(February 8, 2023). With the 40th anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson’s landmark Thriller LP a couple months behind us, now comes all of the many milestone anniversaries associated with that album’s singles, including its flagship smash “Billie Jean.”
It was 40 years ago this month—in February 1983–when that iconic track moved into the No. 1 spot on the Billboard soul chart (in a record three short weeks after its 45 was released) and a few weeks later climbed to the top spot on the pop list—the Hot 100–as well, becoming the late King of Pop’s fourth No. 1 solo single (en route to 13 total on the pop side).
What helped propel “Billie Jean” to the top was its music video, which MTV famously (and reluctantly) added to its playlist—also in February that year—and which featured a tuxedo-wearing Michael evading a stalking paparazzi member while dancing his way through a seedy district en route to a room where Billie Jean purportedly lay in wait.
We never see her, of course, but we know she’s there as MJ enters her boudoir and climbs into her bed—fully clothed—only to mysteriously disappear when the pursuing cameraman finally catches up to the evasive superstar.
“Billie Jean” was one of Michael’s biggest hits—if not the biggest—but it wasn’t the only one where the late icon immortalized a contemptible woman on record… contemptible, in this case, being a matter of whether you believed MJ’s side of the story.
In fact, in commemoration of the song’s chart-topping anniversary, the blog identified dozens of other tunes where Michael called out stalking, cheating, or just downright dirty women who somehow wronged him (or maybe, in Billie Jean’s case, merely exposed him).
There were obscure women like my favorites, the alliterative Sefra and Sue in 1980’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” which Michael sang with his brothers (the name Sue would pop up again in MJ’s “Little Susie” and on the song “Blood On The Dance Floor,” both during the 1990s).
There were cheating women like his love interests in 1979’s “Girlfriend” (from Off The Wall), “The Girl Is Mine” (from Thriller), and “Chicago” (the posthumously re-imagined tune from the 2015 album Xscape). He and Stevie Wonder also playfully fought over an indecisive mutual lover in the Bad song “Just Good Friends” (1987).
Then there were downright scary ladies, like the women he sang of in “Dangerous” (the title track to his 1991 album), 1997’s “Blood On The Dance Floor,” “She’s Trouble” (from the Thriller 40 rerelease in Nov. 2022), and the underrated “Torture” (from 1984’s Victory album with his brothers). You could easily throw “Heartbreaker” from 2001’s Invincible in this group as well.
Of course, there’s that scoundrel “Dirty Diana” (from Bad), and Billie Jean even makes a return appearance in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (the fourth single released from Thriller).
All of these women and more were the targets of Michael’s wrath as the former Motown legend more often than not found himself singing of heartbreak, torment and regret when it came to the opposite sex.
What follows below is the blog’s ranking of the 20 best MJ songs involving these femme fatales, whether they were identified by name or by inference. No room for “The Lady In My Life,” “Pretty Young Thing” or “Liberian Girl” on this list; it’s strictly for the bad-for-him women.
Which ones of these 20 MJ classics (and non-classics) about troublemaking women made you empathize with the pop icon the most? Feel free to comment at the end of the article or in any of the social media feeds where this blog is posted.
Twenty. “Blood On The Dance Floor”
If you thought Susie was your friend, think again. Michael warned us that, while the name sounded innocent enough, Susie was out to kill. When the King of Pop sang “look who took you under with seven inches in,” many people couldn’t decide whether he was referring to the murder weapon of choice or something more phallic. Given the song’s title, we can safely assume it was the former (we think).
Nineteen. “The Girl Is Mine” (w/ Paul McCartney)
Thriller’s first single’s premise is sweet enough: two pop icons playfully fighting over the same girl (and guaranteeing a huge chart hit in the process), but did anyone ever look at this from the perspective that “the girl” at the center of it all was a two-timing, gold-digging hustler? Michael would revisit this territory with another superstar (Stevie Wonder and “Just Good Friends”) on his next album Bad, but that one didn’t quite make this list.
Eighteen. “Monkey Business”
By 1991, Michael was pissed. He was tired of all the media speculation about his private life and his, umm, eccentricities (and that was before the sexual misconduct allegations). Michael vented his frustrations in this song that was part of the Dangerous sessions but never made the album’s track list. Although most of the song’s absurdly worded lyrical attacks are vague in nature, the choruses focus on one woman in particular—a philandering mother-in-law—who we learn in the final chorus has kids by none other than her son-in-law’s brother. What!?!?
Seventeen. “She’s Trouble”
This is one of several tunes from the Thriller recording sessions in 1982 that didn’t make the album’s final track list but show up in this ranking. The song’s title says it all, yet while Michael knows the trouble that awaits him, he can’t seem to pull himself away, as he jubilantly sings: “she may be bad but she feels so good, I’ll give her anything she wants. She’s trouble…and I love it!”
