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May 09

MICHAEL JACKSON – “Billie Jean”

FT + Popular/145 comments • 13,508 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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Comments

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  1. 61

    “barely-adult mind” — well, there’s two things here… one is (as koganbot says above) the music doesn’t really amplify the content of the idea when MJ’s being “dark”, so it’s not in any sense uncomfortable reading such content as trivial

    (again, contrast james brown — who if anything pushes the other way, songs ostensibly about hott sex which are actually, sound-wise, about fear and self-hatred and control) (not a criticism)

    second thing: “barely-adult mind” as psychological profiling seems to me more a (successful) product of the media-bafflescreen than anything grounded enough to build explanations on — he is a very weird and troubled and unhappy (and gifted) adult, but he really is an adult not a kid

    (1991 lyric, from Who Is it? much quoted by yrs truly: “I am the damned! I am the dead! I am the agony inside a dying head!”… at some point you really have to give up on “these words mean nothing” and start again with “yikes”)

  2. 62
    Erithian on 19 May 2009 #

    Top Jacko spoof by Lenny Henry: “Those guys are really frightening and they look as if they’re fans of Aston VI – LLA…” (cue zombies waving Villa scarves)

  3. 63
    The Lurker on 19 May 2009 #

    #50 – I think if I had been asked in the 80s (when I was in my pre-teens/early teens) why Jackson was “Wacko”, I would have said “he lives in a theme park with a chimpanzee”. Wikapedia tells me that he rescued Bubbles in 1985 and opened Neverland in 1988, so I would suggest that was roughly the time he gained his reputation.

    I was never a big fan of MJ, but I would certainly say this was his best song by a distance (excluding I Want You Back, of course).

  4. 64
    wichitalineman on 19 May 2009 #

    I suppose I meant there’s a definite childish streak to those particular lyrics, in the same way as calling himself King Of Pop, then King of Pop Rock and Soul, was childish. And, like a child, he could be pretty malevolent – which I’m sure wasn’t part of his media ‘wacko’ smokescreen.

    Not that that explains Who Is It, of course. Zoinks!!

    I’d like to think ‘Wacko’ was a UK media nickname dreamt up when MJ was clearly being dictatorial and too big for his boots circa Bad. Likewise, when did Madonna become Madge? Wasn’t it the Sun wot done it in both instances?

  5. 65
    Erithian on 19 May 2009 #

    I think “Madge” was more affectionate – circa “Ray of Light” when she was becoming one of us and wearing T-shirts with Kylie Minogue’s name on them.

  6. 66
    Billy Smart on 19 May 2009 #

    #60 – Oh right, now I find out 17 years later…

    For a conceptual piece, it seemed wholly plausible though, as I recall.

  7. 67
    Tom on 19 May 2009 #

    Isn’t Madge Smash Hits vintage?

  8. 68
    Pete Baran on 19 May 2009 #

    witchitalineman @58: Yes, I think the status of Off The Wall in our house was as a continuation of Motown / soul goodness. Favourites of parents (though less lively for the kids) would have been Randy Crawford’s Rainy Night In Georgia (and there was a ropey C90 of various Diana Ross / Supremes stuff my Dad had). The album (tape) that was bought which probably took Thriller’s place in our family record collection was Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July. Being a tape, somehow it got twisted quite early on in its career leading to:
    a) many recriminations over who broke it
    b) short lived but fondly remembered tradition of playing Happy Birthday backwards at family birthdays.

  9. 69
    wichitalineman on 19 May 2009 #

    Re 67: “Where’s the cougar, matey?” is my favourite Smash Hits/Madonna moment. But I wasn’t reading ‘ver Hits’ when Madge was first coined – I think Erithian’s got this right, it was her Anglicisation period, wasn’t it?

    ‘Wacko Jacko’ seems quite playful too, but maybe I wouldn’t think so if it was my nickname.

