The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 6, Michael Jackson – Billie Jean

Despite the allegations against him, certain of his songs have been deemed too good to lose, and Billie Jean tops the list

Billie Jean is not cancelled. Whatever personal arrangement you may have come to regarding the life and music of Michael Jackson, the culture at large has made its decision. In radio stations, gyms, cafes and wedding dancefloors (at least when they were open) certain of his songs have been deemed too good to lose, and Billie Jean tops the list. On one level that makes sense: it’s Jackson’s biggest-selling solo single, and one of the biggest hits by anyone ever. Yet it remains a thoroughly bizarre record, spawned in the darker precincts of Jackson’s imagination.

Billie Jean was his Rubicon. From the Jackson 5’s first singles through to Off the Wall’s hymns to the weekend, Jackson had a preternatural gift for making people feel good. Billie Jean, however, reeks with the paranoia that came to dominate Jackson’s career. It is a hunted, haunted song about a paternity claim, which forsakes the lushness of his earlier work for stark, neurotic future-funk. While Thriller’s title track is cartoonishly scary, Billie Jean is authentically scared.

Thriller was the first time that Jackson acknowledged his celebrity in his songs, and perhaps the last time that his celebrity didn’t define his music. He wrote Billie Jean in 1981, a sweaty year for the famous. In the aftermath of John Lennon’s murder and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan by a Jodie Foster obsessive, celebrities learned to fear their fans. According to producer Quincy Jones and biographer J Randy Taraborrelli, Jackson himself was stalked by a disturbed young woman who claimed that he had fathered her child. Taraborrelli claims that she sent the star a package containing a gun and instructions for a suicide pact. Jackson, however, traced the song’s theme back to the groupies who pursued his older brothers in the Jackson 5. “There were a lot of Billie Jeans out there,” he said in 1996. “Every girl claimed that their son was related to one of my brothers.” Either way, in Billie Jean, sex is a trap, especially if you’re famous. The dancefloor, an arena of liberation on Off the Wall, becomes a place of peril and exposure. They dance on the floor in the round. Everyone is watching but what are they seeing?

The song’s paternity is not in doubt. Michael was the only Jackson brother to learn the craft of record-making from their producers during the 1970s, and all the basic components are there in his 1981 demo. When he brought it to the Thriller sessions, however, Jones worried that the title might lead people to picture tennis player Billie Jean King and suggested changing it to Not My Lover. He wasn’t sure about the bassline either, which proves that even great producers can have moments of idiocy. When he tried to abbreviate the instrumental intro, Jackson protested, “But that’s the jelly!” – the funk. On every count, Jackson prevailed.

Michael Jackson: Billie Jean – video

In LA’s Westlake Recording Studios during 1982, Billie Jean became something unprecedented. Jackson once admitted to Daryl Hall that he’d lifted the bassline from Hall & Oates’ recent hit I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do), and you can hear the resemblance in the demo, but Hall & Oates’ groove is sly and playful while Louis Johnson’s bassline, augmented by growls of distorted synth bass, is a panther. Tasked by Jones with creating a “unique sonic personality”, engineer Bruce Swedien completely rebuilt Ndugu Chancler’s drum kit to produce that unmistakably dry, deadened sound. The rest of the arrangement suggests mounting agitation, from arranger Jerry Lubbock’s spiralling film noir violins to David Williams’s feverish guitar solo. Jackson and Jones pushed Swedien to produce 91 different mixes, only to choose the second one, which is a classic case study on the respective merits of perspiration and inspiration.

The result was revolutionary. No 1 for just one week in the UK but seven in the US, Billie Jean helped to make Thriller the biggest-selling album of all time. By boosting record sales across the board, it jolted the music industry out of its post-disco slump. It was during a performance of Billie Jean in the Motown 25 TV special that Jackson debuted the moonwalk, and it was the Billie Jean video that introduced black music to the fledgling MTV. “Michael Jackson was the reason MTV went from big to huge,” attested co-founder John Sykes. “He put us at the centre of the culture.”

For all its fame, there is something eternally unresolved about Billie Jean: an unstable account by an unreliable witness. Is the narrator a maligned innocent (tested, like Jesus, for 40 days and 40 nights) or a guilty man who can’t get his story straight? He insists, “Billie Jean is not my lover”, but admits, “This happened much too soon / She called me to her room.” He says, “The kid is not my son”, only to let slip, “His eyes were like mine”. He is by turns indignant and full of shame; he knows he did something wrong. As his mother always told him: “Be careful what you do ’cause the lie becomes the truth.” And listen to how he tells this story. Jackson’s arsenal of yelps, screams, squeaks, gasps, giggles and grunts would soon become shtick, and ultimately self-parody, but here he sounds as if he is sweating and fidgeting under pressure, like he doesn’t really expect to be believed.

I’m talking about the song’s narrator here but of course subsequent events have made this strange record stranger still. The Michael Jackson song that we just can’t quit is a case of alleged sexual misconduct that is left to the listener to adjudicate. Everyone is watching but what are they seeing?


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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