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.