  10. 70
    lonepilgrim on 19 May 2009 #

    I remember that when Prince achieved more mainstream success – and particularly after his appearance at the 1985 Brit awards – he was portrayed as the weird one in comparison to Michael Jackson

  11. 71
    AndyPandy on 19 May 2009 #

    And around Madonna’s “Sex” book period the Sun had it in big time for Madonna – extreme vitriol including an “article” where an agony aunt came up with the conclusion that in reality Madonna was so unhappy she’d end up commiting suicide.
    This was the period where she had the hate hate period with the paparazzi and British tabloids and it was commonly thought that she detested Britain seeing the tabloids as a true representation of the British psyche.
    Which made it all the more unlikely and weird when a few years later she married Guy Ritchie and became the real ale drinking Anglophone we came to know.

  12. 72
    AndyPandy on 19 May 2009 #

    Mike at 51:
    Interesting stuff about club play for ‘Billie Jean’ – my own memories are that I seem to remember the track as the last MJ track that would get occasional club plays on soul/jazz-funk/funk nights without any raised eyebrows. A bit like Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long (All Night)’ from later in the year although on 2nd thoughts that was the only solo Lionel track that ever WAS played!(and in that case far more than occasionally).

    I also remember everyone in the vicinity of the big video screens at the Windsor Safari Club (a mainstay of the South Eastern jazz, funk and soul scene back then)stopping what they were doing and watching the full length ‘Thriller’ video when it was first shown.But this was more because it was a genuine pop-cultural event (and with Michael being the creator of sort of relevant stuff like that ‘Off The Wall’ they could just about get away with showing it there) than because it was ever going to have tnhe slightest chance of getting played out by Colin Hudd, Sean French,Nicky Holloway, Chris Hill, Pete Tong or any of the djs who might have played the Safari.
    And funnily enough I got a lift up to Windsor Safari (circa Autumn 1983)one Saturday night with some workmates from the supermarket I worked in at the time and who I’d bumped into that night in my local (and when no-one from my usual mob wanted to go up) on my protestation that “they play(ed) Michael Jackson” which they sort of did/had…I think one of them actually asked for some MJ that night (which was sort of un-embarrassing) unlike one who I believe actually asked for something by U2!

  13. 73
    koganbot on 19 May 2009 #

    He’s Jagger.

    On the scared side of the steel-plate door a lot more than Jagger is, but like Jagger he’s smart enough to know that the human psyche puts you on both sides of the door. So in song after song after song he tells us he’s vulnerable and scared shitless and feels preyed upon and feels he has no ability to protect himself, we’ll eat off of him, he’s a vegetable – but then he’ll turn around and play the feeder in the “Thriller” video, and in the “Billie Jean” vid he’s the smooth stalker, I am here and I disappear, and then in the “Smooth Criminal” vid he’s the same stalker but now he’s the smooth killer, too, the one you never seen before, who glides in and you can’t protect yourself (just as irl he’s convinced he can’t protect himself). And he keeps doin’ it, album after album. Is profound, actually. Of course, Mick’s a lot more in control than Michael, which means he flicked down the switch and turned off the wellspring c. 1971, while with Michael the stalked/stalker thing continues. Bad‘s the album of his that moves me the most. The contention at the start is ludicrous, that he’s badder than the tough guys, but the sign-off at the end, where he’s as hurt and scary as anyone else, is throat clenching. And as I said, it goes on, album after album, the fear feeding him and feeding off of him. You’re trapped in halls, and his face is the walls, he’s the floor when you fall, and when you scream it’s because of him. Because he’s the thoughts in your head.

  14. 74
    koganbot on 19 May 2009 #

    Also think his talents are far from evaporated. I think I’m one of only two people in the world who gave Invincible a favorable review. (Xgau was the other.)

    The violence starts to enter his sound with the spare new jack swing beats on the Teddy Riley tracks of Dangerous, and it keeps going with Rodney Jerkins on Invincible.

