The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Michael Jackson – “Bille Jean”

HIT #1: March 5, 1983

STAYED AT #1: 7 weeks

There is before Thriller, and there is after. Michael Jackson’s sixth solo album has nine songs. Jackson released seven of those songs as singles, and all seven of them made it into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. Thriller has sold something on the order of 66 million copies — sextuple diamond, with another six million copies left over as spare change. When Jackson released Thriller, MTV almost never played Black artists, and Jackson’s record label had to fight to get his “Billie Jean” clip into rotation. When the Thriller album cycle ended, Jackson was the public face of MTV, and pop music was playing with a whole new rulebook. Thriller wasn’t just an album. It was a cultural spectacle on the level of Star Wars.

It didn’t happen all at once, though it probably felt like it did. Jackson released Thriller right around Thanksgiving 1982. The LP didn’t reach #1 on the album charts until late February, when it finally ended the months-long reign of Men At Work’s unlikely smash Business As Usual. A week after Thriller hit #1, “Billie Jean,” the second single from the album, finally made it to the top of the Hot 100. In the seven weeks that “Billie Jean” held down the #1 spot, the world rearranged itself around the song.

Three years before Thriller, Jackson had released the slick and sophisticated dance odyssey Off The Wall. Off The Wall had done about as well an album could do in 1979: 10 million copies sold, two #1 singles. Jackson considered this to be a failure. He wanted more. So Jackson and producer Quincy Jones labored hard over the follow-up, tweaking and reworking every minute detail until every song sounded like a potential smash. Along the way, they essentially invented the ’80s version of blockbuster pop music — a sleek and streamlined and expensive sound that exists within no genre and excludes no potential audiences. Jackson was 24 years old when Thriller came out. That’s Alexander The Great shit. Maybe you have to be that young to change the world.

But despite all the naked desire for approval that Jackson showed when he made Thriller — the need to conquer — Thriller is not a happy album. That’s more clear on “Billie Jean” than it is anywhere else. “Billie Jean” is a story about a man who’s being told he’s a father and who refuses to believe it: “The kid is not my son.” In his autobiography, Jackson said that he’d been surrounded by Billie Jeans as a child. When the Jackson 5 were on tour, Jackson claimed, girls would try to say that they’d gotten pregnant by his older brothers. Jackson was baffled and disgusted.

It may not have been so simple. Jackson, already insanely famous, had a stalker. Quincy Jones claims that a disturbed woman wrote Jackson letters, claiming her son was his. She supposedly told him to kill himself at a particular hour, that she’d kill herself and the baby at the same time so that they could all be together. Jackson wrote “Billie Jean” in 1981 — the same year that Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon, that John Hinkley, Jr. shot Ronald Reagan. Jackson had reason to be afraid.

Jackson loved the movie E.T. so much that he contributed the song “Someone In The Dark” to its audiobook the year before Thriller came out. Maybe Jackson had already come to think of himself as an alien, before the rest of the world came to see him that way. Maybe “Billie Jean” is, on some level, a document of Jackson pushing away the fame that he’d worked so hard to achieve — a slightly disguised version of what Jackson would come out and say in plain language years later on “Leave Me Alone.”

“Billie Jean” is an absolutely magical piece of dance-pop, but it’s also a hard and angry and paranoid record. On Off The Wall, Jackson was a graceful and exuberant singer. On “Billie Jean,” Jackson has become a bundle of tics. He uses his voice as a percussion instrument, grunting and stuttering and hiccuping and yelping — a feathery, tourettic version of James Brown’s old style. He sounds like he’s trying to break his way out of the track.

Jackson also sounds guilty and conflicted. The narrator on “Billie Jean” seems to violently reject the “schemes and plans” of this woman. The idea that he could be a father seems to stress him out to the point of illness. But part of him seems to know that Billie Jean might be telling the truth. He admits that the baby’s eyes “were like mine.” He seems to argue with himself: “Remember to always think twice! Don’t think twice! Do think twice!” Regret and fear and rage have all transformed him into such a ball of nerves that he’s lost all sense of himself. For a pop song, that’s some strikingly layered characterization.

Musically, “Billie Jean” seems to breathe with Jackson as he locks into his anxiety-blackout fugue state. The song starts out with cold, dry drums — loud, simple, unrelenting Telltale Heart shit. The bassline, played by the Brothers Johnson member and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” sideman Louis Johnson, churns mechanically, with a malicious and feverish edge. Jackson made Johnson play every bass he had until he found the one that had a dark enough tone. (The Brothers Johnson’s highest-charting single, 1976’s “I’ll Be Good To You,” peaked at #3. It’s a 7.) Quincy Jones got Jackson to sing some of his vocals through an eight-foot cardboard tube so that they’d echo just right.

