“Heartbreak Hotel” is not one of the better known Jacksons songs, but it’s one of the songs that points the clearest path to places Michael would go during his solo career. It was the first Jacksons song that was composed by MJ alone, it kicks off his love affair with gothic imagery, and it was the first song that let folks know that Michael may have had a little bit of a problem trusting women. “Billie Jean”, “Who Is It”, “Dirty Diana”-they all have roots in “Heartbreak Hotel”.
The story of the song goes: Michael is in character as a guy who had his heart broken ten years ago (obviously not based in real life, as MJ was 22 at this time). As he wanders into this “hotel” with a new lover, he is confronted by all the lovers of his past (and the person next door, who has apparently been crying for fifteen years) and is justifiably petrified. As you might imagine, shit goes downhill quick. Fear is evident in Michael’s voice-he inhabits this song wholeheartedly. Musical effects amplify the mood, from the sound of breaking glass right before the bridge to a blood-curdling scream (provided by The Jacksons’ sister La Toya) barely a minute into the song. There’s a cinematic bent to the lyrics that would’ve made a great video, had videos been a regular “thing” back in those days.
“Heartbreak Hotel” spent over a month at the #2 position on the R&B charts in early 1981. It was the brothers’ highest charting single during their Epic days. At some point in the ensuing years, the name of the song was changed to “This Place Hotel”. No one has ever given a clear explanation for why this happened. Did the Jacksons (or their record company) want to avoid confusion with the Elvis song of the same name? That seems kinda silly, as there are plenty of songs that share names (including “Heartbreak Hotel”. Whitney Houston had a massive hit with a song of the same name in the late ’90s). I don’t know. All I know is, Michael meant to call the song “Heartbreak Hotel”, Imma call it “Heartbreak Hotel”.