“Billie Jean is not only one of the best singles ever recorded, it is one of the greatest art works of the twentieth century, a multi-leveled sound sculpture whose slinky, synthetic panther sheen still yields up previously unnoticed details and nuance nearly thirty years on.”
Music Critic Mark Fisher
“Billie Jean is a masterpiece, and one that doesn’t lose its strange, dark power, no matter how any times you hear it.”
Rolling Stone 2009
“It’s hot rhythmically. It’s hot sonically, because the instrumentation is so minimal, you can really hear everything. It’s hot melodically. It’s hot lyrically. It’s hot vocally. It affects you physically, emotionally, and even spiritually.”
“BILLIE JEAN ALSO SAW A FORMER KID SINGING STAR COMING OF AGE. THIS WAS THE MOMENT WHEN HE BLOSSOMED INTO THE LATE 20TH CENTURY’S DOMINANT POP ICON, MICHAEL JACKSON. BILLIE JEAN IS A SONG THAT, TO THIS DAY, REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST SONICALLY ARRESTING SONGS EVER ON TOP 40 RADIO. IN 1983 NO ONE HAD EVER HEARD ANYTHING QUITE LIKE IT. IT IS A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF WHAT I CALL ‘SONIC PERSONALITY’.
Bruce Swedien IN THE STUDIO WITH MICHAEL JACKSON
“Jackson’s masterpiece remains one of the most popular dance songs in the world, in addition to being one of the most critically acclaimed.”
Joseph Vogel MAN IN THE MUSIC
“A MUSICIAN KNOWS HIT MATERIAL. IT HAS TO FEEL RIGHT. EVERYTHING HAS TO FEEL IN PLACE. IT FULFILLS YOU AND IT MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD. YOU KNOW IT WHEN YOU HEAR IT. THAT’S HOW I FELT ABOUT BILLIE JEAN.”
As Michael explained in his autobiography, MOONWALK, Billie Jean isn’t a real person. She is a composite of people who appeared in the lives of both Michael and his brothers. “I remember one girl who used to drive us completely crazy. I really think she believed in her mind she belonged to me. There was another girl who claimed I had gone to bed with her, and she made threats. There have been a couple of serious scuffles at the gate of Hayvenhurst, and they can get dangerous. People yell into the intercom that Jesus sent them to speak to me and God told them to come…unusual and unsettling stuff.” MJ
A study of Michael Jackson’s musical artistry leads immediately to BILLIE JEAN. At age 23, Michael wrote, composed, arranged and co-produced a piece of music that embodies paradoxes, tensions, magic and mystery of its creator. (Joseph Vogel) Called one of the most revolutionary songs in the history of popular music, it enjoyed seven weeks at #1 in 1983. Mark Fisher explained that allowing it to play, really listening, you are soon bewitched by the drama and seduced into its sonic fictional space. In 2005, 22 years after its release, it was named the greatest dance record of all time. Michael recalled wanting to write a song with a great base line. “A few days later, this bass line and this melody crept over me.” He was so consumed by constructing the song, he didn’t even realize smoke was coming out of his car until a motorcyclist drove by and mouthed that his car was on fire. “Even while we were getting help and finding an alternative way to get where we were going, I was silently composing additional material.”
“For Jackson, then, part of the emotional energy of the song emanates from these very personal, and very disturbing, experiences. Yet beyond its literal narrative and background, Billie Jean is a symbol for many things. She represents fear, distrust, and deception; she represents the seductions and trappings of fame; she represents ‘lies becoming the truth’.”
MAN IN THE MIRROR Joseph Vogel
Michael’s astounding musical instincts, creativity and craftsmanship are evident in every part of Billie Jean…not being swayed by Quincy Jones to change the title to ‘not my lover’ so as not to confuse it with tennis player, Billie Jean King…and, not changing the introduction because Q thought it was too long. Michael knew what he wanted and refused to veer from the vision he heard and saw in his head. Billie Jean rewards close and repeated listens.
In an interview with MTV in 1999, Michael talked about working with Steve Barren on the short film. “It’s kind of surreal. It’s different. I didn’t come up with that concept. I thought he had wonderful ideas and let him go with it. The only part I wrote in the piece…I said, I just want a section where I could dance a little, cuz he’d said no dancing in the whole piece…I said just give me one little moment. So, that whole section where you see this long street and a billboard with these two girls, one of them is Billie Jean…where I’m dancing…that’s the only part I contributed.” When viewing the short film, one soon realizes that the section Michael wrote into the piece defines its phenomenal success and illustrates Michael’s performance genius.
