Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
Side-A label of U.S. 7-inch vinyl single
|Single by Michael Jackson|
|from the album Thriller|
|Released||January 2, 1983|
|Michael Jackson singles chronology|
“Billie Jean” is a song by American singer Michael Jackson. It is the second single from the singer’s sixth solo album, Thriller (1982). It was written and composed by Jackson and produced by him and Quincy Jones. There are contradictory claims on the meaning of the song’s lyrics. One suggests that they are derived from a real-life experience, in which a female fan claimed that Jackson (or one of his brothers) had fathered one of her twins. However, Jackson himself stated that “Billie Jean” was based on groupies he had encountered. The song is well known for its distinctive bassline played by Louis Johnson and Jackson’s vocal hiccups. The song was mixed 91 times by audio engineer Bruce Swedien before it was finalized, though he reportedly went with the 2nd mix as the final product.
The song became a worldwide commercial and critical success; it was one of the best-selling singles of 1983 and is one of the best-selling singles worldwide. The song topped both the US and UK charts simultaneously. In other countries, it topped the charts of Switzerland and reached the top ten in Austria, Italy, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden. “Billie Jean” was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 1989. Rolling Stone magazine placed the song in the 58th spot on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Awarded numerous honours—including two Grammy Awards, one American Music Award, and an induction into the Music Video Producers Hall of Fame—the song and corresponding music video helped propel Thriller to the status of best-selling album of all time. The song was promoted with a short film that broke down MTV‘s racial barrier as the first video by a black artist to be aired in heavy rotation. Also, Jackson’s Emmy-nominated performance on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, in which Jackson premiered his “moonwalk“, helped to popularize the song. It was additionally promoted through Jackson’s Pepsi commercials; during the filming of one commercial, Jackson’s scalp was severely burned. Covered by modern artists, “Billie Jean” sealed Jackson’s status as an international pop icon.
There never was a real Billie Jean. The girl in the song is a composite of people my brothers have been plagued with over the years. I could never understand how these girls could say they were carrying someone’s child when it wasn’t true.
Jackson stated several times that “Billie Jean” was based on the groupies he and his brothers encountered while part of The Jackson 5. “Billie Jean is kind of anonymous. It represents a lot of girls. They used to call them groupies in the ’60s.” He added: “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.”
Jackson’s biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli promoted the theory that “Billie Jean” was derived from a real life experience the singer faced in 1981. The Magic & The Madness documents how a young woman wrote Jackson a letter, which informed the singer that he was the father of one of her twins. Jackson, who regularly received letters of this kind, had never met the woman in question and ignored it. The woman, however, continued to send Jackson more letters, which stated that she loved him and wanted to be with him. She wrote of how happy they would be if they raised the child together. She pondered how Jackson could ignore his own flesh and blood. The letters disturbed the singer to the extent that he suffered nightmares.
Following the letters, Jackson received a parcel containing a photograph of the fan, as well as a letter and a gun. Jackson was horrified; the letter asked that the pop singer kill himself on a certain day and at a specific time. The fan would do the same once she had killed their baby. She wrote that if they could not be together in this life, then they would be in the next. To his mother’s dismay, Jackson had the photograph of the woman framed and hung above the dining room table of their family home. Afterwards, the Jacksons discovered that the fan had been sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Michael Jackson wrote “Billie Jean” with his female fans in mind, and later stated that when he wrote the song, he knew it would be a success: “A musician knows hit material. Everything has to feel in place. It fulfills you and it makes you feel good. That’s how I felt about ‘Billie Jean’. I knew it was going to be big when I was writing it.” The singer explained that he was so absorbed by the song that, in one instance, he did not notice that his car had caught fire as he drove down a freeway with a friend until a passing motorcyclist informed him. Jackson noted: “The kid probably saved our lives.”
