I can’t talk about “Billie Jean” without bringing up Motown 25. The special, which celebrated the anniversary of the label that brought Michael Jackson (and many, many others) to fame’s doorstep aired on NBC in mid-May 1983, about two weeks before I turned 7.
The show was taped in March, two months before its air date, and in the pre-internet days that resulted in a pretty highly anticipated show. My two aunts (one of whom was maybe 23, the other just home after her junior year at Hofstra) and my cousin (late teens?) were all over it and made plans to watch it together, because if you were a black female between the ages of 10 and 25 in 1983, you were in love with Michael Jackson. I was already a huge MJ fan at this time, and was chomping at the bit to see him on TV. Michael did not make regular TV appearances (Motown 25 was his first in over two years) and MTV was still over a decade away for me. Also, I don’t think New York City cable companies were even carrying MTV at this time. Anyway, moot point.
Then the bomb dropped: I wasn’t going to be able to watch Motown 25, or at least Michael’s performance. My bedtime was 9 PM, and Michael’s performance was scheduled for the back half of the telecast. I was crushed, although my grandmother assured me that the whole show was going to be taped on our brand spankin’ new VCR–our first!–and that I’d be able to watch it the next afternoon when I got home from school.
My aunts and cousin, being the angels that they were, spirited me out of bed and snuck me into their room, away from my grandmother’s eyes. I got to watch his brothers’ performance, which was already exciting (and the first time I saw all six Jackson brothers perform together.) Then the brothers left, and Michael created motherfucking black magic. His performance of “Billie Jean” was transfixing. For a little kid, it was like seeing someone walk (or slide backwards) on water. The moonwalk was amazing in and of itself, but the entire performance was amazing. All of us were awed, although one of my family members was quick to point out that Michael appeared to have gotten something called a “nose job”. The next afternoon, I played like I hadn’t seen it before and got to watch it again on video. I was later found out (like minutes after I watched the performance for a second time, IIRC), but I also don’t remember getting anything than a semi-stern talking-to.
The Motown 25 performance is a part of history, and plays a big part in the public transition from “aw, Michael’s a cute kid” to “aw, Michael’s a teen idol” to “holy shit, this dude’s a superstar!” It’s a transcendent five minutes, and still the most amazing televised musical performance I have ever witnessed. Back in late 2001 or early 2002, I was managing the music department in an electronics/record store. We threw an MJ DVD into the main system so that it played in every department in the store. The Motown 25 performance of “Billie Jean” came on and everything shut the fuck down. People stopped pricing out big screen TVs and game systems and it seemed like everyone-customers, employees-stopped and watched. And this was a) 20 years after the original performance, when everyone had already seen it 1,000 times, and b) after MJ’s image had become…uh, quite tarnished. To this day, throw that performance on in a room full of people over the age of 30 (particularly folks of color or folks not from the U.S.) and conversations will stop as all eyes gravitate to whatever screen that performance is playing on.
And we haven’t even gotten to how great “Billie Jean” the song is! It’s one of my ten if not five favorite songs of all time. “Rock With You” might be my favorite MJ song from a sentimental standpoint, but “Billie Jean” is the better composition, and it’s certainly worth mentioning that the song was written and produced by Michael himself. Quincy shares the production credit, but if you listen to the demo version of “Billie Jean” that appeared on the deluxe version of Thriller back in 2001, you’ll realize that musically it sounds fairly identical to the finished product. It’s certainly the best song he’s ever written. Culturally, it’s got a lot of weight to it, too. “Billie Jean” was one of the songs that broke the color barrier on MTV (even if it wasn’t the first video by a Black artist to be played on the network, it was the first by a Black artist that had a predominantly R&B sensibility). It spent nearly three months at the top of the Billboard soul charts and nearly two months atop the pop list. It gave Michael’s core fans relief that Thriller wasn’t going to be a crossover sell out bust after the feint move of “The Girl Is Mine”, and it changed public perception of MJ from “that cute kid who was the lead singer of The Jacksons” to “teen idol” to “motherfucking superstar phenomenon.”
Sure it cribs some of its musical sensibility from Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”, but they are ultimately two different animals. Michael inhabits the song vocally, sounding alternately transfixed, bewildered and racked with pain. It’s a singing job worthy of an Oscar, if you catch my drift. Of course, that’s also assuming that “Billie Jean” is a story that came from fiction or someone else’s life, which has never been exactly made clear.
It’s weird how innocent MJ was considered at the time of “Billie Jean”’s release (and for at least a couple of years after), and how clearly not innocent the lyrics of “Billie Jean” are. Michael himself said that there wasn’t a specific “Billie Jean” who was the inspiration for the song, but rather the character was a composite of women who’d attempted to extort his brothers (and him, I’m assuming) claiming to be the mothers of their children. There’s also the fact that Michael, for a time, was stalked by a woman who claimed he was the father of her children and mailed him a package that included a gun and instructions to kill himself at a certain time while she would simultaneously kill herself and her (their?) children. Creepy fucking shit. I mean, creepy fucking shit that resulted in an amazing work of art, but I’m not sure if I would trade the experience of something like that happening to me personally for a great song.