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Michael Jackson - Billie Jean (1983)

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“Billie Jean” is a song by American singer Michael Jackson, released by Epic Records on January 2, 1983, as the ...

“Billie Jean” is a song by American singer Michael Jackson, released by Epic Records on January 2, 1983, as the second single from Jackson’s sixth studio album, Thriller (1982). It was written and composed by Jackson and produced by Jackson and Quincy Jones. “Billie Jean” blends post-disco, rhythm and blues, funk and dance-pop. The lyrics describe a woman, Billie Jean, who claims that the narrator is the father of her newborn son, which he denies. Jackson said the lyrics were based on groupies’ claims about his older brothers when he toured with them as the Jackson 5.

“Billie Jean” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, topped the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart within three weeks, and became Jackson’s fastest-rising number one single since “ABC”, “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” in 1970, which he recorded as a member of the Jackson 5. It remained at number one for nine weeks on the chart. Billboard ranked it as the No. 2 song for 1983. “Billie Jean” is certified 6x Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The song has sold over 10 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time. It was also a number one hit in the UK, France, Switzerland and Belgium for example, and reached the top ten in many other countries. “Billie Jean” was one of the best-selling singles of 1983, helping Thriller become the best-selling album of all time, and became Jackson’s best-selling solo single.

Jackson’s performance of “Billie Jean” on the TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever won acclaim and was nominated for an Emmy Award. It introduced a number of Jackson’s signatures, including the moonwalk and white sequined glove, and was widely imitated. The “Billie Jean” music video, directed by Steve Barron, was the first video by a black artist to be aired in heavy rotation on MTV. Along with the other videos produced for Thriller, it helped establish MTV’s cultural importance and make music videos an integral part of popular music marketing. The spare, bass-driven arrangement of “Billie Jean” helped pioneer what one critic called “sleek, post-soul pop music”. It also introduced a more paranoid lyrical style for Jackson, a trademark of his later music.

“Billie Jean” was awarded honors including two Grammy Awards and an American Music Award. In a list compiled by Rolling Stone and MTV in 2000, the song was ranked as the sixth greatest pop song since 1963. In 2004, Rolling Stone placed it at number 58 on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. Frequently listed in magazine polls of the best songs ever made, “Billie Jean” was named the greatest dance record of all time by BBC Radio 2 listeners.

Reception

On November 30, 1982, Thriller was released to critical and commercial success. On January 2, 1983, “Billie Jean” was released as the album’s second single; it follows Jackson’s successful duet with Paul McCartney on “The Girl Is Mine”. The song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on March 5, 1983. Billboard ranked it as the No. 2 song for 1983. “Billie Jean” topped the R&B chart within three weeks, and became Jackson’s fastest-rising number one single since “ABC”, “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” in 1970, which he recorded as a member of the Jackson 5. It remained at number one for nine weeks on the R&B chart, being preceded by the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”, before the single was eventually succeeded by George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”. “Billie Jean” peaked at number 9 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It was also number one in the UK Singles Chart. “Billie Jean” and Thriller topped both the singles and album charts in the same week. This occurred on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously, a feat very few acts have ever achieved. The song was the third best selling single of 1983 in the US and ninth in the UK. “Billie Jean” also reached number one in Switzerland and Belgium, and the top ten in Austria, Italy, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.

In a Rolling Stone review, Christopher Connelly described “Billie Jean” as a “lean, insistent funk number whose message couldn’t be more blunt: ‘She says I am the one/But the kid is not my son'”. He added that the track was a “sad, almost mournful song, but a thumping resolve underlies [Jackson’s] feelings”. Blender stated that the song was “one of the most sonically eccentric, psychologically fraught, downright bizarre things ever to land on Top 40 radio”. They added that it was “frighteningly stark, with a pulsing, cat-on-the-prowl bass figure, whip-crack downbeat and eerie multi-tracked vocals ricocheting in the vast spaces between keyboards and strings”. Overall, the magazine described the track as “a five-minute-long nervous breakdown, set to a beat”. Stylus said of the song, “It’s one of the best representations of film noir in pop music, ending with no resolution except a single mother and selfish, careless scumball.” In a review of Thriller 25, AllMusic observed that “Billie Jean” was “startling” in its “futuristic funk”. The track also won praise from Jackson biographers. Nelson George stated that Jerry Hey’s string arrangement added danger to “Billie Jean”, while J. Randy Taraborrelli added that it was “dark and sparse” by Quincy Jones’ production standards.

