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Billie Jean

Billie Jean


by Michael Jackson


Released as a single on January 2, 1983, "Billie Jean" was - surprisingly in retrospect - the second single off of Thriller, Jackson's blockbuster 1982 album. Thriller's first single, the unambitious Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine," was commercially successful but didn't thrill critics, who saw it as a cynical attempt to sell records by appealing to an older, whiter audience still pining for long-lost Beatlemania. If that may have been true of "The Girl Is Mine," "Billie Jean" countered it with its lean funk disco sound. With its prowling bass line, instantly recognizable beat, and Jackson's signature vocal stylings, "Billie Jean" became a huge hit and a signature tune for a performer who was about to become the King of Pop.

Michael Jackson had already had plenty of hits, of course, dating back to his days as the baby-faced lead singer of the Jackson 5 boy band. What made "Billie Jean" different, what made it turn Jackson into the international super-duper-star, were the effects of the path-breaking music video, directed by Steve Barron. The video features Jackson walking a desolate city as everything he touches literally turns to gold. A prowling paparazzo follows his movements, eventually attempting to take pictures of him as he gets into bed with a woman. In 1983, the music video was still only just emerging as an artistic genre; other artists had already created videos with vaguely apparent plots, but "Billie Jean" was far more interesting visually. The turning-to-gold effect is now iconic. The paneling effect throughout the video highlights Jackson as a performer, particularly at 2:31 with the freeze frame on Jackson en pointe. The point is that the video was both technically creative and hugely popular, with Jackson's infectious quality as a performer driving the video's success.

And that success had a transformative effect on MTV. "Billie Jean" broke a de facto color barrier at the iconic cable station, opening the channel up to more "black music" like funk and R&B. While artists like Rick James had spread accusations of MTV's alleged racist refusals to air any videos by black artists, the true explanation was that the exclusion of black artists on MTV in its early years was an unfortunate consequence of the channel's rock-oriented format. "Billie Jean" succeeded in convincing MTV executives to open their arms to different styles of music, encouraging more black artists to produce videos.

In remembering Michael Jackson at the time of his 2009 death, Time magazine argued that he was a "singer who [cut] across all boundaries of taste and style and color too." Michael Jackson first cut those boundaries with "Billie Jean," opening up the music world of MTV to a diverse array of styles that in effect brought shared attention to more African American artists. Jackson's appearance on the scene marked a clear shift in MTV's programming. Beforehand, MTV was almost exclusively a rock channel. After Jackson arrived, it wasn't long until MTV embraced multiracial pop artists like Prince and even Yo! MTV Raps. If Prince owned 1984 with his album "Purple Rain" and its movie/musical film companion, it was no doubt Michael Jackson and Thriller that helped make that happen by dominating the airwaves in 1983.

While it isn't true that "Billie Jean" was the first music video by a black artist to air on MTV, it is true that "Billie Jean" was the first "black music" to make it onto MTV. "It was difficult for MTV to find African-American artists whose music fit the channel's format that leaned toward rock," as Buzz Brindle, director of MTV's music programming at the time, has said. In effect, African American artists weren't getting a fair stab at what was becoming the popular music market. Artists like Tina Turner had music videos on MTV before Jackson, but in the words of (a rather bitter) Rick James in 1983, "she stopped being black about 10 years ago." Essentially, only black artists who played "white" rock music got on, while solid funk artists like Rick James couldn't get airtime.

But when the video for "Billie Jean" was submitted to the station, co-founder of MTV Les Garland recalled putting the video up that very day, even though it featured a funk disco song instead of rock. Starting with "Billie Jean," Jackson's videos were huge hits, spiking the channel's ratings whenever they played. From that point on, MTV began to accept more R&B and funk music, essentially opening their arms to more black artists.

But it is important to realize that even though race was an issue, the change at MTV might better be described as the redefinition of the "musical parameters" (in Brindle's words) of a channel in its infancy, still figuring out what worked with its viewers and potential viewers. Even though the de facto exclusion of (many) black artists began to end with "Billie Jean" and other Thriller hits like "Beat It" and "Thriller," the changes were in the styles of music that MTV showed and in the number of R&B and funk (and later, hip hop) videos being created in the first place.

Later Jackson videos, like the cinematic 14-minute epic created to accompany "Thriller," raised the bar for other musicians, dramatically increasing the importance of the music video as a means of promoting a single. Jackson's importance as a pioneer in the use of music videos has been cited in many places, and he is even occasionally referred to as "The King of Videos" in reference to his better known title as the King of Pop. And while it may not be a quantifiable effect, the presence of Jackson's face on MTV (eight times a day with "Billie Jean") established a level of comfort and acceptance in America, transcending racial classification entirely.

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