Thirty-five years ago this week, the second single from Michael Jackson’s astronomically successful album Thriller rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
And 35 years later, for many reasons, “Billie Jean” is still regarded by many as one of the most important recordings in pop music history…both the song and its music video.
It’s still the first song that comes to the minds of many when Jackson’s name is mentioned. It is arguably his signature song.
But it is also much more than that.
It’s the song that set a course for black dance music (and funkier leaning dance music in general) to make an eventual return to pop chart prominence after three years of dormancy in the post-disco era.
“Billie Jean” was released on the heels of Thriller’s first single, “The Girl Is Mine” (the more pop-friendly duet with Paul McCartney), which itself was still at its chart peak (No. 1 soul, No. 2 pop) when Epic Records shipped the “Billie Jean” 45 to record stores in January 1983. The week after “The Girl Is Mine” was displaced from No. 1 on the soul chart by the Gap Band’s “Outstanding,” “Billie Jean” returned the favor and knocked the Gap Band from the top (“Billie Jean” was No. 1 a record-setting two weeks after its soul chart debut).
Three weeks later, it was also No. 1 on the pop chart (the Hot 100), which, along with the concurrent No. 1 placements of its parent album, made Jackson the first male artist ever to top the big four pop and soul albums and singles charts simultaneously.
In 20/20 hindsight, “Billie Jean” had all the makings of a big crossover pop hit even before the circumstances that eventually led to it becoming so. It had a great storyline delivered by Jackson’s boyishly adult, yet stirring vocals, a loping bass line (played by the late Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson), an eerie but hypnotic two-note keyboard riff that repeated throughout, and a persistent danceable 4/4 beat.
It was that danceable part, though, that could’ve easily caused “Billie Jean” to tank before it even got started.
Indeed, Epic had been wise to go with “The Girl is Mine” first. It was a safe, mid-tempo pop ballad featuring the most successful singer/songwriter in modern music history up to that point, Paul McCartney, the ex-Beatle who himself had teamed up for a No. 1 hit with another soul artist (Stevie Wonder, “Ebony and Ivory”) earlier in 1982.
“The Girl Is Mine” was a good fit for pop radio during the post-disco era of 1980-82, when music was heavily dominated by middle-of-the-road, adult contemporary fare. The landscape had changed significantly since Jackson’s previous album, Off The Wall, made its mark in 1979-80. Disco, which made up much of Off The Wall, was “dead” now and anything that approached it sonically – particularly by black artists – was to pop radio what red meat was to a vegan.
Before “Billie Jean,” the last uptempo dance/disco song by a black artist to reach No. 1 pop was Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” the late-1980 feel-good tune that had earlier topped the disco and soul charts and was more slowly embraced by pop audiences. That song’s eventual No. 1 crossover success was spurred on by two major celebratory events in early 1981 – the inauguration of a new American president (Ronald Reagan) and the return of the American hostages (minutes after Reagan’s swearing in) from Iran after more than a year of captivity.
After that event-driven disco triumph, the highest any black dance song would reach on the Hot 100 before 1983 was the No. 3 placement of “Let’s Groove” by Earth, Wind & Fire in late 1981, followed by Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip” (No. 5 in 1982). Anything else was taboo.
So it made perfect sense to introduce Thriller with “The Girl Is Mine.” Except, by December 1982, with the album now in stores and “Mine” still climbing to its chart peak, black radio was all over the next single, “Billie Jean.” At the time, R&B stations didn’t wait for labels to promote singles before adding them to their playlists. It was nothing for program directors to mine albums for the next big hits and “Billie Jean” (and to a slightly lesser extent, “Beat It”) was the beneficiary of that practice.
So Epic Records made it official in January 1983 – just over a month after Thriller’s release – that “Billie Jean” was single No. 2. It made its début on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs (then called Hot Black Singles) chart on January 29 and two weeks later was No. 1, where it remained for nine consecutive weeks.
But more important than its chart success was its cultural impact. With its undeniable hook and given MJ’s superstar status, “Billie Jean” likely would have crossed over to the pop top ten on its own musical merits. However, there was another marketing card up Epic’s sleeves for the song’s promotion: its groundbreaking music video.
In it, Michael Jackson dazzled us with his “Midas touch” as he – sharply dressed in a black tuxedo with pink shirt and red bow tie – prowled city streets while the pavement blocks magically illuminated beneath his feet with each step he took. His dance steps were just as captivating as he made his way to “Billie Jean’s” room before disappearing in her bed beneath satin sheets leaving viewers to wonder did he or didn’t he?