Jackson faced numerous disagreements with the song’s co-producer. It has been reported that Quincy Jones did not want the song to appear on Thriller and that he felt that the song was too weak to be part of the collection, but Jones has stated this is a false rumor. The producer disliked the demo and did not care for the song’s bassline. Jones wanted to cut Jackson’s 29-second introduction, which was the longest one ever created at the time. The entertainer, however, insisted that it be kept. “I said, ‘Michael we’ve got to cut that intro’” Jones later recalled. “He said: ‘But that’s the jelly!'[…]’That’s what makes me want to dance’. And when Michael Jackson tells you, ‘That’s what makes me want to dance’, well, the rest of us just have to shut up.” Jones also wanted to change the track’s title to “Not My Lover”, as he believed that people would think the song referred to the tennis player Billie Jean King. Jackson refused to change the title and asked Jones to give him co-producing credits for the track, as he felt that the demo tape sounded exactly like the finished product. In addition, Jackson wanted extra royalties. Jones granted neither and the two fell out for several days.
Having resolved their differences, Jones had Jackson sing his vocal overdubs through a six-foot-long cardboard tube. Jackson’s entire lead vocal was performed in one take; he had received vocal training every morning throughout the production of the song. Jazz saxophonist Tom Scott played the lyricon. Bass guitarist Louis Johnson was then brought in and he played his part on every guitar he owned, before Jackson finally settled for a Yamaha bass. Greg Phillinganes was also drafted in and he played the keyboard. He later said of the song, “‘Billie Jean’ is hot on every level. It’s (sic) hot rhythmically moving action got Michael excited. It’s hot sonically, because the instrumentation is so minimal, you can really hear everything. It’s hot melodically […] lyrically [and] vocally. It affects you physically, emotionally, even spiritually.”
The song was mixed by Bruce Swedien ninety-one times — unusual for Swedien, who usually mixed a song just once. Jones had told Swedien to create a drum sound that no one had ever heard before. The audio engineer was also told to add a different element: “sonic personality”. “What I ended up doing was building a drum platform and designing some special little things, like a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood that goes between the snare and the hi-hat” Swedien later wrote. “The bottom line is that there aren’t many pieces of music where you can hear the first three or four notes of the drums, and immediately tell what the piece of music is.” He concluded, “But I think that is the case with ‘Billie Jean’ — and that I attribute to sonic personality.”
“Billie Jean” blends sounds of post-disco, rhythm and blues, funk, and dance-pop. The song opens with a standard drum beat along with a standard hi-hat, and it contains hardly any reverberation. After two bars, another standard open hi-hat enters. After two more bars, a repetitive bassline enters. Each time it passes through the tonic, the note is doubled by a distorted synth bass. This accompaniment is followed by a repetitive three-note synth, played staccato with a deep reverb. The defining chord progression is then established. Jackson’s quiet vocals enter, accompanied by a finger-snap, which comes and goes during the verses, as the rhythm and chord progression repeats.
According to Daryl Hall, when Jackson was recording “We Are the World,” Jackson approached him and admitted to lifting the bassline for “Billie Jean” from a Hall & Oates song (apparently referring to Hall’s “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” from the 1981 album Private Eyes): “Michael Jackson once said directly to me that he hoped I didn’t mind that he copied that groove.” Hall says he told Jackson that he had lifted the bassline himself, remarking, “it’s something we all do.”
According to Inside the Hits, the lyrics refer to the commotion created by Billie Jean on a dance floor. She entices the crowd with a seductive come-on before luring Jackson to her bedroom, through the fragrance of her perfume. Jackson’svocal range spanned from a high baritone to a falsetto and he usually wrote melodies to show this range. However, in the verses of “Billie Jean”, the singer’s vocals range from a tenor to a low falsetto. A four note falsetto is showcased in the chorus and, during the last line, Jackson peaks at a full octave. The song has a tempo of 117 beats per minute and is in the key of F♯ minor. Following the first chorus, a cello-like synth eases in at the beginnings of both the third, and later, the fourth, verses. Upon the announcement that the baby’s eyes resemble Jackson’s, a voice laments, “oh no”. This is met with Jackson’s signature falsetto “hee hee”. The bridge debuts the strings, and holds a pedal tone tonic with the exception of two lines and a chord leading into the chorus. Violins are then played, followed by a four-note minor guitar solo. During the solo, vocal shouts, screams and laughs are added. Throughout this, the chord progression remains unaltered and is laced with Jackson’s vocal hiccups. All the musical and vocal elements are then brought together in the final chorus. In the fade, Jackson repeats the denial of fathering Billie Jean’s child.