The official music video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ marked the first time a black recording artist was featured on the then-new MTV network, and it marked the beginning of a long, up-and-down relationship between the former child-performer-turned-adult-superstar and the media. You can argue that Jackson wouldn’t have been half the star he rose to become without outlets like MTV. You can also argue that his reputation wouldn’t have fallen so low without them either.
The interesting thing about the music video is that it hardly resembles Jackson’s live performance of the song. Pop culture history suggests that everyone who was around a television set during that time could recall the images from the video—the sidewalk blocks lighting up under Jackson’s feet, the noir set and storyline, maybe even the red bow tie—but did he moonwalk in the video? No, that was in the live performance. What about the single white glove? No, that was live as well.
As memorable and iconic as the video was in its own right, the aspects of ‘Billie Jean’ that people most remember all came from the song’s first widely-seen performance at the Motown 25 anniversary special, shot in March 1983 and aired on national television the following May. This performance, however, almost didn’t happen. Event organisers had difficulty locking Jackson down for that night, rumoured to be on the account that Michael did not want to perform with his brothers. Michael and his brothers, who performed under the group name, the Jackson 5, had performed together for roughly twenty years. Michael, who had finally achieved solo success and a more adult sound with 1979’s Off the Wall, was now dominating the pop charts with Thriller and, most likely in his mind, was furthest away from the bubblegum pop that made his brothers and him stars in the first place. Eventually, Jackson agreed to perform with his brothers at Motown 25 on the condition that he also be granted a solo spot.
To describe Michael as a show stealer that night might be as unfair as it is accurate. After all, despite the Jackson 5 being a group act, Michael was technically their lead singer and emerged as a frontman very early on. However, what seemed clear that night, or even clearer than on any other night the Jackson 5 performed previously, was that people wanted to see Michael and he knew it.
Richard Pryor introduced the group that night as ‘the original Jackson 5’, who hadn’t performed together since Jermaine left the group in 1975. Amid raucous applause the brothers took their spots and, even though each one of them was dressed to stand out, it seemed to be Michael’s sequined black jacket, glittery white glove and matching socks that stood out the most.
They performed a medley of hits (a medley that Jackson would continue to perform on all his solo concert tours for the rest of his life) in addition to a truncated version of ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’. After, the applause resumed, more spirited than it had started, and the brothers bowed and gave each other hugs.
Then came Michael’s solo performance. His brothers walked off the stage as Michael stood alone, addressing the crowd. ‘Those were the good ol’ days,’ he said. ‘Those were good songs. I like those songs a lot, but, especially, I like… the new songs.’ The subtly dismissive comment was only punctuated by Michael flicking a fedora on his head in dramatic fashion as the drum beat to ‘Billie Jean’ filled the auditorium. If you watch the filmed footage, one camera with an audience eye view is forced to rise to see above the people in front of it, who have now all stood up to watch Jackson perform.
This particular performance is considered iconic for a few different reasons. Michael’s referral to the Jackson 5 medley as the old songs, along with the intensity he saved for one of the new songs, propelled him further into solo stardom and further away from anything he had done in the past. Jackson’s choreography, seen en masse for the first time, would go on to be the blueprint for every ‘Billie Jean’ performance after that, whether by Jackson himself or imitators, the only changes made for the sole purpose of accentuating the already present details to make the performance even more iconic. There was also the look in his eyes, an undeniable determination that he was not going to be categorised, not going to be held back, not by his brothers nor his parents nor his upbringing nor the prejudices against his race. It seemed like the first instance that Michael Jackson, already a star, had his eyes on a level so high up that everyone else had trouble seeing.
The jacket, glove, and hat would become ‘Billie Jean’ signifiers. It is undoubtedly a fan favourite, and Jackson himself had been known to state that it was his favourite song to perform. After the success of ‘Billie Jean’ made both the song and its performance legendary, Jackson found ways to amplify it, in his trademark theatrical/noirish fashion. Later performances involved an extended introduction that never failed to tantalise the audience. These performances began with a dark stage with a lone spotlight. Jackson’s tap dance loafers would click loudly as he walked toward the spotlight, carrying a briefcase, looking uncharacteristically meek, akin to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. (A brief yet interesting aside: Jackson had been known to idolise the silent film star, one would assume in the latter’s wholesomeness, storytelling abilities, and, perhaps most importantly, Chaplin’s fluidity of motion. In fact, certain signature dance moves, especially the playful strut that has come to be associated with performances of ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, look straight out of Chaplin’s movement arsenal.)
