahem).

  4. 4
    Tom on 18 May 2009 #

    Blender, I believe, rated this as “best song of your lifetime”. I think it’s my fourth favourite song on the album TBH* so yes, not a 10 despite icon status, but there’s no shame in a 9

    *1. Wanna Be Startin Somethin, 2. Human Nature, 3. Beat It

  5. 5
    rosie on 18 May 2009 #

    Ten ten ten! I had this marked down a long time ago as the last ten I would award before my retirement, which can’t be far off now. It is indeed dark, and paranoid, a thorough exploration of a tortured soul (just how tortured we had yet to find out). And it is outside its time: it has all the hallmarks of a pop monument for all seasons.

    I come to this conclusion, by the way, knowing the song only as a song. It was only a few months ago that I actually saw Mr Jackson doing his dance routine to it, nor have I ever seen more than brief fragments of the Thriller video.

    And not for the first time, its mood resonated with my own at the time. The dark clouds had been gathering on the horizon for a while, and it was in March 1983 that the storm broke. I don’t really want to go into details – save that for my autobiography if it ever gets written – but lets just say that unemployment and profound depression were building up to a point where something had to give, and an explosion in my private life triggered a breakdown which left me homeless and helplessly drifting. I remember a long trek up to Durham, and being attacked with a hockey stick, and eventually landing, drained and exhausted and broke, at my mother’s house in Hitchin. There I shut myself in my mother’s back bedroom and sat up all night ever night, listening to Chiltern Radio and bashing out my first novel on my mother’s battered old manual typewriter (it was crap, and the manuscript no longer exists, but at least it was a formative experience.) All the time, Billie Jean could be heard somewhere or other.

    I had nowhere else to go but up, you might think. But life had a few more kicks to give me to the accompaniment of the next few number ones.

  6. 6
    Lex on 18 May 2009 #

    I’m really surprised this didn’t get a 10, I thought it’d be one of the most obvious 10s in the entire list! It’s weird, it’s one of those songs that one absolutely takes for granted as part of the fabric of popular culture, but the minute you think about what it’s about, you just think: how weird is it that this is one of MJ’s signature singles and as popular – not even just popular, but communally popular – as it is? It’s a dark, complex and sinister narrative, and every sonic element is geared towards reinforcing that – yet it’s not just the tune that everyone knows, it’s all the paranoid tics and creepy production flourishes. Just relistened, and it’s so impressive that despite the wedding-disco ubiquity, it still retains that power when you actually hear it.

  7. 7
    Tom on 18 May 2009 #

    The thing is, though, that this isn’t even MJ’s most freaked-out or dark record by any means – all those tics and creepy bits are totally part of his persona, and his popularity – as well as, ultimately, his unpopularity – is to some extent based on him being a weirdo. If you lift up almost any of his hits there’s all sorts of madness crawling about underneath.*

    Which is one reason why there’s never been a “next MJ” – the public were responding to the madness as much as the genius, and both were pretty hard to approximate, let alone combine, even IF you’d found someone wanting to take on this particular burden.

    *Case in point, what I didn’t have room to fit into the review, Billie Jean tempts Jacko for FORTY DAYS AND FORTY NIGHTS.

  8. 8
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    Additionally, this song is joined by another from the same year in my ‘would never be so sick of it that it’s value is diminished’ hall o’ fame. It wouldn’t be difficult to guess what this other seminal and arguably just as dark and doomy dance track is. Cheer up goths!

    To go back to my description of the two note synth hook…I guess it’s sound reminds me of an owl’s muffled hoot? Wondrous.

  9. 9
    Tom on 18 May 2009 #

    #7 yeah – I can see this as a strong argument, for whatever reason (me being a 30something parent? Dunno) records with a strong association of modernist shock like this or “I Feel Love” never quite seem to get the 10s from me.

  10. 10
    lonepilgrim on 18 May 2009 #

    Another number 1 with an instantly recognisable bass line.
    I think this record powerfully conjures up the intensely equivocal and destructive nature of global celebrity culture that began in the 80s with Lennon’s death and which is literally embodied in Michael Jackson himself.
    The music on this is wound tight – the bass line punctured by yelps, gulps and stabbing strings – and put’s me in mind of ‘Venus in Furs’ – although that sounds almost vanilla compared to this.

  11. 11
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    At least you’re consistent :)

    I’d probably give twice as many tens as you will during the 80s (one of many good reasons I’m just a commenter), but this really is ‘first name on the teamsheet’ stuff.

