May 09


FT + Popular/145 comments • 13,927 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. 91
    Tom on 22 May 2009 #

    MJ was sort of the exception that proves the rule I think – he was very well regarded in the US for being a great dancer: I think it helped that he was using video as a means of showing off choreography, which I don’t think many others had latched onto.

  2. 92
    Tom on 22 May 2009 #

    & before the wacko jacko stuff his persona was of an all round entertainer – born to dance, sing, write, perform – so it was part of that package.

  3. 93

    if anything — since he arrived as a fairly tiny child-star — awed awareness of his dancing skills predates awed awareness of his singing, since the latter developed later (by which i mean, he was a pretty good singer for a small kid when he first appeared, but not astonishing; his dancing at that age was strikingly good though; both evolved but the singing actually caught up with — and arguably overtook — the dancing)

  4. 94
    crag on 26 Jun 2009 #

    RIP-just heard-what a shocker- a tragic end to a tragic life not much to add just wanted to say my piece

  5. 95
    Tom on 26 Jun 2009 #

    Bloody hell – went downstairs to feed the baby and heard the news. Poor guy. :(

  6. 96
    lonepilgrim on 26 Jun 2009 #

    A tragedy in the original sense of the word – as shocking as his early death seems, it also feels inevitable.

  7. 97
    Rory on 26 Jun 2009 #

    It’s a shock, all right. A bit of a relief that Popular reached this song before it happened – our comments might have read rather differently if written today.

  8. 98
    rosie on 26 Jun 2009 #

    Stunning news, although I suspect that he was never going to live to a ripe old age. And, of course, when Mozart was his age he has been dead for fifteen years (and Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison has all been dead for twenty-three).

    What’s really alarming is the premature death of a musical megastar WHO WAS YOUNGER THAN ME!

    I’d write more coherently but some bugger kept texting me in the night. Grrr!

  9. 99
    lonepilgrim on 26 Jun 2009 #

    …and if the king of pop is dead, what now for his kingdom?

  10. 100
    pink champale on 26 Jun 2009 #

    i think paul king is set to take over the job

    but yes, it is very sad news indeed.

  11. 101
    rosie on 26 Jun 2009 #

    lonepilgrim @ 99

    I think Jackson’s kingdom was overthrown long ago and replaced with a commonwealth wherein nobody leads for long without being messily assassinated.

  12. 102
    Erithian on 26 Jun 2009 #

    I’d have said it yesterday and I’ll say it today – King of Pop, my arse. But yes it’s a very sad story and due respect to his memory. Which is more than you’ll get from some of the papers. The first word in the top left hand corner of the Sun’s front page today was “Overdose”. What was that line, “Even when you died the press still hounded you”…

  13. 103
    Conrad on 26 Jun 2009 #

    Yes, RIP MJ

  14. 104
    Lena on 26 Jun 2009 #

    Sorry I haven’t posted around here lately, I’ve been ill and or busy, but I cannot NOT comment on his passing…I wish I had my journal from high school – one of many – where I reacted to the backlash against MJ at a ‘history of rock’ presentation in the school gym, wherein we were all ushered in to see a fairly slick representation of the history of rock & pop up to ’83 that culminated, inevitably, with MJ’s appearance (which caused the girls to scream and boys to boo). I felt, incoherently, that a lot of great music the boys who were booing actually liked was made by people who secretly or not-so-secretly dug MJ & the Jacksons & Motown in general, including 100% of the New Pop crowd, for instance. What do they know, I probably wrote….

    I heard the news this morning and felt like a sucking void had happened; I couldn’t say anything. I’ve been reading a lot of Greil Marcus lately on Elvis and what he says about him goes for MJ too, I feel. 50 years old is too young, yet was MJ ever really allowed to be ‘young’? Kanye raps about Michael and his dad on the Keri Hilson single, Jay-Z mentions him first on “Lost!” – somehow I feel they are saying a lot of what needs to be said, how tragic his life was in a way, when it certainly didn’t need to be.

    Again, sorry I am a bit incoherent here but as an American abroad I feel *more* connected to my fellow Americans, be they famous or not. I grieve for him and wish I could hug his whole family.

  15. 105
    susan holland on 26 Jun 2009 #

    I am 54 and Micheal has been here all my life I was 4 when he was born, and not much older when he performed the first time , I remember that this cute little Affao,d little child with a strong voice, even tho he was on tv and I never met him, he seemed to be looking right at me when he spoke, and I do believe when he said I love you all from the bottom of my heart he ment it. its so sad I offer my condolences to his Mom mostly,his familly, his close fans,and friends, and to his familly thank you for sharing with us. God Bless!

