The Story Behind The Song
The date: 25 March 1983. The place: the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Los Angeles. The event: a glittering celebration of the 25th anniversary of Motown Records with performances by some of the label's biggest stars. The Jackson 5 have just completed their set leaving Michael Jackson on stage to perform solo. Dressed in black jacket and trousers, silver socks and shirt, and with a rhinestone glove on his right hand, he places a black fedora on his head as the pulsating intro to Billie Jean begins. During the routine he performs the moonwalk – an illusion where the dancer glides backwards. By every account, Jackson steals the show. Two months later, a film of the show is broadcast on NBC, attracting nearly 35 million viewers. Clips of his moonwalk are shown around the world, turning Jackson into the biggest global solo superstar since Elvis Presley – he is now the "King of Pop."
Although Jackson was a massive star at the time of the Pasadena show – he had the No. 1 single and album both in the US and the UK – the moonwalk was arguably the transformative moment of his career. Yet he did not invent the dance move. The "buzz" was first performed in the 1930s and became popular in the 1970s as the "backslide", which had been showcased on Top Of The Pops by Jeffrey Daniels of Shalamar in June 1982. Although Daniels' mesmerising body popping routine is considered one of the most memorable performances from the iconic pop programme, it had none of the impact of Jackson's delivery. Not least because the moonwalk accompanied Billie Jean, one of the best dance-pop tracks of the 1980s.
The song's instantly recognisable intro is a celebrated piece of pop. There are few songs where the percussive opening immediately identifies the song. After two bars, the funky bassline provides the dance groove while a simple synth chord progression establishes the melodic momentum. The intro is just shy of 30 seconds, which producer Quincy Jones thought was too long but Jackson said it made him want to dance. "And when Michael Jackson tells you that," Jones remarked, "well, the rest of us just have to shut up."
It was not the only aspect of the song that the producer wanted to change. Fearing Billie Jean might be confused with the famous tennis star Billie Jean King, Jones suggested a different title: "Not My Lover". Again Jackson refused to budge. According to Jackson, the eponymous character is not a real person but a composite of different groupies that used to hang around his older brothers in The Jackson 5. However, Jackson's biographer claimed the lyrics related to something more personal – a woman who had stalked the superstar through the mail, claiming he was the father of her child, and causing him to have nightmares. If true, Billie Jean can be viewed as a cathartic song.
Whatever the inspiration, the lyrics are among the most evocative of any dance track. They tell of an attractive femme fatale who causes a scene on the dance floor, showing the protagonist a photograph of her baby and "his eyes were like mine". The chorus is one of denial: "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". Despite these disavowals, the protagonist cannot refuse her allure, and "the smell of sweet perfume" lures him to her room.
Billie Jean was a global hit, reaching the top spot in a dozen countries and selling 10M copies. It justly sits in the Top 100 singles of all time in both the NME and Rolling Stone lists, and it was voted the No. 2 best hit by viewers of The Nation's Favourite 1980s No 1s (ITV); it was beaten only by The Police's Every Breath You Take, which also edged ahead in our countdown of the top singles of 1983.
We hereby instate Billie Jean by Michael Jackson on The Wall as No.3 Best Single of 1983
Despite psychologically fraught lyrics, Billie Jean's futuristic meld of disco, funk and dance-pop helped create a bona fide 80's classic.Dave B