  12. 12
    pinkchampale on 18 May 2009 #

    #6 the terrible thing is that all that was there even before it began to show itself in the records. on the face of it there’s no more compelling expression of human joy in world history than year old michael screaming BABY! BABY! BABY! in the middle of ‘i want you back’, but as we all know now, things were actually pretty far from joyous

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    pinkchampale on 18 May 2009 #

    er, *ten*year old, that is

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    Lex on 18 May 2009 #

    Ayyy, I forgot ‘I Feel Love’ didn’t get a 10. SCREWFACE.

    Tailoring dark or sinister songs to the dancefloor is a pretty common thing, surely? I can think of so many, whether the darkness is the obvious appeal or a semi-disguised undercurrent to the song’s narrative to merely present, indefinably, in the sonics. What’s interesting about ‘Billie Jean’ is that its sinister aspect isn’t really a part of its presence in popular culture. No one ever goes “oh, ‘Billie Jean’ is so CREEPY” unless they’re thinking about it critically – it’s first, foremost and entirely iconic because it’s a good-times dancefloor song.

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    pinkchampale on 18 May 2009 #

    lex – replace “sinister/creepy” with “heartbreaking/wretched” and you’re talking about ‘dancing queen’!

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    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    I think it’s just that Billie Jean’s dark tale relates so specifically to an event. The song is the name of the girl (probably so as to meet listeners halfway? did people read or hear what his new single was called and think ‘oh, sounds like another fine romantic modern soul hit!’ before hearing?). Jackson describes his reactions to the sequence of events including what he’s thinking as well as doing. This all seems a level above the usual, esp. for a dance song.

    I wonder if years and years later a certain #1 single was made on the ‘that song is so great but maybe a version that is actually ABOUT dancing would be nice for the kids?’ premise.

  17. 17
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    Just had a look at the song’s chart positions achieved in various countries. Curiously it only made #45 in France while making top 10 if not #1 in most other Western European countries. This column’s author is himself quoted on the BJean wikipedia page regarding reactions to Kanye West’s 2008 remix (which I have still never knowingly heard).

  18. 18
    Erithian on 18 May 2009 #

    Blimey, I might have to don the tin helmet on this one, I’m so far out of kilter with the apparent consensus on it. Couldn’t stand it then, and unlike quite a number of records I’ve happily revised my opinion of over time, can’t stand it now. And among the main reasons I feel this way (aside from the fact I’ve honestly never felt moved to dance to it, just not my BPM I guess) are those vocal tics others have cited as a plus factor. If it’s supposed to indicate emotion and living the story of the song, well for me it just doesn’t work because of its sheer overuse.

    At around this time a friend took me to see a popular local singer in the town near Cherbourg where she was working as a language assistant: he clearly modelled himself on Jacques Brel, and at the end of the first song he built to an emotional crescendo, thrust the microphone into the stand and walked offstage as if overcome. But he did it after practically every song, so eventually we reckoned he was just nipping off to check the lyrics. That’s kind of the reason I found Jacko so tiresome. If he’s singing the song straight, fine, and there’s some of his work I can happily live with. But usually he doesn’t. And the sheer ubiquity of “Thriller”, and having it drummed into you that this suite of not-all-that-special disco tracks was the Greatest Thing Evah (especially that overwrought bloody zombie video) – well, I can understand how some of you react to the established rock “canon” on these pages. I react to Jacko (and this was long before the weirdness, the allegations and the surgery) as possibly the most overrated artist in pop.

    (And what’s with this “King of Pop” business anyway? It’s really strange how an artist who should be confident enough in his status gets fixated on a title. Even odder, if it’s true, is Aretha Franklin and that supposed tiff over the “Queen of Soul” title. Did she really throw a strop because Beyoncé introduced Tina Turner with that title at the Grammys? Aretha, your place in history is assured and she was just being generous to Tina, is it really that important?!!)

    Rosie, I’m finding your story touching and I’m not alone in that. Funny how the wheel of fortune had us at opposite sides – right now spring is coming to Vannes, my German girlfriend is coming over to visit and the next few weeks are going to be great. Even after we broke up.

  19. 19
    Conrad on 18 May 2009 #

    There’s a polished coldness in the production of the “Thriller” album which, together with its all embracing ubiquity among friends, peers, family (uncool cousins and uncles and aunts esp) that sort of scared me off MJ at this point. Latterly, I am often very mildly irritated that DJs plays this as an easy ‘score’ in a set, and wonder why they can’t be more imaginative.

    But why shouldn’t it be played? It is a monstrously infectious groove, and the rhythm of MJ’s singing – esp his tics and yelps – lift it to another dimension altogether (to people who think MJ overrated I play The Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It” and the difference when MJ is on the mic as compared to his more pedestrian, tho highly competent brothers, is night and day).

    His vocals at this point in his career are a rhythm instrument in themselves.

