The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #37: Billie Jean by Michael Jackson (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #37: Billie Jean by Michael Jackson.

“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson was the second single released from the album, “Thriller”. It raced to the #1 position on the charts and stayed there for several weeks. It was the second song from “Thriller” to hit that coveted #1 ranking and would, in turn, be followed by five more songs to reach the top. “Thriller” stands as one of the biggest selling albums of all-time and the song, “Billie Jean” certainly played a prominent role in helping to make that happen. The song, itself, sold several million copies and was trend-setting in more ways than just sales figures, as we shall all see below.

First of all, the song, “Billie Jean” was based on Jackson’s experience with groupies and fans who morphed into stalkers. When he was younger and a member of The Jackson 5, he made note of how often his older brothers would be served with paternity lawsuits; all claiming that the Jackson Brothers had engaged in sexual relationships that resulted in pregnancy and that financial compensation was required. According to Jackson, none of these lawsuits had any basis in reality and came to be seen as part of life for those in the spotlight, as they were. As Jackson grew older and became a solo artist, he started having his own issues with fans; including one woman who kept trying to show up at his home and who was always claiming that he was the father of her child. That one woman ended up being placed in a psychiatric facility; an experience that left Jackson shaken and, reportedly, was the beginning of his decision to become more reclusive in his own life.

Knowing some of the dodgy aspects of Jackson’s personal life, his defence against his own paternity suit is not the hill I wish to die on. For me, there was another, far more interesting and impactful aspect to the story behind this song and that is, how Jackson used the music video for “Billie Jean” to help break down the colour barrier on video channel, MTV. It seems hard for me to believe it but, when “Billie Jean” went into “heavy rotation” on MTV, it was the first time a black artist or band had ever been accorded that attention. But, the story doesn’t end there. It actually goes back a few months when Jackson had completed the famous music video of him dancing on a walkway where each stone would light up as he touched it with his feet. With the video in hand, MTV was approached and asked to play it in concert with the release of “Billie Jean” on the radio. MTV refused. At the time, MTV was programmed more like a radio station and was rock-oriented. With music videos being a relatively new phenomenon, MTV programmers were more focussed on acquiring rock videos which, at the time, were predominantly made by white performers. So, MTV told Jackson that his video wasn’t a “fit” for their playlists. Enraged, Michael Jackson and producer, Quincey Jones, threatened to launch their own lawsuits and, as well, to launch a boycott of MTV by Jackson and all other clients of Quincey Jones. So, “Billie Jean” was released to radio, without MTV support. The music channel did not air “Billie Jean” until had already reached #1 and had become such a sensation. Even then, they put Jackson of “medium rotation”, meaning that his video only got played, once and awhile, instead of frequently, like those in “heavy rotation”, which also meant more favourable time slots during prime viewing times. Eventually, the voices of the people were heard as MTV’s phone lines because jammed with requests for all things, Michael Jackson.

*There is a famous clip of MTV interviewing white singer, David Bowie who, to his credit, turns the tables on his interviewer and starts grilling him over why MTV was so reluctant to play the music of black performers. I will include that clip below.

The final noteworthy aspect of this song is when it was performed live on TV at the Motown 25th Anniversary TV special. This was the world famous moment when Michael Jackson donned his one glittery glove for the first time, wore his fedora and then, moonwalked across the stage. I remember watching this live on tv when it was first aired. As TV moments go, it was as thrilling and captivating as any entertainment moment I have ever seen. Obviously, based upon the reaction of millions of others from around the world, that moment when Michael Jackson moonwalked for the first time remains one of TV’s most iconic live images ever.

So, a song like “Billie Jean”….which Michael Jackson stated he knew was a hit from the first moment he wrote it…..ended up becoming much more than merely a song about contested paternity. It was a song that was boosted by being from the biggest album of them all and, in return, helped “Thriller” reach the lofty heights that it did. But, in addition, “Billie Jean” helped break down the colour barrier on the influential music channel, MTV. And as if that wasn’t enough, his live performance on the Motown tv special helped create an iconic, lasting image of himself that he was able to carry with him throughout the remainder of his career. Not bad for a song about a girl that was not his lover!

So, without further delay, here is the iconic live television reveal of “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, as performed live on TV, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, as seen in the official video, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Michael Jackson, can be found here.

The link to the video for the David Bowie/MTV interview about the lack of black artists on their channel, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.