Today’s song is to commemorate the fact that today marks five years since the death of the “king of pop.” Michael Jackson’s life ended in 2009, two months short of his 51st birthday. By that point, he had become something—in appearance and in reputation—that held little enough fascination for me, though he was still, more or less, as big as ever.
Which is just a way of saying that I don’t have much to say about what Jackson became, only a little about Jackson’s breakthrough song (in 1983) which, for me and many others only vaguely aware of whatever he’d been up to since he left the Jackson Five, put him back on the map, big time. It didn’t hurt that there was real pressure exerted to make MTV play the video for this song, which broke the barrier against funk and R&B (in favor of “rock”) that MTV apparently saw itself as maintaining. So, maybe that is why I know the song so well, because once they let it on it became unavoidable.
And the Michael in the video, and especially in the live, lip-synched version at the Motown 25 special, is the Michael I best remember. He still looked like himself, and he moved like no one else. In 1983, when all this was happening, he turned 25. He was in his prime.
Thriller (1982), the album the song came from, had been out a while before that video turned it all around. In it, Jackson is major sexy, as maybe only whisper-thin androgynous guys can be. And he doesn’t camp it up in the least. He’s got a prowling cat thing going, synched perfectly to the hiccuping groove of this song, a song with drums that sound like coiled fury, very flat, little resonance. Everything about the track pops with that vibe: depths of suppressed rage and power are percolating under the surface as the singer keeps denying: “Billie Jean is not my lover / She’s just a girl who says I am the one / The kid is not my son.” In the vid, the freeze frames actually work with the overall feeling.
Sure, the song could seem a celebration of deadbeat dads, but the way it’s sung, with a dark, brooding lead vocal, make us feel that maybe he is a bit conscience-stricken. Not because the kid is his son, but because the girl wants it to be true so badly. Then comes the little mini-scene where “his baby” sees a picture of “the baby” and realizes the kid’s eyes “were like mine”—it seems silly, but I guess it’s enough to make us disbelieve him. The takeaway is “You better think twice.” And of course the part that is the best verse of the song (sung with a sense of emotional strain): “People always told me, ‘be careful what you do / Don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts’ / And mother always told me ‘be careful who you love / And be careful of what you do 'cause the lie becomes the truth.’”
That gives us the reason the singer sounds so beset. Billie Jean is described as a queen of the dance floor, and a very demanding one at that, who urges the singer to her room—and what follows. So that the breaking hearts part seems a bit fastidious; but the worry about “who you love” and what comes of that is real enough. The guy’s looking at a paternity suit, perhaps.
But all that’s neither here nor there as I first heard the song. That chorus gets into your head and doesn’t let go, particularly with the falsetto on “I am the one.” It sounds like a brag, and the vision of Jackson dancing on the video and onstage at the Motown show certainly gives him some bragging rights. The feeling was that Jackson had found his perfect vehicle, a song that was, in some ways, sensitive, but also full of a strutting self-involvement, making him the moonwalking poster boy for “cross-over,” taking funk to pop in a way that, till then, had pretty much been the province of white boys trying to sound black. It’s ironic, in that regard, that Jackson seemed to pursue a quest, in cosmetic surgery, to become white. Which is another reason I’d rather go back to 1983 to celebrate him. He was still a black kid then, not some creation of his own vanity and wealth.
Anyway, the production on this song is very clean, so that all the vocal touches add to the texture, including the funny little, high-pitched “ooo,”s, (and don't forget Mr. Quincy Jones' strings), and where it really clicks with me is after that guitar break, mainly just a grooving strum that mounts into the real recrimination moment: “She says I am the one / (You know what you did).”
It's the lingering doubt that fuels it all, spooking our nonchalant stud.