    Still, whether its over familiarity, the too-boxy drum sound, or just not being able to connect with it emotionally (in a way I can with “I Feel Love”), I can’t say I care greatly for “Billie Jean”.

    Much prefer the “Off The Wall” production than any subsequent MJ. So it follows that “Thriller” was the start of the artistic decline.

  20. 20
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    “just not my BPM I guess”

    this begs the question!

  21. 21
    Billy Smart on 18 May 2009 #

    Hm, this is a recording which I admire and can fully hear everything amazing thats going on, but I can’t say that it ever makes my heart leap. Actually, that’s my problem with Thriller as a whole – apart from perhaps Human Nature – that it sounds like a thrilling exercise to make a great album, but there’s some level of empathetic human engagement that I can’t find in there.

    You could say that this says more about me than it does about Michael Jackson and you might even be right, but I don’t have this problem at all with Off The Wall – I just feel that something got lost between 1979 and 1982. An instinctive gaiety of spirit, perhaps.

    Also, whenever I hear the bump! click! intro to this I start to imagine either Thieves Like Us by New Order or The Whole Of The Moon by The Waterboys playing instead.

    A likely cause of personal antipathy towards eighties Michael Jackson is also that as a weakling first former with a high-pitched voice, whenever other boys would hit me and I, not unreasonably, exclaimed “Ow!” my peers would shout that Michael Jackson was in the classroom, an unfailing source of amusement.

  22. 22
    Erithian on 18 May 2009 #

    OK, on Friday I was happily dad-dancing to “Town Called Malice”, “One Step Beyond”, “Young Hearts Run Free” and “Israelites”. Does that help?!

  23. 23

    on lollards on saturday (podcast not yet posted) we raised the question of why JB called himself the (very equivocal) “godfather of soul” (you disrespect me — tonight you sleep with FISH RISING): MJ is first best next-generation inheritor of a LOT of brownian motion, including of course the grunts and yelps, and the endless bodily self-punishment — “king of pop” is also (i think) an ambiguous title, intentionally or not

    also: if this ever went to court it d be “billie jean vs king” \n/ \n/ \n/

  24. 24
    lonepilgrim on 18 May 2009 #

    “tonight you sleep with FISH RISING” – the godfather of sole?

  25. 25
    wichita lineman on 18 May 2009 #

    Key to this creepy/wedding party dichotomy can be found in a hit by one of MJ’s heroes – Smokey Robinson’s I Gotta Dance To Keep From Crying.* As a non-clubber at the time, I only heard Billie Jean coming out of a car radio or in the kitchen, or in a cafe, so the song’s atmosphere of dank claustrophobia and paranoia (Tom, I love your description of the “stalking” bassline) were what struck me during its chart run. The lyric was strong enough to earn an “answer” song in Lydia Murdock’s Superstar.

    I don’t want to fixate on the mark, but this betters Beat It on every level for me – lyric, production, groove, vocal performance.

    Oh, and Elvis was the King, wasn’t he? Which is why MJ had to make do with the lesser King of Pop, and later (I recall Radio 1 getting a memo from CBS about this) King of Rock Pop and Soul. Wasn’t this all his idea, or at least his people’s? Like the sad kid at school who awards himself a “tough” nickname, it never really works, hence he got what he deserved when the public christened him Wacko Jacko.

    *Any number of exceptionally bleak Motown hits, usually Holland Dozier Holland, that are irresistible dancefloor items: My World Is Empty Without You, Seven Rooms Of Gloom, Behind A Painted Smile.

  26. 26
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    Erithian ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ can’t be too far from ‘Billie Jean’ tempo-wise but n/m.

    i was not aware of the KoP title until the mid 90s where it seemed far less apt (but at that point i don’t think anyone could make a real claim to such a throne…except for The Mad Stuntman perhaps).

  27. 27

    SCOOTER: people’s revolutionary army of bosh

  28. 28
    wichitalineman on 18 May 2009 #

    Not sure when KoP dates from, but I think it might have been part of the massive self-hype around Dangerous – which I found totally off-putting (especially when the lead single was so weak… but Tom’ll get to it in time).

    Re 26: Haddaway, surely?

  29. 29
    Weej on 18 May 2009 #

    Just want to say that I thought this was a very good bit of writing. Particularly “the goblin babble pressing in on Jackson during “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” goes fully internal” Great!

  30. 30
    AndyPandy on 18 May 2009 #

    Absolute 10 out of 10 in so many ways. As modern today as the day it was made and unlike some of the other 80s hits which I would have given 10 back then but which have become slightly tarnished by overfamiliarity I dont think this has had one iota of its sparkle dimished.
    Elvis the King? I’ll happily defer to Chuck D’s opinion about that…

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