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This song is about a girl who claimed that Jackson was the father of her child. Jackson based it on a woman who used to stalk him, writing him letters about a son she thought was his. Jackson rarely spoke about this woman, but he had a very hard time dealing with this unwanted attention, and he became more reclusive as a result. The song was his way of expressing his feelings without addressing her directly.
While Jackson didn't give many details about the real Billie Jean, his producer Quincy Jones said that Jackson found the woman one day lounging by his pool with a bathing suit and sunglasses on. According to Jones, she accused Jackson of being the father of one of her twins, which Jones thought was pretty funny.
In his autobiography Moonwalk
, Jackson said that Quincy Jones wanted to change the title to "Not My Lover" because he thought it would be confused with the tennis star Billie Jean King. Jackson ended up winning that battle.
Michael Jackson says about this song in Moonwalk, "A musician knows hit material. It has to feel right. Everything has to feel in place. It fulfills you and it makes you feel good. You know it when you hear it. That's how I felt about 'Billie Jean.' I knew it was going to be big while I was writing it. I was really absorbed in that song. One day during a break in a recording session I was riding down the Ventura Freeway with Nelson Hayes, who was working with me at the time. 'Billie Jean' 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."
According to Rolling Stone
magazine's Top 500 songs, Jackson came up with the song's rhythm track on his home drum machine and nailed the vocals in one take.
This won the 1983 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance and Best Rhythm & Blues Song for the writer Michael Jackson.
The video for this song is often credited with breaking the color barrier on MTV, which debuted August 1, 1981. The clip for "Pass The Dutchie
" by Musical Youth was the first video by a black act to make regular rotation on the network, but they were considered a novelty, with no member older than 16.
Jackson's "Billie Jean" video was the first to make heavy rotation, and more black faces started appearing on the network soon after, notably Prince. MTV was accused of racism in this era, notably by Rick James, whose "Super Freak
" clip was rejected by the network. MTV was programmed by guys with radio backgrounds who tried to program it like a radio station with a Rock format, something that proved impossible because they didn't have enough videos by Rock artists. What they did have were lots of European acts (like Musical Youth), who had been making videos for years, and were overwhelmingly white. Record companies wouldn't budget for videos by their black artists since they didn't think MTV would play them, so the network could make the argument that they simply didn't have any good videos by black artists that were worthy. That argument went out the window when Jackson made the "Billie Jean" video, which was startlingly innovative, and a precursor to the video game Dance Dance Revolution
, as some scenes showed Jackson performing his dance moves by stepping on squares as they would light up.
Despite the production value and Jackson's star quality, MTV didn't play the video until the song was already a #1 hit. Les Garland, who ran the network at the time, claims that they loved the video and played it as soon as they could, but interviews with executives at Jackson's record company and with others familiar with the matter suggest otherwise. In the book I Want My MTV
, multiple sources who worked at MTV claimed that the network wanted to air the "Beat It" video first, because Eddie Van Halen played on it and the song fit their format. Walter Yetnikoff, who was head of CBS Records (Jackson's was signed to its subsidiary, Epic), recalls threatening to pull all CBS videos from MTV if they didn't play "Billie Jean." He says he threatened to bring Jackson's producer Quincy Jones in on it as well, and the network acquiesced. When MTV started playing the clip, it was first put in medium rotation, then promoted to heavy rotation when viewers loved it. When the video for "Beat It" was delivered, that one also went into hot rotation. For a two month stretch in the summer of 1983, both videos were getting constant airplay, establishing Jackson as a video star. His next video effort was for "Thriller
," which revolutionized music videos.
This was the second of 7 US top 10 hits from the Thriller album. "The Girl Is Mine" was released before this.
The video showcased Jackson's signature dance moves that he became famous for. His talents as a dancer helped make him a huge concert draw and a star on MTV. High-energy dancing was a huge part of his act, and artists like New Kids on the Block and his sister Janet followed his lead and made dance moves as big a part of their shows as singing. This trend continued as groups like *NSYNC and The Backstreet boys followed suit. Jackson choreographed the dance moves himself.
On the 1983 TV special 25 Years Of Motown, Jackson did The Moonwalk for the first time while performing this song. This was also the first time Jackson wore his famous white glove on stage - at the time it was a modified golf glove.
Jackson shot a Pepsi commercial in 1984 performing this with the lyrics altered to sing the praises of the soda. During the shoot, his hair caught fire from the pyrotechnics and he was rushed to the hospital. The commercial aired on the Grammy awards.
The UPC code on the album cover contained 7 digits that were rumored to be Jackson's telephone number. People with that number in many different area codes got swamped with annoying calls.
This inspired an "answer song" - Lydia Murdock's 1983 disco hit "Superstar." In "Superstar," Murdock adopts the persona of Billie Jean, telling her side of the story. No word on if Jackson ever heard it. (thanks, Adam - Dewsbury, England)
According to Q magazine, March 2008, Michael Jackson wrote this in his home studio in Encino. He worked for 3 weeks on the bass line alone.
Producer and record mogul Antonio "LA" Reid told Rolling Stone magazine April 15, 2004: "Billie Jean is the most important record he's made, not only because of its commercial success but because of the musical depth of the record. It has more hooks in it than anything I've ever heard. Everything in that song was catchy, and every instrument was playing a different hook. You could separate it into 12 different musical pieces and I think you'd have 12 different hits. Every day, I look for that kind of song." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
Former Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell recorded a stripped-down, emotional version of this song for his 2007 solo album Carry On. In March, 2008, David Cook performed a similar version on American Idol, drawing rave reviews from the judges and some criticism from viewers who felt he ripped off Cornell's version. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
Quincy Jones discussed this song in a radio interview printed in Radio Times. The Thriller producer recalled: "The intro to 'Billie Jean' was so long you could shave during it. I said we had to get to the melody sooner…but Michael said that was what made him want to dance. And when Michael Jackson says something makes him want to dance, you don't argue, so he won."
In the first chart week following Jackson's death, he placed a record 21 entries on the Hot Digital Songs chart, including this song. The late singer thus overtook the mark of 14 charted titles established by David Cook on the June 7, 2008, chart. One of Cook's cuts that week was his cover of this tune.
During an interview in Thailand, Jackson was asked about the inspiration behind this song. He replied: "There is a girl named Billie Jean, but it's not about that Billie Jean. Billie Jean is kind of anonymous. It represents a lot of girls. They used to call them groupies in the '60s. They would hang around backstage doors, and any band that would come to town they would have a relationship with, and I think I wrote this out of experience with my brothers when I was little. There were a lot of Billie Jeans out there. Every girl claimed that their son was related to one of my brothers."
The music video was directed by Steve Barron, who was chosen because Jackson and Quincy Jones likes his work on the Human League video for "Don't You Want Me
." Barron's original idea was more complex and involved a group of dancers. With budget a factor, they simplified the concept and went with the idea of Jackson having a Midas Touch, with the squares he stepped on lighting up. To save on set design, they used a technique where painted glass was placed in front of the camera to fill in the wide shots without building actual set pieces. You can see this on some shots where Jackson is on a sidewalk with a city landscape behind him.
The song re-entered the Hot 100 at #14 in June 2014 as a result of the popularity of a viral video featuring the track. 17-year-old Brett Nichols performed a Michael Jackson dance routine for his school's talent show, backed by the song's original audio. The clip of this performance racked up 15 million views on YouTube in about a week.
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