May 09


FT + Popular/145 comments • 14,002 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. 121
    LondonLee on 29 Jun 2009 #

    I vaguely remember Danny Baker telling a story of him announcing the death of Elvis at a punk club and the crowd cheering which made him realize that punk was over because the scene had become full of sheep-like morons.

  2. 122
    Tom Lawrence on 29 Jun 2009 #

    LondonLee: the word “rockist” was invented for such people. Deploy with full venom! ;)

  3. 123
    viraj on 5 Jul 2009 #

    popular song

  4. 124
    punctum on 2 Oct 2009 #

    The child is turning into an adult, and doesn’t like it. All the spring and bounce of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” has solidified into an air of petrified wariness. The ceaseless multirhythmic matrix remains in “Billie Jean” but now the rhythms and guttural punctuation whoops are all tensed, coiled, hunched into its thin, turned-up lapels. Whereas Jackson previously yelled out of exultation, now his gasps tremble in their own dread. Now the jagged guitar lines and cross-cutting percussion are like surfing barbed wire rather than waves of passion.

    But it was those waves of passion which led Jackson into his own shadow; here he is being pursued by someone whose child may or may not be his – and the tension is made uncomfortable (and therefore generated) by the knowledge that, despite his would-be assertive denials in the chorus, he suspects that he is likely to be the father; witness the anguished howl of “People always told me, be careful what you do!” or the quivering “oh no” which responds to “his eyes were like mine.” He is shitting himself.

    The surface, however, has to stay as smooth as possible; he moonwalks perhaps to avoid his bowels and bile spilling out onto the video’s neon Yellow Brick Road. On a musical level, despite Quincy Jones’ usual, sublime deployment of space and echo – and the string synth exclamation marks in the second and third choruses may betray an early Lexicon Of Love acknowledgement – “Billie Jean” is maybe the blackest of all Jackson’s number ones, and in all senses; its circumferential catwalk of a bassline, its forceful, decisive, dead-on beat, its recoiling handclaps present a new dynamic to pop sonics, but its primeval fear…and that tom-tom beat, buried amid the gloss but still at the song’s centre…connect it directly to “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” In addition, Jackson’s glaring, epileptic, wracked vocal is an exemplary portrait of someone on the crown point of falling apart.

    It’s always easy to get complacent about Thriller, but if you listen through the entire album, even for the three hundredth time, its hidden strengths repeatedly reveal themselves; it did get a bad press at the time of its release, probably because of not being Off The Wall, and because of the admittedly irredeemable “The Girl Is Mine” being its lead single, as well as the various hammy cameos, but go beyond all of that and rediscover the serene silicon bleeps of “Human Nature” or seldom-praised gems like “Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady In My Life”…Jackson at this stage still has a firm, acute and astute grasp on both soul and pop. Likewise, “Billie Jean” climbed relatively slowly up the chart (at least before the video was unveiled and the Motown 25th Anniversary performance witnessed) but it was a grower and is growing and electrifying still.

  5. 125
    thefatgit on 4 Dec 2009 #

    An aside, and at a respectful time since his passing, I personally feel BJ stands as his greatest achievement in pop. Enough has been said by others that more than adequately sums up my feeling of this record, and the album for that matter.

    But back to the aside…it must have been almost a year after BJ’s release that I came across a reggae compilation tape (the title of which escapes me) and on it was a track by Shinehead “Billie Jean/Mamma Used To Say”. It’s a stripped out halfway house between dub and ska. The 2 songs segued together over a simple drum machine and electric piano. Parenthesised by Shinehead whistling “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly”, he sings a much slowed down version of both songs in a wonderfully haunting, melancholic way. It was the first time that I could distinguish all the lyrics from BJ. I never had that trouble with the lyrics from Junior’s track. For a while I wondered why Shinehead had chosen those 2 tracks, but then it struck me that both songs are based on received wisdom. The listener recieves MJ’s advice, and Junior passing on his own mother’s advice.

    Billie Jean, I have heard many times since. Mamma Used To Say, less so.
    But it’s the Shinehead version that gives me chills.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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. .

  10. 130
    thefatgit on 22 Jan 2010 #

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


  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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?


  14. 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).

  15. 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).

  16. 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.

  17. 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!

  18. 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

  19. 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.

  20. 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

  21. 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…

  22. 142
    hectorthebat on 7 Nov 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Beats Per Minute (USA) – The Top 100 Tracks of the 1980s (2011) 1
    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 1
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Consequence of Sound (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2012) 42
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 85
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 58
    NPR (USA) – The 300 Most Important American Records of the 20th Century (1999)
    Pause & Play (USA) – 10 Songs of the 80’s (2003)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    PopMatters (USA) – The 100 Best Songs Since Johnny Rotten Roared (2003) 5
    Popdose (USA) – 100 (+21) Favorite Singles of the Last 50 Years (2008) 24
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 5
    Rolling Stone (USA) – 40 Songs That Changed the World (2007)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 22
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 50 Best Michael Jackson Songs (2014) 1
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 58
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 58
    San Antonio Express-News (USA) – Rock ‘n’ roll timeline (2004)
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s (2012) 1
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 101-200
    Swellsville, Chuck Eddy (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 80s (1990) 31
    TIME (USA) – The All-Time 100 Songs (2011)
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 80s (2011) 2
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs from the Past 25 Years (2003) 2
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 15
    Freaky Trigger (UK) – Top 100 Songs of All Time (2005) 19
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    Mojo (UK) – 80 from the 80s: Our Fave 45s for Each Year, 1980-1989 (2007) 1
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of NME’s Lifetime (2012) 13
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 18
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 57
    New Musical Express (UK) – Classic Singles (magazine feature 2006-2007)
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 150 Singles of All Time (1987) 24
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 63
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Q (UK) – The 80 Best Records of the 80s (2006) 1
    Uncut (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles from the Post-Punk Era (2001) 22
    Wanadoo (UK) – The 20 Best Songs of the 80s
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 22
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 5
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 50
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The 500 Best Songs of All Time (2004) 53
    Zounds (Germany) – The Top 30 Songs of All Time + Top 10 by Decade (1992) 38
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Rolling Stone (France) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 18
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The Top 150 Songs from the 20th Century (1998) 50
    Cameron Adams (Australia) -The Best Songs from the 100 Must Have Albums (2013)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – Singles of the Year
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 1
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 1

  23. 143
    mapman132 on 19 Nov 2014 #

    Slowly making my way through the Popular archives, I was surprised to encounter my own comment two spots above. Forgotten I had posted about that. Anyhow, I wouldn’t necessarily consider “Billie Jean” the best single of the 80’s, but it’s possibly the most iconic. It got me thinking about which records would be considered the most iconic from each decade. Of course the answers would probably differ on different sides of the Atlantic, but from my US-centric perspective: 1940’s: “In The Mood” (technically 1939 – close enough), 1950’s: “Rock Around The Clock”, 1960’s: “Satisfaction” (or maybe “She Loves You”), 1970’s: “Stayin’ Alive” (at least in the US – BoRhap in the UK perhaps??), 1980’s: “Billie Jean”, 1990’s: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, 2000’s: can’t decide, 2010’s: too soon.

    Also, that’s got to be one of the biggest Critic Watch postings I’ve yet seen. 9/10 from me.

  24. 144
    swanstep on 20 Nov 2014 #

    @mapman132. Your attempt at a ‘most iconic per decade’ list reminded me of this XTC skit.

  25. 145
    Gareth Parker on 3 May 2021 #

    100% with Tom here. I also find Billie Jean to be a disquieting, troubling record. I love it, but it’s a 9 rather than a 10 for me.

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