Study Guide

Billie Jean Meaning

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The 1983 single "Billie Jean" was the second single off of Jackson's mega-hit '82 album Thriller.

The first single off the album was a duet with PaulMcCartney, "The Girl Is Mine." It was commercially successful, but critics weren't raving about it. They said it was a sellout single to appease an older, whiter audience still longing for Beatlemania. If that were true of "The Girl Is Mine," "Billie Jean" was the opposite, with its funk and disco beat, prowling bass line, and Jackson's signature vocal stylings. And it was a huge hit.

Michael Jackson was no stranger to the top charts. He'd been a chart-topper since his youth, as the baby-faced lead singer of the Jackson 5 boy band. But "Billie Jean" was diferent and launched him to international stardom because of director Steve Barron's incredible music video. 

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 visually interesting. The turn-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.

"Billie Jean Is Not My Lover"and MTV Is Not All-Color

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, MTV argued that the exclusion of Black artists on MTV in its early years was an unfortunate consequence of the channel's focus on rock. (Source

Sure, sure, MTV.

Jackson's team succeeded in convincing MTV execs to air the track, although there are still rumors about how easy or difficult it was to do the convincing.

In remembering Michael Jackson at the time of his 2009 death, Time magazine remembered that he was a "singer who [cut] across all boundaries of taste and style and color too" (source). 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 musical film companion, it was no doubt Michael Jackson and Thriller 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. Buzz Brindle, director of MTV's music programming at the time, was the guy that said "It was difficult for MTV to find African-American artists whose music fit the channel's format that leaned toward rock" (source).

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 bitter Rick James in 1983, "she stopped being Black about 10 years ago" (source).

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. Plus, more Black artists were encouraged to produce videos. 

Video Killed the Radio Star

Though realizing that race was an issue is paramount, the change at MTV can also be described as the redefinition of the "musical parameters" (source; 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 also coincided with 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.

TV personality Ed Lover argued that MTV wasn't RMTV—a.k.a. rock music televeision—so they should have been playing all music videos in the first place. Of course Les Garland said, "There was a shortage of Black videos by urban artists" (source). 

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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