‘Billie Jean’: Michael Jackson’s landmark single turns 30
“It is hard to say if there is a greater song than “Billie Jean.” I think there will never be a song like this one again, with this bassline, with this kind of effect, this eternalness, this perfection” — Pharrell Williams“Billie Jean,” arguably the most popular and celebrated track of the late Michael Jackson’s entire career, turned 30 years old today.
The story behind the making of the song is almost as memorable as the thumping dance track itself.
The paranoid lyrics, in which the King of Pop denies allegations of paternity to an unidentified child, were allegedly inspired by a real life crazed fan of Jackson’s, who actually allegedly claimed he’d fathered one of her twins.
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Jackson himself has also alluded to his older brothers’ run ins with groupies during his Jackson Five days as a source he drew from when composing the song.
“Billie Jean is kind of anonymous. It represents a lot of girls. They used to call them groupies in the ’60s,” he said in a 1996 interview. “They would hang around backstage doors, and any band that would come to town they would have a relationship with, and I think I wrote this out of experience with my brothers when I was little. There were a lot of Billie Jeans out there. Every girl claimed that their son was related to one of my brothers.”
Producer Quincy Jones nearly rejected the now iconic song for the blockbuster 1982 album Thriller. He reportedly wasn’t a fan of its celebrated bassline or its intro. Jones also apparently wanted to nix the song’s title, for fear that audiences would think it was a reference to tennis great Billie Jean King. MJ fans today take heart that he was overruled by the King of Pop on every front.
The single hit number one on the Billboard charts and stayed there for 7 weeks. It also spawned a classic music video largely credited for breaking an unofficial color barrier on MTV. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the song led to Jackson’s most famous performance of “the moonwalk” on a Motown 25th anniversary special.
Today, “Billie Jean” is still a ubiquitous presence on dance floors around the country; its pure pop perfection has not been diluted at all in 30 years.