Study Guide

Billie Jean

Billie Jean Introduction

In a Nutshell

Try to convince us that you've never heard this song before. Go on, try.

Yep, we didn't think so. "Billie Jean" is just one of those songs that everybody knows, even if they don't know they know it. 

Released as a single in 1983, "Billie Jean" was 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.

But "Billie Jean" countered it with its lean funk disco sound and became a signature hit for the soon-to-be King of Pop. MJ even dropped his first moonwalk to "Billie Jean."

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 through a desolate city as everything he touches literally turns to gold, and the freeze frame of Jackson en pointe is now an iconic image.

Yep, this video was on point. Not only did Jackson pave the way for artistic music video production, but he redefined MTV's focus. A channel once focused on "white" rock music opened its doors to African-American musicians.

And we want our MTV. But it's gotta include MJ.

About the Song

ArtistJackson, Michael
Year1982
LabelEpic Records
Writer(s)Michael Jackson
Producer(s)Quincy Jones
Musician(s)Michael Jackson
Learn to playTablature
AlbumThriller

Music Video

Influences on Jackson, Michael

Bee Gees
James Brown
Ray Charles
Paul McCartney
Stevie Wonder
The Supremes
Tina Turner

Influenced by Jackson, Michael

Bobby Brown
Ne-Yo
NSYNC
Justin Timberlake
Pharrell Williams

Billie Jean Resources

Books

Michael Jackson, Moonwalk (1988)
Michael Jackson actually did his first moonwalk on stage to "Billie Jean," and in 1988, his autobiography named after his move was published.

Jel D. Lewis Jones, Michael Jackson, the King of Pop: The Big Picture—The Music! The Man! The Legend! The Interviews: An Anthology (2005)
Probably the one biography of Michael Jackson without the tabloid element, this book is unique in its respect and willingness not to be sensational.

LIFE Magazine, Ed., Life Commemorative: Michael Jackson (2009)
LIFE magazine shares its photo history of the King of Pop.

Albums

Thriller 25 Super Deluxe Edition (2008)
The "super deluxe edition" features even more remixes and some voiceovers by producer Quincy Jones.

The Essential Michael Jackson (2005)
This compilation is an excellent introduction to Michael's music. Though it doesn't contain some of the best deep cuts or even all of his hits, it makes up for it with its breadth.

Bad (1987)
Jackson had a huge undertaking when he attempted to best Thriller with his next studio album, but Bad does just that, with a record of five number-one singles.

Thriller (1982)
Even though Michael Jackson was already a star, Thriller elevated him to incredible new heights, with all of its seven singles becoming hit songs. This re-release features 21st-century stars—like Kanye West, Akon, and Fergie—remixing some of the hits to keep things fresh.

Images

MJ's Moonwalk at Motown 25
Jackson's Emmy-nominated performance at Motown 25 featured his first ever public moonwalk to "Billie Jean."

Young Michael
Michael Jackson was a hit well before most kids developed a musical taste.

This Is It
An image of Michael Jackson for his "This Is It" concert series, what would have been a 50-concert stay at London's O2 Arena.

Movies & TV

Michael Jackson's This Is It (2009)
This documentary follows Jackson on his April through June 2009 rehearsals for his final upcoming London shows. Shows he never got to perform, Jackson died in June 2009 and the film was released just months later, giving mourners a final peak at the behind-the-scenes of the King of Pop.

Michael Jackson: Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour (2005)
This concert DVD demonstrates how Michael was more than just master of the studio: he was master of the stage as well.

Michael Jackson: HIStory on Film, Vol. 2 (1998)
Jackson's epic video history continues, with his live performance of "Billie Jean" at Motown 25 (hello, moonwalk), "Thriller," and later videos like "Blood on the Dancefloor."

Michael Jackson: HIStory on Film, Vol. 1 (1995)
The first volume of videos, Vol. 1 contains earlier Jackson videos, and some of his biggest hits such as "Billie Jean" and "Bad."

Websites

The Official Site of Michael Jackson
Here's the late singer's home page, with some full tracks featured in the music section, and the opportunity to share your MJ memories.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee: Michael Jackson
Michael, inducted into the Hall of Fame twice (once as part of the Jackson 5), is the subject of this brief biographical description of his achievements.

"How Michael Jackson's Thriller Changed Music Business"
Reuters describes how the album transformed a slumping music industry.

"Why It Took MTV so Long to Play Black Music Videos"
Jet magazine explores how "Billie Jean" changed the programming of MTV to create a more diverse music channel that would feature more Black artists.

Video & Audio

"Billie Jean" Music Video
Michael Jackson turns everything to gold in the "Billie Jean" music video, and though it wasn't the first video by a Black artist to be shown on MTV, it was one of the first videos of "Black music" to be shown on MTV, and redefined MTV's focus.

"Thriller" Music Video
This is the video, from the same album as "Billie Jean", that many cite as revolutionizing the music industry.