“Billie Jean” has been recognized with numerous awards and honors. At the 1984 Grammy Awards the song earned Jackson two of a record eight awards; Best R&B Song and Best R&B Male Vocal Performance. It won the Billboard Music Award for favorite dance / disco 12″ LP, and the magazine’s 1980’s poll named “Billie Jean” as the “Black Single of the Decade”. The American Music Awards recognized the track as the Favorite Pop/Rock Single, while Cash Box honored the song with the awards for Top Pop Single and Top Black Single. The track was recognised with the Top International Single award by the Canadian Black Music Awards, and awarded the Black Gold Award for Single of the Year. “Billie Jean” has also been awarded for its sales. It won the National Association of Recording Merchandisers Gift of Music award for best selling single in 1984. By 1989, the standard format single was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, for shipments of at least one million units. The digital sales of “Billie Jean” were certified gold in 2005, for shipments of at least 500,000 units. The digital sales of “Billie Jean” were certified 5x Platinum in US on August 23, 2018. In May 2014, a viral video of a high school-aged teenager imitating Jackson’s Motown 25 performance of the song helped the song re-enter the Billboard Hot 100 at number 14, with much of its chart performance was 95% credited to streams of the viral video.

Music video

A male is shown standing in a bent down position on his toes on top of an illuminated tile. He is wearing a black jacket and pants with white shoes and a pink shirt. Behind the male a grey narrow path can be seen as well as buildings in the far background.

Jackson landing on his toes and illuminating a tile in the music video for “Billie Jean”.

The “Billie Jean” music video debuted on March 10, 1983 on MTV. It brought MTV—until then a fairly new and unknown music channel—to mainstream attention. It was one of the first videos by a black artist to be aired regularly by the channel, as the network’s executives felt black music was not “rock” enough. Directed by Steve Barron, the video shows a photographer who follows Jackson. The paparazzo never catches him, and when photographed Jackson fails to materialize on the developed picture. He dances to Billie Jean’s hotel room and as he walks along a sidewalk, each tile lights up at his touch.

After he performs a quick spin, Jackson jumps and lands, freeze framed, on his toes. Upon arrival at the hotel, Jackson climbs the staircase to Billie Jean’s room. Each step lights up as he touches it and a burnt out “Hotel” sign illuminates as he passes. The paparazzo then arrives at the scene and watches as Jackson vanishes under the covers of Billie Jean’s bed. Trailed by the police, the paparazzo is then arrested for spying on Billie Jean. Jackson sported a new look for the video; Jackson’s clothes, a black leather suit with a pink shirt and a red bow tie, were copied by children around the US. Imitation became so severe that, despite pupil protests, Bound Brook High School banned students from wearing a single white glove like Jackson had on during the performance of “Billie Jean” at Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.

Walter Yetnikoff, the president of Jackson’s record company CBS Records, approached MTV about playing the “Billie Jean” video, which MTV had not ever played in spite of Jackson’s success as a musical artist. Yetnikoff became enraged when MTV refused to play the video, and he threatened to go public with MTV’s stance on racial discrimination. “I said to MTV, ‘I’m pulling everything we have off the air, all our product. I’m not going to give you any more videos. And I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a black guy.'” MTV relented and played the “Billie Jean” video in heavy rotation. After the video was aired, Thriller went on to sell an additional 10 million copies. The short film was inducted into the Music Video Producers Hall of Fame in 1992. In a 2005 poll of 31 pop stars, video directors, agents, and journalists conducted by telecommunications company 3, the music video was ranked fifth in their “Top 20 Music Videos Ever”. The video was also ranked as the 35th greatest music video in a list compiled by MTV and TV Guide at the millennium.

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