There are layers and layers of sound on “Billie Jean” — little hooks that only jump out after you’ve heard it dozens of times. All the individual musical touches are things of beauty — the shivering descending string flourish, the echoing chicken-scratch guitars, the glassy keyboard tones. Deep in the mix, the session saxophonist Tom Scott plays a Lyricon, a sort of electronic flute. “Quincy calls it ‘ear candy,'” Scott later said of his contribution. “You’re not conscious of it. It’s a subliminal element that works.” “Billie Jean” is full of subliminal elements like that. Every one of those elements serves the song’s almighty groove.

For Jackson, the groove came first. Jackson came up with the “Billie Jean” groove at home, programming his drum machine himself. In Jackson’s 1981 “Billie Jean” demo, the lyrics are half-finished, and Jackson sometimes just mutters unformed words just to keep the melody. But the beat itself is already fully formed.

Jackson may have taken bits and pieces of that groove from elsewhere. Daryl Hall claims that the “Billie Jean” groove is the groove from Hall & Oates’ 1982 chart-topper “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” Hall has said that Jackson admitted this to him backstage, and Hall never seemed too worried about it. For his part, Quincy Jones has insisted that Jackson stole “Billie Jean” notes from Donna Summer’s 1982 cover of “State Of Independence,” a 1981 song from Jon Anderson and Vangelis. (Anderson’s band Yes will eventually appear in this column. Donna Summer and Vangelis already have.) Jones had produced Summer’s version of “State Of Independence,” and Jackson had sung in its all-star choir. (Summer’s “State Of Independence” peaked at #41.)

If you’re looking for them, you can hear echoes of “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” or “State Of Independence” in “Billie Jean.” But those two songs don’t sound like “Billie Jean.” Nothing does. “Billie Jean” is its own thing. It’s a twisting, wriggling, shifting cinematic freakout — a freakout that works as dance music. That was key. Jackson wanted to dance.

We haven’t talked about Jackson’s dancing yet. The “Billie Jean” video is important here. Steve Barron, the director who’d helmed videos for the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?” and Toto’s “Africa,” directed “Billie Jean.” Jackson and Jones recruited him because they liked “Don’t You Want Me?” “Billie Jean” has a rep as being one of the all-time great music videos, but I don’t think that much of the video itself. It’s arresting, but it’s cheap, too. Jackson struts down the street, and slabs of concrete light up under his feet. A mysterious trench-coated figure stalks Jackson, presumably with ill intent, but he discovers Jackson’s magical powers. Jackson won’t show up in a Polaroid. He tosses a coin into a homeless guy’s cup, and the homeless guy suddenly has a fancy white suit on. In the end, Jackson disappears into thin air, and cops come to arrest the guy in the trench coat.

The video has nothing much to do with the song. The storyline is incoherent, and the visuals are thin and flimsy. (It always drove me nuts that some but not all of the sidewalk slabs would light up under Jackson’s feet.) Jackson himself turns the “Billie Jean” video into something bewitching. He’s got Bruce Lee levels of intensity in his eyes, and he moves with a strange and catlike assurance — dipping, twisting, kicking, sliding from one pose to the next with baffling speed. He’s liquid poetry. He’s breathtaking.

There are famous stories about what it took for MTV to start playing “Billie Jean.” MTV’s execs had come from the world of rock radio, and they thought of MTV as a rock station, even though they played videos from White R&B artists like Hall & Oates or Spandau Ballet. At the same time, labels, convinced that MTV wouldn’t play Black artists, wouldn’t give Black artists the budgets to make the kinds of videos that might get played on MTV.

According to some people, MTV wasn’t opposed to playing Michael Jackson videos, but they wanted him to make a video for “Beat It,” a song that’ll soon end up in this column, because they thought that fit their format better. Walter Yetnikoff, the boss of CBS Records, has claimed that he threatened to pull all the videos from CBS artists if MTV didn’t play “Billie Jean.” In I Want My MTV, the oral history written by Rob Tannenbaum and my former boss Craig Marks, there’s a whole chapter about “Billie Jean,” with different people claiming different things. MTV did eventually put “Billie Jean” into rotation, but only after the song had hit #1 on the Hot 100. By the time Jackson made his “Thriller” video, MTV was so dependent on Michael Jackson that they helped pay for the clip’s production. (“Thriller” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.)