  15. 75
    koganbot on 19 May 2009 #

    Where the MJs loom the most for me right now is on The-Dream albums. The-Dream’s persona isn’t Michael’s – Michael would never play the haughty loveman – and The-Dream’s voice isn’t nearly as spectacular as Michael’s, but like more recent Michael, The-Dream plays smoothness and violence off each other continually in his sound; and like Michael he plays two sides of everything, he’s the cuckold and he’s the Don Juan, he came into her apartment…*

    *For which he’ll claim he paid the rent, no doubt

  16. 76
    crag on 19 May 2009 #

    re: nicknames- for what its worth I’m pretty sure Wacko Jacko was coined in the gradual run up to the “Bad” period i.e around 1986
    Wasnt King of Pop first used round the time of the HIStory album?
    As for Madge/Madonna i clearly recall Johnathon Ross using it introducing an interview to promote the Erotica ALBUM in 1992(?)
    As for BJ- undoughtably one of the top 5 #1s of the 80s. 10 out of 10 no question. I’m not the biggest 80s fan(hence my lack of comments reccently) but this stands proud with anything else before or since.

  17. 77
    Tracer Hand on 19 May 2009 #

    #59 – Yes Martin it’s by Bushwacka! My copy has “Billie Jean Bushwacked” on a little white sticker in the middle.

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned “Superstar” by Lydia Murdock, an answer song which was a pretty big radio hit in East Tennessee and, presumably, elsewhere.

  18. 78
    Lex on 20 May 2009 #

    There’s also a terrific Minilogue remix of ‘Billie Jean’ – makes the groove extra propulsive and really brings out the bass even more. Was looking for it on ye olde youtube to no avail but if you google minilogue “billie jean”, the first two results are links to download the mp3.

  19. 79
    peter goodlaws on 20 May 2009 #

    I don’t have the slightest hesitation in saying that both “Off the Wall” and “Thriller” were extraordinary pieces of work and that “Billy Jean” was one of the highlights of the latter. The only comic snippet for me is Michael’s continual plea that “the kid is not my son”, which was rather funny even back in 1983 and bloody hilarious now. I, like one or two of you, never had this (or much else) down as a dancing track despite its disco properties. I could listen to it and appreciate just how fine a track it was without having to shake any part of me, and the fact that Jackson has become what he may or may not have become is of little consequence as far as I’m concerned. Quality is quality.

  20. 80
    Jonathan Bogart on 20 May 2009 #

    It’s taken me this long to figure out what I want to say because I’ve never felt that I understood Michael Jackson. I first paid attention to his music when the publicity for “Dangerous” was flooding the earth (quite literally; I was in Guatemala and it was inescapable), and I had the nagging feeling that I was coming in at the middle of a story, and had no hope of catching up. The “King of Pop” label was well affixed, and with the arrogance of youth I felt slightly affronted that a king had been crowned without my having been aware of any great feats of arms or victories on the field of battle. I think — I THINK, this is going back years now and I wasn’t paying very close attention to the chronology — that I had heard “Billie Jean,” or at least heard some other kids singing it. I believe I associated it with Billie Jean King, who I knew about because Snoopy kept talking about her in Peanuts, and I thought that it seemed very out of character for Billie Jean King to be making up stories about Michael Jackson like that.

    (Come to think of it, I probably had Billie Jean King and Mary Lou Rhetton confused, for no better reason than that they both had two first names and were in sports.)

    But regardless, “Billie Jean” and maybe “Bad” and “Beat It” (the latter two via the Weird Al parodies) were all I knew of MJ before Dangerous. I was unprepared for its tightly-wound, micromanaged industrial pop sound, and nothing else on the radio sounded anything like it. It was thrilling in a kind of gut-wrenching sci-fi way (I politely hate sci-fi), but it was also scary and kind of nauseating. I see now that I was reacting to the paranoia and suffocating solipsism that have been Jackson’s stock-in-trade since Thriller, but at the time he seemed terrifyingly adult without any of the comfortable aspects of adulthood: increased awareness, understanding and facility of expression without any sense of security or stability.

    I’ve only rarely cared to listen to him since, and when I attempted to revisit his mid-80s works when I trawled back through pop’s back pages, I was in too rockist a frame of mind to do them justice, aside from “Beat It” (yes, sigh, it was Eddie did it for me).

