Turning 30: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”

Maybe it’s because “Billie Jean” became the first video performed by a Black artist to be seen on MTV that made the song special. Maybe it’s because “Billie Jean” was the song where Michael Jackson introduced to us his “moonwalk”. Maybe it’s because of the speculation that ensued after the song’s release—wrapping Michael into a controversy of a story where a demented fan falsely accused him of impregnating her—that got us caught up. Whatever it was, we got very caught up with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the second single released from the 1982 album Thriller.  And many of us, myself included, became steadfast fans of the gloved one ever since.

In March of 1983, audiences around the country were glued to their television sets when Michael Jackson and his brothers convened for the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever special to commemorate the landmark anniversary of the legendary record label. I was part of that audience, in elementary school and already a big fan of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, possessing every record they had recorded in the 70s and onward. When Michael broke away from the group to perform his new single “Billie Jean,” I nearly lost my mind. I had gotten my mother to purchase my copy of the album Thriller for my birthday the December before, and already knew every song on the album and remember mouthing the words as he danced. MJ’s performance would go on to be legendary, as he slid across the floor in a way unlike anything we had ever seen.

“What is he doing?” I remember asking, watching him glide backwards, pushing back on his toes.

No one knew, but we couldn’t tear our eyes away. And from that day on to the end of the school year, my friends and I tried to replicate it in our individual ways, never quite getting it right, it seemed.

“Billie Jean” has been viewed as a song of revolutionary proportions, given that the video’s release marked a transition for how we viewed music and how music was marketed and consumed. For Black artists in particular, it marked the breaking of the glass ceiling restricting them from being featured on MTV. Given the historical magnitude of the video being seen on the new video channel as a first for a Black artist, an accompanying film was produced to give viewers insight into the making of the video. This short film itself was inducted twenty years ago into the Music Producers Hall of Fame in 1992.

The 1982 album Thriller had so many hit singles on it that just about all of them can be celebrated within our “Turning 30” series. But “Billy Jean” will hold a special place in our memory as being the first song ever to cross-over into the mainstream video world, shaping our consumption of music and setting the bar high for innovation using the medium.

-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman

Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is a music writer based in Maryland. Visit her on KhadijahOnline.com.

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