“MTV at first refused to play the video, citing its policy of only playing rock music. However, CBS Chairman Walter Yetnikoff, who had just shelled out huge money for the video, in addition to his interest in promoting THRILLER, would not accept the denial of his biggest artist. ‘I said to MTV, I’m pulling everything we have off the air, all our product. I’m not going to give you any more videos. And I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you didn’t want to play music by a black guy.’ MTV caved and soon put Billie Jean into heavy rotation due to audience demand. With that decision, the wall came tumbling down. Indeed, Jackson not only opened the door for himself, but also for a whole generation of black artists.”
MAN IN THE MIRROR
Michael’s live performances of Billie Jean are legendary, putting the entire world under his magical spell. MOTOWN 25 offered Michael’s ground-breaking performance of Billie Jean, seen by more than fifty million viewers, it is aptly described by Martin Scorsese when he said, “Every step he took was absolutely precise and fluid at the same time.” This cultural event introduced an iconic style that lives to this day: the glove, the jacket, the Fedora. “It’s like watching quicksilver in motion.” Christopher Smith wrote, “I’m pretty blasé about crowd response, but this was different. It wasn’t a roar; more the sound of simultaneous shrieks from all over the auditorium, like everyone being scared at once. A couple rows in front of me, two women in my sight line were violently hugging, almost tackling each other, while riveted on the stage, as though they were unconsciously trying to hold onto the moment more than each other.” IT WAS MICHAEL JACKSON’S CORONATION…as described in ONE.
“A BODY THAT FORGETS ITS FETTERS, ITS WEIGHT…FREEING IT FROM ALL SOCIAL MIMICRY, FROM ALL GRAVITY AND CONFORMITY.”
Philosopher Alain Badiou
“Once the music plays, it creates me. The instruments move me, through me, they control me. Sometimes I’m uncontrollable and it just happens.” Michael Jackson
“Instead of waving a magic wand, Michael used h is hands and feet. Dancing fiercely, he used them like props, extending his average-sized 120 pound frame with every dramatic movement, furthering the illusion that he was larger than life. When you watched him dance, it was a pretty safe bet that your eyes were being led in one or two places: to a hand catching light around him or to his feet.”
KING OF STYLE
Michael said that Billie Jean was his favorite song to perform live…”but only when I don’t have to perform it the same way. The audience wants a certain thing. I have to do the moonwalk in that spot. I’d like to do a different version.”
Viewing Michael’s Billie Jean live performances is proof positive that LOVE SURVIVES. Grace and emotional sincerity, Michael’s artistic and sexual persona radiate, offering us a lifetime of cherished love. His rhythmic stimulation influences our consciousness. BODY AS CANVAS, an immortal work of art, Michael’s images reveal truths when no language is needed. We dive into Michael’s magic waters, our senses washed into a state of bliss. Starting with Michael’s BAD World Tour, where audiences had an opportunity to see Michael perform Billie Jean for the first time on solo tour…moving to his Dangerous World Tour where the stage moved from on high, down…Michael’s gaze locked onto his audience’s stare…to his epic MTV performance as he reminded his Fans and the general public that, “I’m here to stay.” And, then, the brilliance of Michael’s History World Tour performances where Michael appeared wearing a wrinkled “T” shirt, carrying a suitcase…all inspired to remember the history of Billie Jean. Theatre at its finest, the audiences are invited to join in the drama as Michael pulls out each iconic piece of Billie Jean memorabilia. GENIUS. When Michael brought this theatre to Madison Square Garden in New York City on September 8 and 10, 2001, the audience went into a frenzy. If you want to see pure ecstasy, watch the faces of the fans as Michael plays with them…pulling out the glove, the jacket, the Fedora…remembering that Michael had not done a live concert in the US since the BAD World Tour in 1987-89! It is impossible not to get caught up in the excitement and pure joy those fans were feeling. The THIS IS IT rehearsal is both endearing and painful to watch for we know that Michael is rehearsing Billie Jean for the final time. Whenever I watch it, my tears are uncontrollable. There is also joy in seeing Michael create, and watching his dancers’ happiness, for they are in the presence of the genius who has inspired them to perform.
Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean took on a life of its own, changing popular music and profoundly impacting our culture. Like every facet of Michael’s artistry, Billie Jean offers layers and layers of art, its timelessness informs its place in history. Recorded performance, short film performance, live performance, style…all set standards that have yet to be reached even into today. The genius, the freshness, the vision were all ahead of their time, surprising audiences with their magic…and, gifting us with enjoyment for a lifetime.
“Men vent great passions by breaking into song, as we observe in the most grief-stricken and the most joyful.”
Thank you, Michael. Your art lives today and for all time.