Transformation is a concept long associated with Michael Jackson but it is hardly ever associated in a positive light. The obvious points are there; it is the less obvious, less discussed points for which Jackson deserves more credit. This extended introduction played with transformation in a couple of ways. In contrast to how he began the Motown performance and other early performances (that is: suddenly, without warning or buildup), the meek Michael Jackson would dawdle on stage, looking clueless and out of place, before finally setting his suitcase down on a stool and opening it up. One by one he would take out the jacket, then the glove, and lastly the hat, pausing each time with each item held up for the audience to see, register, and cheer. Once adorned with the outfit, he’d saunter toward the spotlight, wait a bit, then run in, flick the hat on his heat, and the drumbeat would begin.
One aspect of Jackson’s creative process that doesn’t get talked about often is the innovation that the musician and his production team exhibited in the recording studio. Many of the tracks from Off the Wall and Thriller, ‘Billie Jean’ most of all, are often described as sleek; one writer even describing the post-disco sleekness as ‘alien,’ conjuring up an image of a spaceship with metal so smooth its origins seem otherworldly.
The recording process of ‘Billie Jean’ has often been chronicled, or in the very least brought up, since the song became an instant classic. Producer Quincy Jones strove for what he termed ‘sonic personality’. Even listening to it today, the song doesn’t sound dated like most of the disco hits prevalent from the era, or even some of the synth-heavy tracks of Jackson’s Bad, which were recorded some five years after ‘Billie Jean’.
In his book Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson, music journalist Nelson George credits Jackson’s childhood education in Motown with knowing when to employ the appropriate vocal approach to a certain song. ‘Unlike an R&B love song, wherein the singer has free reign to sign in and around the melody, a pop stylist works within the melody, only really cutting loose toward the last third of the song.’ The unique element that would become one of many trademark MJ characteristics is the musician’s talent for effective and emotive vocal ad-libbing. The technique would be utilised in more Jackson songs than not, and the ones that feature the best utilisation of this technique would inevitably join ‘Billie Jean’ on the Michael Jackson classics shelf. (‘Smooth Criminal’ and ‘Remember the Time’ come to mind right away.) Specifically regarding ‘Billie Jean’, George writes:
The balance of Michael’s urgent lead vocal and his backing arrangements is the record’s emotional core. […] All his asides and flourishes are so well placed that they sound like wordless pleas for help, conveying exasperation and discomfort, fear and frustration. Yet they are always in the song’s pocket, driving the track into the realm of pop anthem even while exorcising a very personal demon.
The song’s ad-libbing carries a certain unique quality, however, that sets it apart even from his other songs. Jones had the idea of having Jackson deliver his ad-libs through a six-foot long cardboard mail tube; the distance you hear from his background vocals are legitimately coming from the background and, in the context of the song’s story, also seem to come from a faraway time, like hindsight.
Of course, Jackson fans know the exact timing, tone, and pitch of each vocal ad-lib in the ‘Billie Jean’ recording. That, along with the performance’s equally well-known choreography, makes ‘Billie Jean’ perhaps the most impersonated Michael Jackson performance.
In May 2014 a video surfaced online of a young man dressed in a black jacket, penny loafers, black fedora, and a single white glove on his right hand. The young man thrusted his pelvis to the beat, kicked, spun, and flung his hat to the side to reveal a head of strawberry-blond, in a bowl-cut that only gave him away as a high school student. The gymnasium setting also cemented his status, yet whatever his feet said convinced everyone watching that he was nothing short of being a performer. He wasn’t Michael Jackson, but the jacket, glove, and hat signified and conjured up the man, despite the fact that he had been dead for five years. The student ended up winning the talent contest.