    I don’t think I’m yet able to separate what it’s possible to feel about “Billie Jean” from what I’m used to feeling about it: irritation at the vocal tics and yelps which became so overwhelming in the 90s, when I first knew him, that they smother my appreciation for the rest of his performance, combined with lingering white-boy snobbery about dance-pop, underlaid by a puritanical disgust at the maudlin self-centeredness of the lyric and a vague and irrational horror of the intense, crowded production which is still my most resonant feeling about Jackson.

    I still feel like I’ve come in too late, and no matter how often I listen to Thriller and Bad I’ll never hear what people who heard them in the 80s heard. (Off The Wall is different and more entirely pleasurable, probably because I never heard any of it until I was an adult.) I have to admit to a little grin of satisfaction when I saw that Tom hadn’t given “Billie Jean” the expected 10, even though I can’t at all work out what I’d give it. I need to spend more time with it, I suppose.

  21. 81
    Billy Smart on 20 May 2009 #

    I once had a theory that each Michael Jackson album was precisely half as good as the preceding one. But by the time of ‘HIStory’ I was no longer listening attentively enough to calculate the precise trajectory of his decline.

  22. 82
    Alan on 20 May 2009 #

    @69 “Where’s the cougar, matey?” is my favourite Smash Hits/Madonna moment

    OK – i need that explaining, because I’m having the strangest memory meltdown right now. I have that phrase in my head from what I recall was etched between the runout groove on the Talulah Gosh album.

    (YES WHAT OF IT)

    a quick google reveals this to be a running joke at the time in smash hits. I NEVER KNEW. (i’m also remembering there was a single by TG of the same name too, so i’m not going all that mad – just never knew the source of the phrase before them!)

  23. 83
    Rory on 20 May 2009 #

    Tom, that’s a masterly piece of critical writing, and I can’t hope to top it (or many of these comments), so I’ll take a different tack.

    A handful of albums and singles from this year rush me back to it more than most, and Thriller is certainly one of them. Just thinking about it, let alone hearing any of it, recalls those few months at the start of my pop obsession when I didn’t yet own a stereo, and had to listen to my new purchases on the one in the dining room while the rest of the family were off watching telly in the lounge. I remember it always being dark, because this was hitting the Australian charts as we were entering winter, and hovering over the turntable, gatefold sleeve with luxurious photo of Jackson and tiger cub to one side, lifting and replacing the needle-arm to re-listen to key tracks.

    This was one of them; that soft-shoe shuffle down the video’s peach-coloured road had drawn me in, like so many others. ‘Billie Jean’ sat on top of the Australian charts for five weeks, so we saw it on TV a lot, and a single this good made it clear that buying the album was a good bet. With only two singles at that point, there was a real sense of discovery in exploring Thriller, and the stand-out tracks soon became clear: besides this, ‘Beat It’ was an obvious hit in waiting, and ‘Thriller’ itself still sounded fun before two decades of bad theatre-restaurants turned it into a zombie. But one stood out for me: ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”. How many times did I lift the needle back to the start of that track? It was like nothing else around, the weird ‘vegetable’ moments heightening its sense of danger and excitement, and the closing chant tying it to a world-music tradition of which we were scarcely aware. And of course the lyrics tied it to this, its funk soul brother. These are the two that still sound fresh to me, although ‘Billie Jean’ is almost brought low by a glaring 1980s synth at one point.

    If I’d followed those cues to their logical conclusion, I might have bought Off the Wall and spent the next year exploring Sly and the Family Stone. But Thriller was a poor road-sign, pointing in too many directions at once. Besides infectious funk, world music and cheesy horror, it gave us smooth R&B, high-profile duets, cod metal and pseudo-Chipmunks. Something for everyone, which helped it succeed, but a guarantee that almost any listener would find some of it inessential. On re-listening to it today, I don’t actually mind ‘The Lady in My Life’, but at the time both that and ‘Baby Be Mine’ sounded like filler, an impression that niggled as the album became a smash: should Thriller have filler? Shouldn’t it all be killer? Worse was ‘The Girl is Mine’, which sounded contrived and dated even then; it’s a miracle that I still tolerated McCartney enough to begin a major Beatles obsession.