With that storyline (actually with any storyline), “Billie Jean” was perhaps the most impressive music video created for a black artist up to that point, particularly during a time when most soul music videos were given low-rate budgets and were relegated to staged performance clips or dance/party-oriented fare. That MJ was able to “act out” the song’s plot while incorporating his trademark dance moves made it all the more intriguing.
But there was still the hurdle of getting the video to a larger-than-black audience at a time when the burgeoning 24-hr music video channel, MTV, was becoming the main source of TV video exposure but rarely, if ever, showed black music clips, claiming instead that it was a rock-leaning music outlet.
That all changed when CBS Records (later Sony Music), distributor for Epic Records, threatened to pull all of its videos from MTV if the channel didn’t play Jackson’s video for “Billie Jean.” With an arsenal of CBS artists that included Bruce Springsteen, Journey, Culture Club, Men At Work, and Toto among many others, MTV had no choice but to cave.
And so it did. And not only did MTV play “Billie Jean” but they moved it into the station’s heavy rotation that winter and spring. It went on to hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 where it remained for seven straight weeks, which, along with its nine-week No. 1 soul chart ranking, made it one of the biggest crossover hits of the 1980s and, arguably, MJ’s biggest hit ever.
It paved the way for more uptempo black music to crossover after three years of post-disco blacklisting by pop radio. Soon, artists like Prince, Irene Cara, DeBarge, Shannon, Billy Ocean, and others joined the party and were able to get pop airplay with their dance hits.
Epic Records and Jackson himself immediately capitalized on the success of “Billie Jean” with Thriller’s follow-up singles. “Billie Jean” hadn’t even reached No. 1 yet when Epic released “Beat It,” the follow-up rocker that sped up the charts and nearly displaced “Billie Jean” from the top (their No. 1 runs were interrupted by Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen” for one week).
By May 1983, with the album’s first three singles, “The Girl Is Mine,” “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” having already made their marks, the momentum might easily have slowed as newer albums by pop/rock acts like Journey, Def Leppard and Men At Work seriously challenged MJ for the top spot.
But then “Billie Jean” struck again.
On May 21, 1983, with both “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” descending the charts, NBC aired the Motown Records anniversary special, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever, which included Jackson’s famous lip-synced performance of his biggest single. On that show, which was taped two months earlier (while “Billie Jean” was still No. 1), Jackson displayed his famous moonwalk dance moves and the crowd, as well as TV audiences that numbered in the tens of millions, went wild.
Afterwards, CBS reported that Thriller was shipping an unprecedented million copies a week at its peak to meet demand. So not only was Thriller a statement record for black artists, but it had become a boon for the industry as well – an industry that had seen music sales revenue dwindle in the five years since Saturday Night Fever and the $4B high watermark that occurred in 1978. Essentially, Thriller, propelled by the success of “Billie Jean,” singlehandedly revived a struggling music industry by helping it return to sales numbers not seen since its disco peak.
The story of the Thriller album is legendary in and of itself. Week after week in 1983 and ‘84, the album was listed at No. 1 on Billboard’s charts. Other Thriller singles soon followed the first three in rapid succession, first “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” then “Human Nature,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” and finally the title track…seven singles in all, and all of them reaching the top ten on the Hot 100 (another record).
Accordingly, the Thriller album – now the best selling album in history – remained at No. 1 on-and-off until April 1984 and didn’t leave the top ten until that July, a year and a half after its release.
But by then, the impact had been made and dance music by black musicians was back on the map, thanks to Michael Jackson and the phenomenal success of “Billie Jean” 35 years ago.
This year, the song’s legacy took a hit when its co-creator, producer Quincy Jones, accused the late Jackson of stealing “Billie Jean” from Donna Summer’s “State Of Independence,” which Jones also produced and on which MJ sang background earlier in 1982. Jones later apologized via a tweet to his friends – living and dead – for having “word-vomit” and for “bad-mouthing” Jackson and others.
Whether one buys into Jones’ claims or not, few records by any artist have had as much impact on pop music and pop culture as “Billie Jean” did.
And that alone is why we commemorate its 35th anniversary of reaching No. 1 on the Hot 100 and helping break down racial barriers – at least musically – along the way.
Continue to R.I.P. Michael. For us, “Billie Jean” and your legacy live on.