By the early 80s, Michael Jackson was already a household name as the youngest brother of the popular singing group the Jackson 5. But it was the second release from his 6th solo album Thriller, which catapulted the performer into legendary stardom. With its hypnotic and captivating groove, “Billie Jean” sounded unlike anything else of its time, and with its release, the song revolutionized the entire popular music industry of the time.
Michael Jackson’s career began in 1965, with his family vocal group – the Jackson 5. In 1968, the group was picked up by Motown and by decade’s end, they were some of the label’s biggest acts. Even though he was the youngest brother of the group, Michael quickly emerged as the leading star. He began releasing solo albums in 1972 with Motown records, while still performing and recording with Jackson 5: Got to Be There, and Ben (both in 1972), Music & Me (1973), and Forever, Michael in 1975.
In 1975, most of the family moved from Motown to Epic records, changing the group’s name to The Jacksons. Meanwhile, Michael continued to develop his independent projects including starring as the Scarecrow in the film musical The Wiz alongside Diana Ross in 1978. It was while working on the Wiz that he began his partnership with Quincy Jones who agreed to produce Michael’s next solo record, Off the Wall. Jones also brought in engineer Bruce Swedien to mix the album, another partnership which would continue across some of Michael’s biggest hits. All three would work together on Michael’s magnum opus – his sixth studio album, Thriller (1982).
Thriller was a game changing album in many ways, from songwriting and production, to its revolutionary music videos. The album also contains several massive hit singles. It was the second single from Thriller, “Billie Jean,” which catapulted Michael into unprecedented success as a solo artist, establishing many of the iconic elements which would define his performances and transforming the popular music industry sonically and commercially.
The narrative in Billie Jean was inspired by the experience of growing up as young teen idols in Jackson 5. Producer Quincy Jones has stated in interviews that Michael told him a specific story of a woman who claimed that he was the father of one of her twins. But in his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, Michael explained that while the general inspiration behind the song was real, it was not based on a single individual or experience: “There never was a real Billie Jean…The girl in the song is a composite of people my brothers have been plagued with over the years. I could never understand how these girls could say they were carrying someone’s child when it wasn’t true.”
Michael took his family’s experiences and transformed them into a narrative tale of late night dancing, temptation and the fall-out. The chorus offers a fervent denial of any paternal possibilities:
“Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one
But the kid is not my son”
However, the lyrics also contain a haunting element of doubt throughout the song. He recalls warnings from his mother: “Be careful of who you love and be careful of what you do” and describes a photo of the baby who has eyes like his own. The doubt and mystery is part of what makes the song’s narrative so captivating.
The lyrics are brought to life through Michael’s singular performance style. He had made his career initially as a vocalist, and by the time he was working on “Billie Jean” and Thriller, he had mastered the power of subtle nuances in vocal nflection and style. His voice had been a young soprano as a child, but his expression was always more mature than his sound. As he grew older, he kept singing in his higher register, but now that adult expression was so much more meaningful. In a song like “Billie Jean” the added vocal flourishes and breathy delivery really bring out the haunting story that he tells in the lyrics.
On top of the dark allure of the song’s lyrics and performance, “Billie Jean” boasts a haunting percussive groove, heightened by its sparse texture. Michael credits the bassline as the initial drive of the song for him. “[It] was going around in my head, and that’s all I was thinking about. We were getting off the freeway when a kid on a motorcycle pulls up to us and says, ‘Your car’s on fire.’ Suddenly, we noticed the smoke and pulled over, [and] the whole bottom of the Rolls-Royce was on fire. That kid probably saved our lives. If the car had exploded, we could have been killed. But I was so absorbed by this tune floating in my head that I didn’t even focus on the awful possibilities until later.” The hypnotic repetition of the bassline is the perfect underlying drive for when the strings come in with their staccato motions.
“Billie Jean” was recorded at Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles alongside the rest of the Thriller album. The song features the talents of Leon “Ndugu” Chancler on drums and David Williams on guitar. Louis Johnson played bass on the track, and had to record it on several different instruments, before Jones settled on a Yamaha bass for the sonic color he wanted on the song. Tom Scott was brought in to play a lyricon (an electronic wind instrument). Michael Boddicker is credited for the E-mu Emulator – a revolutionary technology at the time. The E-mu Emulator was a newly affordable sampler, which was relatively portable and could be performed in a live setting. Greg Smith and Bill Wolder also brought their talents in on synthesizer. Jerry Hey made the string arrangement while Jeremy Lubbock Conducted the players. Greg Philinganes played synthesizer and the Rhodes
With so many sounds on the track, you would expect it to be a thick, dense sound, but the individual elements are all spread out and sparse, creating an underlying tension and unsettling atmosphere. Recalling the project, Philanganes reflected: “Billie Jean’ is hot on every level. It’s hot rhythmically. It’s hot sonically, because the instrumentation is so minimal, you can really hear everything. It’s hot melodically … lyrically [and] vocally. It affects you physically, emotionally, even spiritually.”
Bruce Swedien mixed the song an unprecedented 91 times before Jones settled back on a modified version of the second attempt. Swedien explained that all of these different instrument colors and remixing was part of Jones’ search for the perfect “sonic personality” He concludes: “See if you can think of any other piece of music where you can hear the first three drum beats and know what the song is,” …“That’s what I call sonic personality.”
Quincy Jones was the producer on the entire Thriller album, but when it came to “Billie Jean,” he and Michael had very different predictions about the song’s potential. Michael claims to have been convinced that the song was a future hit, writing in his autobiography: “A musician knows hit material. Everything has to feel in place. It fulfills you and it makes you feel good. That’s how I felt about ‘Billie Jean’. I knew it was going to be big when I was writing it.” Jones, however, had more reservations. He was concerned about the title, which he believed would draw associations with tennis star Billie Jean King. He wanted to rename the song “Not My Lover.” He also had concerns about the length of the introduction and wasn’t convinced by the demo version Michael had produced.
However, what did convince Jones was when Michael told him that the song made him want to dance. When it came to dance music, Jones trusted Michael Jackson implicitly. Michael Jackson’s deep rooted understanding of dance music and his skills as a performer absolutely transported this song to a whole different level. His performance of the song at the TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, introduced the world to many of his now-iconic dance moves, like the Moonwalk.
Likewise, the music video for “Billie Jean” is just as important as the song. Directed by Steve Barron, and released in 1983 – just a couple of months after the January 2 release of the song as a single. According to Walter Yetnikoff, MTV was hesitant to play the music video, citing that they didn’t believe a black artist would appeal to their audience base: “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 tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a black guy.'” The music video is credited with breaking the color-line in MTV’s programming, and in the process actually turning the new channel, which was still struggling to turn in a profit, into a financially viable industry.
But even before the music video could transform music television, the song was revolutionizing popular music. It only took three weeks for “Billie Jean” to top the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart – his fastest rising number one single since 1970 Jackson 5 singles like “ABC” and “I’ll Be There”. Its sparse and mesmerizing color brought popular dance music into a new sonic world blending together funk and disco with rock and pop.
“Billie Jean” won two Grammys – one for Best R&B Male Vocal Performance and one for Best Rhythm and Blues Song. It also won an American Music Award. In 2000 Rolling Stone and MTV named it the 6th Greatest Pop song since 1963. In 2008, BBC Radio 2 listeners voted it the greatest dance record of all time, and the song remains in heavy rotation at dance clubs and venues worldwide.
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video to learn more about “Billie Jean”!