    The road-sign I ended up following was ‘Beat It’, down Guitar-Solo Lane to early-’80s metal; but like so much of early Van Halen and Iron Maiden, it sounds thin and stiff to me today. But ‘Billie Jean’ still has it. Maybe its early release saved it from the fate of the later singles: its success felt like a surprise, while the 15-minute ‘Thriller’ video felt indulgent. By the time the latter emerged, I’d had enough of the album, and had swapped it with my brother for something long-forgotten. Jackson was now so ubiquitous that it was hardly an act of self-deprivation. But part of me wishes Thriller was still sitting in my cupboard between 1983 The Hot Ones and The Beatles Number Ones (the albums that preceded and followed it at the top of the Australian charts – I was far too impressionable), if only for that luxurious gatefold sleeve and two killer songs. 8.

  24. 84
    dirty bertie on 20 May 2009 #

    That Danny Baker article is hilarious. Poor Yoshi.

  25. 85
    intothefireuk on 21 May 2009 #

    I have an aversion to the over-familiar which has probably affected my appreciation of Michael Jackson from 1983 onwards. However, up to 1982 he was pretty imperious. As a pre-teen I loved the Jackson 5 and followed MJ avidly up to about 1973 when other stuff happened. So it followed that I watched with interest his rise from Motown star made good to global superstar. The genius that is Quincy Jones undoubtedly helped him along the way. Billie Jean was beautifully produced with just the right amount of funk and subtle synth stabs (not typical 80’s synth pop) and was THE stand-out track on ‘Thriller’ which I never actually bothered to own at the time due to the ‘release everything as a single’ policy pursued by Epic. No doubt the Motown 25 concert with MJ’s moonwalk (although already seen in the UK via Shalamar on TOTP in 1982) helped sales and established his reputation as all round god-like genius. I didn’t think the rest of ‘Thriller’ was quite up to this standard, although ‘Human Nature’ is a lovely song. ‘Thriller’ itself was dwarfed by the video, ‘Beat It’ by Van Halen’s guitar histrionics, ‘The Girl Is Mine’ by McCartney’s schmaltz, ‘Wanna Be..’ by weird vegetables line. At this stage of the game MJ was ‘relatively’ normal with a reasonably unscathed face and growing popularity, things would never be quite this good again for him….

  26. 86
    mike on 21 May 2009 #

    Good point about MJ nicking his moonwalk from Jeffrey Daniels of Shalamar (which I don’t think was seen as much in the US as it was in the UK, Shalamar being TOTP regulars during 82). Curiously, a post-Shalamar (and indeed post-fame) Daniels appears as one of the backing dancers on the “Bad” video.

  27. 87
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 May 2009 #

    i’m reasonably sure it goes back to one of the great black dancers (bill bailey?)* of the 30s and 40s, though it (obviously) wasn’t called moonwalking back then

    jeffrey daniel danced through the soul train line! so he was certainly well known to us fans of soul on tv, even if shalamar weren’t especially

    (my guess is that MJ was well aware of both: 40s dance styles and 70s dance styles)

    *not that one

  28. 88
    Jonathan Bogart on 22 May 2009 #

    I know I’ve seen Eddie “Rochester” Anderson performing steps that could be considered ancestor to the moonwalk, in a 1943 film called Star Spangled Rhythm. I’d have to hunt up my copy of Jazz Dance to find anything more specific.

  29. 89
    mike on 22 May 2009 #

    The thing is, I don’t remember any collective “OMG MJ IS MOONWALKING!” moment, such as happened in the US at the Motown 25th anniversary TV special. (And am I right in thinking that the show marked a precise moment of re-incarnation for MJ over there, or is that an exaggeration? I didn’t see the show myself until many years later.) Anyhow, I’d already seen Jeffrey Daniels on TOTP, and also on the autumn 1982 Shalamar tour, so I just thought this was more of the same, albeit superbly executed. So I remember MJ’s ascent to global domination being a steady, gradual one, gathering momentum with each successive single and peaking with the “Thriller” video 12 months later.

  30. 90
    Lex on 22 May 2009 #

    Was MJ’s dancing particularly noted at the time (by critics, I mean)? For as long as I can remember, dancing skills have been sorely underappreciated as something to take seriously…

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