Michael Jackson died on 25 June 2009. Weeks prior, he had been in rehearsal sessions for the string of fifty concerts he had planned but never got the chance to do. Most of the rehearsal footage, which ended up being compiled, edited, and then released as a documentary called This Is It shortly after his death, featured Jackson getting a feel for what he could still do on the stage. He was fifty years old at the the time of filming and visibly much frailer than we were used to seeing him. Considering the amount of plastic surgery, make-up, and facial obstructions (sunglasses, surgical masks, etc.) that we would come to associate with Jackson in his last years, it is easy to forget that he was still ageing like the rest of us.
The planned tour, in addition to being equal parts comeback and farewell, was also going to be an exercise in over-the-top facade, nothing new for a Michael Jackson concert except for the fact that, considering everything, Jackson seemed like he was planning to be part of the spectacle rather than the spectacle. Instead, his legacy would take centre stage. The tour’s success seemed almost contingent on not only the loyalty of his fan base but the legacy he had built his whole career. And having said all that, the tour was going to be a success even before it was scheduled to begin. The tour was originally scheduled for ten concerts, but concert promoters AEG Live convinced Jackson to expand the number of shows to 50, based on record-setting ticket sellouts for the original ten shows.
Despite the fact that fifty shows sounded a bit grueling, Jackson seemed at least partly in touch with his physical limitations. During rehearsals he would perform at half-speed, oftentimes making it clear that he must conserve his energy and save his voice for the real shows. During a rehearsal for ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’, the power in his voice makes a brief cameo, and he is almost angry with himself afterwards for letting himself get carried away.
In an effort to make his somewhat limited live performance capabilities less apparent, Jackson and crew strove to make the show a full-blown feast for the senses. Most of the numbers would have a film accompanying it. With a captivating film playing behind him, and some of the world’s most talented dancers surrounding him, Jackson could effectively act out, or supplement, his legacy, and his fans, arguably some of the most supportive, some would say forgiving, in all the world, would probably still be happy.
And as a Jackson fan, how could you not? The musician was planning to give his fans what they wanted. He would sing and perform his hits very close to how he had done them in the past. He was planning the lean-over move for ‘Smooth Criminal’, starting ‘Beat It’ atop a cherrypicker like on previous tours, and, of course, the Jackson 5 medley. And what about ‘Billie Jean’?
Ironically enough, the last filmed performance of Jackson himself doing ‘Billie Jean’ did not feature any of the three signifiers that previously proved essential to the song’s performance. Instead, the older Jackson mimicked the moves of his younger self one last time. He lip-synced the track and went through the motions of the original choreography, but this time, he tailored those moves to fit with his current capabilities. Nelson George made this observation: ‘Using his arms and fingers and holding his torso at precise angels that dramatize every movement, Jackson remakes ‘Billie Jean’ as a dance for an older, wiser man.’ George also makes mention that, during the rehearsal routine, a group of his dancers had assembled in front of the stage and began cheering him on. When he finished, his dancers erupted in applause, and Jackson said quietly, ‘Well, we got a good feel for it,’ and walked offstage. George calls it ‘Michael’s last act of magic.’
My personal favourite performance of ‘Billie Jean’ took place at a concert in Wembley, London, during Jackson’s Bad tour in 1988. By then, ‘Billie Jean’ was five years old, and Michael’s star was at its apex. He was riding the crest of Bad‘s phenomenal sales (albeit a cool 6 million compared to Thriller), but his face had changed and his skin was lighter. He had broken his nose during a dance routine sometime prior and had reconstructive surgery to repair the injury, and nowadays Jackson’s vitiligo is common knowledge, but the fact that he was not offering explanations to the press (he had admitted in later interviews that he was always sensitive about his appearance) brought along speculations of his insecurity, vanity, and, most hurtful to him, that he was ashamed to be black.
As shy, awkward, and oftentimes defensive as he would appear to be in the few televised interviews he did during his life, he seemed almost always the most comfortable, the most confident, on stage. This particular performance is a good example of that. Unlike the legendary Motown performance, he sings the song live in addition to nailing the choreography effortlessly. At that point in his career, he wasn’t impersonating anyone. He was being himself.