Sixteen. “Petals” (Jackson 5)
The Jackson 5’s 1971 fourth album (excluding the 1970 Christmas set) featured two love songs (“Never Can Say Goodbye” and title track “Maybe Tomorrow”) as its hit singles, but it was the album cut “Petals” and its play on the “she loves, me she loves me not” catchphrase that gave early indication of Michael’s preoccupation with indecisive, noncommittal women. In the song’s final chorus, a cherubic MJ sings: “yesterday she picked me up, just to throw me down…yesterday, I couldn’t lose but today I sing the blues.” Poor kid.
Fifteen. “Your Ways” (Jacksons)
Here is the first of three songs on this list from the Jacksons’ stellar 1980 album Triumph, and this one—with its eerie backing vocal—was written by eldest brother Jackie (whose voice it may be in that background). But it’s Michael’s recently discovered falsetto (see 1979’s “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough”) that carried the message about another woman who’s doing him wrong. He sings during the bridge: “No more believin’ in every word you say. Persuasions deceiving but I’m wise in every way. And I know about your playin’ with every guy in town, so this time I’m saying you won’t fool me around.” He later concludes the woman in question is simply “no good.”
Fourteen. “Walk Right Now” (Jacksons)
The Jacksons were highly underrated as composers, as evidenced by this cleverly worded songwriting collaboration between Michael and his brothers Jackie and Randy (from the Triumph album). The song’s signature may be energetic, but the dance beat disguises a tale of woe about a woman with an aggressive heart who Michael concludes, due to her inability to commit, that she really isn’t “the one.” Michael emphatically sings: “she comes to the door crying at my feet. Guilt shines in her eyes as she slowly sinks in deep.” Michael finally implores her to “walk right now” and “love elsewhere!” It’s six-and-a-half minutes of pure sonic pleasure!
Thirteen. “Behind The Mask”
This synthy number with an ominous melody was recorded during the Thriller sessions in 1982 but didn’t make the album’s final track list. It’s a shame, because with some finishing touches, this tune might have been better than at least two or three of the songs that did make the cut. In this one, MJ sings: “All along I knew you were a phony, girl. You sit behind the mask and you control your world.” Later he admits: “you got me scared, girl!”
Twelve. “Workin’ Day and Night”
This fast-tempo tune from Jackson’s Off The Wall album had folks groovin’ in dance clubs everywhere in 1979/80. But in the song, MJ sang about a woman who didn’t appreciate the long hours he was putting in at the job just to keep her happy, while he was getting no loving in return. In the end, he finally alleges: “you must be seeing some other guy instead of me,” a paranoia of Michael’s that plays out in many of the songs on this list.
This is a song from MJ’s 2001 album Invincible. It’s a guilty pleasure full of late-‘90s/early-2000’s dated sound effects and production techniques courtesy of Jackson and then-hot song creator Rodney Jerkins. This quirky number finds Michael describing an elusive seductress who’s “playing games“ with his heart, but he “can see right through her, she’s a heartbreaker.” She’s not aware that the King of Pop is onto her game and he’s capable of flipping the script and that “she’ll get played just the same.”
Future duet partner and fellow superstar Paul McCartney wrote this ditty for Michael’s Off the Wall album in 1979. In it, the King of Pop is once again dealing with a two-timer, except this time it isn’t deterring him from pursuing what he wants: for him to be her only boyfriend, which means he has to do what any self-respecting guy would do in a similar situation: confront his girlfriend’s other boyfriend and tell him everything she’s doing with the King of Pop late at night and implore the other guy to leave her alone. Messy indeed.
Michael originally recorded this tale of his involvement with a cheating woman in 1999 while making the Invincible album (released two years later). But it was left off that album and didn’t see the light of day until 2014 when Timbaland remixed it as part of the posthumous Xscape project. There’s something intriguing about Michael explaining his way out of being on the wrong side of a love triangle (again): “she tried to live a double life, lovin’ me while she was still your wife. She thought that lovin’ me was cool, with you at work and the kids at school.” How dare Michael go all adult on us…and this time with a woman who was married?
Eight. “Can’t Let Her Get Away”
From the 1991 album Dangerous came this stellar funk/new jack track that should’ve been released as a single (this would’ve been in 1993 after there had already been eight singles released from the album). Still, Michael revisited the oft-repeated tale of unrequited love in this absolute jam(!) that was more memorable for its ability to get our butts shaking than for the girl he couldn’t let get away. That outcome was assured despite all of the things he did for her, according to the song’s lyrics, including changing the rules for her and, of course, playing the fool for her.
