243. Michael Jackson – ‘Billie Jean’ (1982)

“The kid is not my son”

Taken from the album Thriller

US #1, UK #1, AUS #1

So a lot of people will tell you this is the best Michael Jackson song. I do not agree, but I don’t think the impact or quality of ‘Billie Jean’ can really be overestimated. I mean… it’s ‘Billie Jean’. I could just end this article now and you’d all nod in agreement and say “I know exactly what you mean, Richard”. You know, just like you do at the end of every other article, except this time I won’t have said my usual witty, hilarious, insightful, not-at-all-repetitive commentary.

‘Billie Jean’ is the first hint of the theme that would come to define Michael Jackson’s music: paranoia. “Be careful what you do”, “the law was on her side”, “remember to always think twice” – this song is a warning, against women, against the outside world. It’s not about ‘Billie Jean’ because she doesn’t exist. The people who do exist, however, are the ones clawing at Michael Jackson – fans, money-grabbers, lawyers, other musicians. By saying “the kid is not my son” it’s a metaphor for an easy way out, and Michael wishes he could find one. The lyrics “mother always told me, be careful who you love, and be careful what you do because the lie becomes the truth” are scarily close to the reality of Michael’s later life.

Three things: the bassline, the video, the Motown 25 performance. Each an important factor in this song’s success and reputation. The bassline is unbelievably infectious, as evidenced by any remix that removes it automatically turning out shit: it is just as much a part of the song as Michael’s anguished vocals or the catchy chorus. The video positioned Michael as some sort of alien being who could light up any object and turn shite into gold – but why was this awesome guy walking around so lonely and sad? He flips a coin and turns a homeless guy into a rich guy, much like he can turn any old song into something special, yet he is still not satisfied. The Motown 25 performance, however, saw Michael at his absolute best: when he moonwalks across the stage, it’s like the world is more alive at that very moment, the breath just gets knocked out of you. And it hasn’t worn off with time either, it happens every single time I see it. That moment, like the song that accompanied it, was electrifying.

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