516. ‘Billie Jean’, by Michael Jackson

In my last post, on Kajagoogoo’s ‘Too Shy’ I announced it as the eighties-est moment yet. (I also quite liked the intro.) And here we have a ginormous smash hit that is even more ‘eighties’, from the biggest album of the decade, by the biggest star of the decade. (With another pretty cool intro.)

Billie Jean, by Michael Jackson (his 2nd of seven solo #1s)

1 week, 27th February – 6th March 1983

We won’t come across many songs more famous than ‘Billie Jean’ on this countdown. Everyone knows it, has danced to it, has sang along to it. We’re familiar with every ‘hee’ and every ‘hoo’. But it’s the sort of ultra-ubiquitous song that you don’t – or I don’t, at least – stop to pay attention to anymore. And what stands out now is how much there is going on. In my head, ‘Billie Jean’ is that bass riff and Jackson’s voice. But there’s a lot more than that.

There are strings, finger-clicks, a guitar, and about ten different synth lines and effects. It doesn’t feel cluttered, though. Everything is in its right place, where and when it needs to be. Even the vocal ad-libs feel planned and thought-out beforehand. You could argue that music this well-produced can come across as soulless, and you might have a point. But that would be a harsh criticism of an almost perfect pop song.

Billie Jean is not my lover, She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one… It’s a grown-up topic for a former child star. Billie Jean was an amalgam of the groupies who had thrown themselves at his older brothers in the Jackson 5. But the kid is not my son… And the singer of this record sounds like a different person to the boy from his first #1, ‘One Day in Your Life’ – a false start if ever there was one. This is the moonwalking, ‘hee-hee’-ing MJ, who has been parodied ever since. It’s also the first sign of a troubled Michael Jackson, in the ominous lyrics and the paranoid vocals. Of the fact that being world-famous since the age of ten might have made him a little… odd.

Since it’s the 1980s, and this is Michael Jackson, we also have to take the famous music video into the equation. Like the song as a whole, it’s a video I could picture without ever having watched in its entirety. My main take-aways… Jackson still looks very young (he was only twenty-four), there are more cats than I remembered, and it actually looks pretty dated in its slow-motion sequences and its graphics. It suits the song well, though, which isn’t something you can always say about Jackson’s later videos, where it felt like he was just throwing money at them rather than trying to tell a story.

Famously, ‘Billie Jean’ was one of the first songs by a black artist to get played on MTV. But that was only after the president of CBS records threatened to pull all the label’s other acts from the channel. You could spend a day lost down the rabbit-hole of ‘Billie Jean’ trivia. Producer Quincy Jones, for example, didn’t think it was strong enough to even be an album track. My favourite factoid, though? That someone suggested the song be called ‘Not My Lover’, lest people thought Jackson was singing about tennis legend Billie Jean King.

As is so often the case with the biggest stars, the UK singles charts never really played fair when it came to MJ’s imperial phase. ‘Billie Jean’ got a solitary week on top of the charts. While almost all the other singles taken from ‘Thriller’ –famously there were seven from the one album – were Top 10 hits, he only has one further #1 in this decade. But, despite not being the biggest-selling, or longest-lasting, number one ‘Billie Jean’ will probably outlive us all. Deep into the 21st century it is still regularly voted as ‘Best Pop/Dance/Eighties Song Ever’, while in 2021 it became the first music video from the 1980s to reach a billion YouTube views.

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17 thoughts on “516. ‘Billie Jean’, by Michael Jackson

  1. One of the greatest records of the 80s, its perfect in every way. Jackson on peak vocal emotion, menacing basslines, brilliant arrangement, and the video was state of the MTV art in 1983. it was my fave non Abba video up to that point and beyond. And not least, michael jackson was showing he could write songs, he was bringing stylised choreographed dancing back into popular music in a big way. Kate Bush had done her bit but jacko took it to global level on pop videos. Ive never got fed up with hearing this record. Unlike The Girl Is Mine and Beat It……:)

    • I could stand to hear ‘Beat It’ a few times more than this. But it is a great record, and as iconic as them come. (I’d happily never hear icky, twee ‘The Girl Is Mine’ again though… I’ve never understood what strange girl Paul M and Jacko would have been fighting over…)

  2. I do respect it and realize it’s iconic…but the whole Thriller thing went over my head because I didn’t like that sound….and it lasted for years.

  3. From an American perspective, “Billie Jean” and pretty much the whole Thriller album is a big encapsulation of the ‘80s in what we all think about it being. “Billie Jean” is one of those songs that’s so instantly recognizable once you hear that steady 4/4 drum beat, the Hall and Oates inspired bassline, and synth riff before MJ comes in. My mom always likes to bring up how this song was played at her and dad’s wedding in 1984. Another big mark of “Billie Jean” is the Motown 25 special performance where MJ does his famous moonwalk with everyone in the room going crazy realizing right away how special this was. Aside from being a #1 in America in 1983 it re-charted at #14 in 2014 when a high school student went viral with his talent show performance of “Billie Jean” in the vein of the Motown 25 performance. Even in America where MJ has a lot more #1s through his imperial phase from Off The Wall through HIStory, he only got two #1s from Thriller with this and “Beat It” along with five other Top 10s while Bad gave him five #1s, a record tied with Katy Perry for the most #1s off an album, despite Bad not being as successful as Thriller though it’s most likely a result of the higher chart turnover rate in the late-‘80s before Soundscan was implemented where with Thriller there were a lot more long running #1s.

    • Yeah, I don’t think Michael Jackson was ever quite as big a deal in the UK as in the US. My mum was in New York, literally in Times Square, when his death was announced and she said it was mass hysteria… (She may have exaggerated slightly…) After his death, Billie Jean re-entered the Top 10 but for some reason ‘Man in the Mirror’ was the one that took off and almost made #1…

      • From what I’ve read, he seemed to get bigger overseas in the later part of his career when he was widely seen as a reclusive and eccentric freak that really seemed to affect his standing in America considering he didn’t perform here much after the Bad tour aside from his big 30th anniversary celebration concert extravaganza he had at Madison Square Garden in the days just before the 9/11 attacks. Even with his bigger chart success in the US, he still has some weird misses like “Smooth Criminal” being a #7 hit despite it being so well known even more than some of the Bad #1s along with “Thriller,” the song peaking at #4. The day Michael Jackson died was my 10th birthday so I remember that day well mainly for what I was doing for my birthday and didn’t really experience much of the news aside from some of the coverage I saw on TV and one moment that’s stuck in my mind from that summer when with my family on vacation in Orlando my mom was mentioning to someone about my birthday being on June 25th and the person replying how isn’t that the day Michael Jackson died.

  4. I still love this song, even though my favorite album of his was Off The Wall. You can tell that his transition, physically, was taking place. If you look at him on the cover of OTW, he still has has ethnic, normal nose. In this video, he has already started to have his nose slimmed down. As time goes on, he starts looking more and more bizarre. He acted like he didn’t want to be black anymore. I always thought he was handsome, just the way he was.

    • I just compared the two album covers and you are right… Also his cheekbones are sharper on the Thriller cover, though that could just be dieting!

      Very sad to think of the mental problems that turned him into the oddball that I grew up with in the ’90s. I know he had the accident with the fireworks, and the skin condition, but still… What a mess.

      • He had a weird life. He was the eighth child of ten…possibly eleven (?). His father was abusive and whipped the kids a lot. Long term abuse will mess up anyone. As talented as he was, he didn’t strike me as liking himself. All of his sisters had nose jobs. There was a lot of unhappiness, it appears.

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