Seven. “Don’t Know Why I Love You” (Jackson 5)
From the Jackson 5’s second album ABC came this amazing performance by an 11-year-old Michael about unrequited love at the hands of a girl who, by rule, treats him like a fool. In one stanza, he sings: “you’ll never stop your cheating ways…with another guy you laughed in my face. Lord how long must I be disgraced?” If his cherubic singing of the song’s forlorn verses didn’t tug at your heartstrings, then his emotionally delivered ad libs at the end surely will. Pure ear candy!
Michael’s troubles with women of ill repute culminated on the 1991 album Dangerous, to the extent that he decided to name the entire project in one such woman’s (dis)honor. In the title song’s lyrics, Michael gave a gripping account of the woman’s seductiveness, including her hair, her face, her “lines,” which the King of Pop summed up as “divinity in motion.” But the danger was made clear by the second verse, where Michael recalled: “she came at me in sections with the eyes of desire; I felt trapped into her web of sin… Deep in the darkness of passion’s insanity, I felt taken by love’s inhumanity.” He concludes: “This girl was persuasive, this girl I could not trust. The girl was bad, the girl was dangerous!” Eeek!
Five. “Torture” (Jacksons)
This is perhaps the Jacksons’ best post-Thriller song as a group. It harkened back to the collaborative days when Michael and Jermaine (who reunited with his brothers in 1984) shared lead vocals and Jackie ad libbed during the coda. The song—the second single released from ‘84’s Victory—begins as a fantasy, with Jermaine describing a place “so bad that even Hell disowned it.” But the woman at the center of it all—another seductress—comes into focus by the time Michael jumps in during the second verse. He sings: “She was up a stair to nowhere, a room forever I’ll remember. She stared as though I should have known her. ‘Tell me what’s your pain or pleasure.’” The chorus sums it up: “Baby, ‘cause you cut me like a knife, without your love in my life. Alone I walk in the night ‘cause I just can’t stop this feeling. It’s torture!”
Four. “The Love You Save” (Jackson 5)
Michael was only eleven when he recorded this No. 1 smash with his brothers as the Jackson 5. He hadn’t yet reached puberty (we think), but that didn’t mean his little heart couldn’t be broken by some pretty young thing. In this song’s case, his love interest was a party to four other kiss-and-tell affairs: with Isaac (Sir Isaac Newton), Benji (Benjamin Franklin), Alexander (Graham Bell) and Christopher (Columbus). Okay, there was definitely a clever educational angle to this cheater’s tale, but she was a cheater nonetheless… well, as much as a preteen girl could be.
Three. “Heartbreak Hotel” (Jacksons)
The setting in this Jacksons tune from the incredible Triumph album played out like a house of horrors for lovers, where the hired help—all women—were placed there specifically to break up young unsuspecting couples. In Michael’s case, he and his “baby”encountered evil women like Sefra and Sue (and every girl that he knew), which didn’t work out too well for him in the end. Speaking of heartbreak, the song flew up the Billboard soul charts and quickly reached No. 2, spending five frustrating weeks stuck in that position behind two No. 1 soul classics: Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” and Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage” in early 1981. It was the last time the Jacksons came that close to hitting No. 1 as a group.
Two. “Dirty Diana”
This history-making No. 1 tune from Bad made Michael the first artist to get five chart-toppers from the same album (a feat matched by Katy Perry in 2011). While the alliterative name was convenient for tabloid fodder, with many speculating whether the “Diana” in question was Motown icon Ms. Ross, Michael’s lyrics were mostly about Diana the Groupie, an autobiographical reflection on all the opportunistic women Jackson’s brothers would encounter during their younger J-5 days. A gritty tale indeed, and one that was perhaps MJ’s rockingest jam ever!
One. “Billie Jean”
The granddaddy of them all (or is it grandmama?). This No. 1 tale of woe and regret (and denial) set the bar high for everything that followed from Mike. And that metaphorical refrain—“dance on the floor in the round”—should have sparked a new slang term for doing you-know-what for years to come! “Billie Jean” became legendary when it was added to an otherwise rock-oriented MTV in February 1983 and then again when MJ performed it on “Motown 25” three months later. By then it was his biggest hit and even had folks wondering for a hot minute: was there a real “Billie Jean” out there? It turns out there wasn’t, but it would be the beginning of our long fascination with MJ and all the contemptible women he would later sing about.
And there you have it…the 20 greatest songs by Michael Jackson that were about the women who were his tormentors, predators, seductresses, cheaters and liars.
Provide your comments below and let us hear what you think about the rankings and whether we missed one of your favorites.
Michael Jackson legacy upholder DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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