My Favorite Music Videos, Part Eleven: Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’

I have this love/hate thing going on with the artist that was Michael Jackson.

The love started with little Michael singing “ABC” and “Rockin’ Robin” with the rest of the Jackson 5. And it continued on through “Never Can Say Goodbye,” through the “Off the Wall” album, and even into “Thriller.” But it started going the other direction not long after that.

Since 1950 we’ve been fortunate enough to see four artists who were musical geniuses: Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, the Beatles (collectively)…and Michael Jackson.

There is no question that Jackson’s music is an amazing body of work…although, toward the end, his personal life started to interfere with his public persona, his popularity was down and he wasn’t selling records like before.

His life seemed full of odd events: sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, creating his personal theme park (Neverland), the endless plastic surgeries, the skin bleaching, the odd relationships he had with women, the strange way he seemed to be raising his children.

And, of course, the alleged molestation of young boys.

We’d seen before how being too rich could ruin a person. Howard Hughes’ odd behavior as he grew older is the stuff of legend; as was that of Elvis.

It’s said that you grow to trust no one, that you suspect everyone–even loved ones and close friends–wants something from you, so you withdraw to a solitary existence. When you do exhibit odd behavior, there’s no one that you can trust to point it out (not that you would likely listen anyway).

You are very rich and whatever the cost, it’s of no concern…so you create your own reality–to paraphrase a punchline from an old dirty joke–because you can.

Fortunately, we have Michael Jackson on film, videotape and digital media to enjoy…before all the weird stuff started to happen (or, at least before we learned about it).

“Billie Jean” was the second single released from the 1982 “Thriller” album, which went on to become the best selling record of all time. The previous music video and single was “Beat It,” which was a classic in its own right…but I like “Billie Jean” much much better.

Jackson said the song was about the groupies that would hang around the backstage door of a Jackson 5 concert. However, in the book “Michael Jackson–The Music and the Madness,” author J Randy Taraborrelli says it’s actually about a 1981 real-life experience with a mentally unstable fan who claimed that Jackson had slept with her and conceived a child. She wrote many letters to him, professing her great love for him and asking when they could be together to raise the child. Her demands grew more and more bizarre until she was eventually committed to a state mental hospital.

The gimmick or “hook” in this video is that almost everything Jackson touches lights up with an eerie internal glow. Also, he does not appear in photographs by a paparazzi who is stalking him.

I say almost because, if you watch carefully, not all of the squares on the sidewalk light up as Jackson makes contact with them. I recall hearing a story that there were problems with the squares, that sometimes they would not light up properly. Also, not all squares had lights in them. They did a “dry run” of Jackson’s walk and dance moves, and installed lights in the ones he stepped on. In the course of shooting, even though he was advised which squares had the lights, sometimes he accidentally stepped onto the non-lit ones. After several takes they figured it was the best they were going to get.

Also, the handrail of the staircase doesn’t light up, although the steps do as he walks up them…and, the “H O T E L” sign illuminates from bottom to top to match his ascent.

Watching it now, it all seems so simple, compared to what we are seeing in the present tense. But this was thirty years ago…years before the powerful computer animation that’s often utilized and we take so much for granted.

This was a powerful video from an artist whose work has changed the musical world forever, and will continue to inspire others in the future.

(Click here to see it if the video above doesn’t load or play properly)


(On March 25, 1983 Jackson performed on the Motown Records: 25th Anniversary broadcast with his brothers as the Jackson 5, who then left him alone onstage to perform “Billie Jean.” It’s within this video [actually, at about the 3:35 mark] that Jackson breaks into his now-signature Moonwalk, which as it turns out was actually performed by many others prior to his demonstration of it.

Yeah, he lip-synced it, but so what? It’s a classic. You can see that video here.)


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