  16. 106
    AndyPandy on 26 Jun 2009 #

    I’ve never felt so shocked by the death of someone famous before – I was walking into a garage in Keighley this morning at just after 7 to pay for my petrol and there were the headlines on the papers I just couldn’t believe it – completely dumfounded.
    The eighties were “my” decade and Michael Jackson was such a looming presence throughout those ten years. As one of the papers said today THE entertainer of the past 30-40 years. The world sems a very different place without him.

  17. 107
    LondonLee on 26 Jun 2009 #

    Everyone here will appreciate this, last night on MSNBC the anchor referred to his collaborations with Paul Mc as being ‘Say Say Say’ and ‘Ebony and Ivory’ – as you can imagine I shouted at the TV.

    Also got very peeved about them acting as if his career had started with ‘Thriller’

  18. 108
    will on 26 Jun 2009 #

    I have to say I’m not surprised at last night’s news. If ever there was a pop star who was heading for an early death then it was Michael Jackson. It’s hard to believe he managed to make it to 50.

  19. 109
    Billy Smart on 27 Jun 2009 #

    “Psychic Uri Geller, a close friend, said that Jackson had appeared to be in excellent health.”

  20. 110
    Izzy on 27 Jun 2009 #

    I just wanted to say thank you for this piece getting me back into MJ recently. Beyond the human sadness, in a selfish way I feel sad that he hasn’t left more music behind – only three-and-a-half albums since this song over 25 years ago. I wish he had put the glitter aside for a time and just recorded himself singing, standards, covers, with a small band, whatever – the soap opera has obscured to a great extent what wonderful the records and performances are, and I just wish there were more of them.

  21. 111
    Tom on 27 Jun 2009 #

    BTW, a filleted version of this entry – and my thoughts on 5 other songs (including a Popular SNEAK PREVIEW for 1995) – are in The Times this morning. Print edition only as far as I can tell. Not worth buying a copy specially, it’s just one little column in their special supplement and I’m not saying anything revelatory. But I thought I’d mention it :)

  22. 113
    AndyPandy on 28 Jun 2009 #

    I’ve just about know who Chris Moyles is (but never knowingly heard him)and thought he was just some younger slightly updatedversion of your typical dodgy ‘Radio Wonderful’ dj. And he probably is.

    But in amongst the tributes to Michael Jackson the day after he died Chris Moyles was quoted as saying words to the effect of “Michael Jackson was our generation’s Elvis Presley and I imagine we feel about him what older generations felt about Elvis”.

    I thought that was very true and amongst all the other tributes about the best I heard. Still never thought I’d be biggin up Chris Moyles on here or anyway else for that matter…

    PS Since then I’ve heard the same thing said by some celebrity in America (cant think who).
    But pretty bang on anyway.

  23. 114
    Jonathan Bogart on 29 Jun 2009 #

    So who’s gonna be the Chuck D and offend everyone with “Michael never meant shit to me?”

  24. 115
    Pete on 29 Jun 2009 #

    Er, I did it whilst dancing to Public Enemy at Poptimism on Friday. A touch disingenuous, he just hasn’t meant anything to me since 1981.

  25. 116
    Jonathan Bogart on 29 Jun 2009 #

    I almost said it on Tumblr before deciding to be more specific.

    But I really am interested in how he’ll be seen by upcoming generations, as something to model after or to push against, the way Elvis was for the 60s and 70s. (It’s a perceptive analogy, though certainly not original with Moyles.) The unambiguous love he gets from most (American) pop stars today is a little worrying — don’t they know they’re supposed to kill the buddha? — but it may not have been long enough yet. Chuck D came thirty years after the fact.

  26. 117
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 29 Jun 2009 #

    don maclean is sharpening his quill as we speak

  27. 118
    SteveM on 29 Jun 2009 #

    #114 a few friends have done this over the last few days. i just brush them off as INDIEST PEOPLE EVER BOOOO.

  28. 119
    Billy Smart on 29 Jun 2009 #

    The least enlightening commentary yet came on PM on Radio 4 on Friday, where the opinions were sought of Jeremy Hardy and teenage Glastonbury-goers; “The like Rakes like said like ‘Has everybody heard the good news?’ like?” “I suppose that it might mean more to you if you’re OLD?”

  29. 120
    LondonLee on 29 Jun 2009 #

    Someone at work the other day said his songs were “drivel” and “not about anything”, when I asked him what he meant by “about” he said “you know, like The Beatles and Stones, come on Lee!” – it was that “come on Lee!” that really wound me up as if no thinking human being could probably think otherwise. So I threw “She Loves You” at him as an example of The Beatles’ deep and meaningful songs.

    What was depressing was this was someone younger than me.

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