Effectively, Michael Jackson forced MTV to change its perception of itself. He’s what proved that MTV wasn’t just a rock station; it had the great responsibility of presenting all of pop music to the world. In forcing his way in, Michael Jackson shifted the focus of pop music. After disco had fallen off, Black artists had lost their centrality within the pop music sphere. Frizzy-haired studio-rockers and twitchy new wavers had replaced them. Michael Jackson changed that. He didn’t shift things around to put R&B back on top, exactly. Instead, he shifted all ideas of what R&B was, what rock was, what pop was. He made himself bigger than pop music.

Another thing happened while “Billie Jean” was at #1: Michael Jackson performed at the Motown 25 special. At that point, Jackson hadn’t recorded for Motown in years, but he agreed to reunite with the original Jackson 5 lineup on the show if he could also get a solo performance. Onstage at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium a couple of weeks after “Billie Jean” hit #1, Jackson lip-synced to “Billie Jean” in front of an amped-up crowd. (The show’s producers didn’t think the live band could replicate the “Billie Jean” backing track well enough.) Jackson’s Motown 25 performance is a physical marvel, and it hits its climax on the bridge, when Jackson moonwalks for the first time. When Jackson hits the moonwalk, you can hear the crowd lose its collective mind.

Michael Jackson didn’t invent the moonwalk, though he did give the move its name. Decades earlier, jazz performers like Cab Calloway had been moonwalking onstage. (There’s a great, mindboggling YouTube video of early moonwalkers.) According to legend, Jackson learned the move from Shalamar’s Jeffrey Daniel after he’d seen Daniel hit the move on Soul Train. (Shalamar’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “The Second Time Around,” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.) But I don’t know whether anyone had ever deployed the moonwalk with the theatrical flair that Jackson brought to Motown 25.

In any case, nobody had ever dazzled that many people at once with the moonwalk. By the time the Motown 25 special aired on MTV in May, “Billie Jean” had fallen from the top of the charts, and another Michael Jackson song was at #1. But that moonwalk is still inextricably tied up with the legend of “Billie Jean.” 34 million people tuned in to NBC to watch Motown 25. Two of those people were Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and both of them called Jackson the next day to congratulate him.

Michael Jackson was an incredible musician, of course, but he also understood entertainment the same way that Astaire and Kelly did. MTV had already become a hugely important force in pop music before Thriller, but Jackson made the physical performance the central part of his presentation. People weren’t watching MTV to see the “Billie Jean” video, exactly. They were watching to see Michael Jackson. In the months and years that followed, the rest of the music world had to catch up. Pretty soon, you couldn’t just sit behind a piano and make emotional faces. You had to perform. The supernova stars who followed in Jackson’s wake, the Princes and Madonnas of the world, were the ones who absorbed that lesson.

In a lot of ways, “Billie Jean” was a whole new beginning. Michael Jackson will appear in this column a great many more times. And after “Billie Jean,” the songs that show up in this column won’t look or sound the same. “Billie Jean” is the moment that the game changed. All the other songs that will appear in this column — even the ones written and released before “Billie Jean” — will be post-“Billie Jean” songs.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1984, Pepsi signed Michael Jackson and his brothers to an endorsement deal worth millions. The company sponsored the Jacksons’ Victory tour, and the Jacksons appeared in a couple of Pepsi ads that reworked “Billie Jean,” turning it into a jingle. During the filming of one of those ads, some pyro went off early and set Michael Jackson’s hair on fire. He needed reconstructive surgery, and it may have been a turning point in his life. But Pepsi still used the ads! Here’s the ad that did not cause grievous injury to Michael Jackson:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Alfonso Ribeiro doing an honestly pretty great striptease to “Billie Jean” on a 1994 episode of The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air:

(Will Smith will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the 2000 movie Charlie’s Angels where Drew Barrymore gets into a wire-fu fight and then attempts to moonwalk to “Billie Jean”:

(A song from the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the shockingly decent solo-acoustic “Billie Jean” cover that Neil Finn recorded for an Australian radio-show challenge in 2000:

(Finn’s band Crowded House’s highest-charting single, 1986’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2014, “Billie Jean” returned to the Hot 100, climbing all the way up to #14, because of a viral video of a kid named Brett Nichols lip-syncing to it at a high-school talent show. Here’s that video:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Culture Club’s sensitive chiffon sigh “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” peaked at #2 behind “Billie Jean.” It’s an 8.

(Please don’t ask me to explain the blackface in the “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” video. I don’t know what’s happening there.)