Ever heard of Name That Tune? "Billie Jean" is one of those songs that is instantly recognizable, even though the first few seconds offer nothing but a drumbeat.
Technically a funk disco song, the track has a "sonic personality" (source) all its own, in the words of mixer Bruce Swedian.
And Greg Phillinganes, who played the keyboard on the track, said that "Billie Jean" "is hot on every level. It's hot rhythmically. It's hot sonically, because the instrumentation is so minimal, you can really hear everything. It's hot melodically. It's hot lyrically. It's hot vocally. It affects you physically, emotionally, even spiritually." (Source)
The sparse instrumentation lends itself to the memorable riffs, melodies, and beats in the song. The beat is the first thing you hear. It's about as simple as a beat gets, too, with hits on the hi-hat every eighth note and alternations between the snare and the bass drum every quarter note. Drum fills are minimal.
And things stay more or less the same throughout the entire five-minute piece, which is a good thing because the beat is infectious and somehow immediately recognizable. In mixing the song—giving the song that "sonic personality"—Swedian recalled that what he 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. 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." (Source)
After a bar of the beat, that iconic, prowling bass line lurks into the mix. The bass line is what's called a "walking bass line." Typical of jazz or the blues, walking bass lines typically follow chord changes in a song, but they're most essentially characterized by their equal note value and a melodic quality that rises and lowers steadily. Hey, like the rhythm of walking.
The verse chord progression begins on the F# minor chord, and the bass line bounces between tones in that scale, with equal eighth notes all the way. When the chord bumps up to a B minor at "Who would dance on the floor in the round," the bass line jumps up as well. The only other core instrumentation is the keyboard, with that simple four-chord progression from F# minor to G# minor and then to A minor, and back down again.
As Phillinganes pointed out, the minimalism allows everything to stand out. Each instrument can be individually appreciated, which is partially because the bass and the beat are more or less mixed evenly with Jackson's amazing lead vocals. Jackson has said that he writes his vocal melodies to demonstrate his vocal range, but Jackson is somewhat conservative when it comes to melody in this song, focusing more on rhythm, letting his now signature vocal hiccups define his lead vocal. His range is better demonstrated by his back-up vocals, which were sung into the microphone through a six-foot tube. His back up vocals make up most of the instrumentation in the song, and have an improvisational quality as a kind of emotional Jackson responding to the lead vocal and featuring his high-pitched "hee hee" vocal signature.
The funny thing about it all is that while everything in the song works so well, the song's producer, the famous Quincy Jones, wanted to make quite a few tweaks, like change the name of the song and cut some of that lengthy intro. He didn't feel that "Billie Jean" was strong enough to cut it on Thriller. Jackson though, was convinced it would be a hit, had a lot of input into the final sound of the track, and even asked Jones for co-producer credit.
So, Jackson clearly deserves most of the credit for getting the song out there. As he later wrote in his autobiography, "A musician knows hit material" (source).
"Billie Jean," like "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," another of the four tracks Michael Jackson wrote himself for Thriller, showcases what would become a longstanding theme in Jackson's lyrics and his life: paranoia and the pressure of fame.
The lyrics tell the story of Jackson being accused of fathering a son by a groupie. "Billie Jean" plays out something like a dramatic monologue. A poetic device, the dramatic monologue is a monologue—a.k.a. a speech—given in a certain persona. The dramatic monologue assumes there is an addressee and an audience and the idea of addressing the audience from an assumed role is a necessity of the dramatic monologue.
As Robert Browning assumes the role of the Duke in "My Last Duchess," Jackson assumes the role of a star. Er, uh, himself. Since Jackson's character in the song looks a lot like Jackson himself, you might ask why "Billie Jean" should be considered a dramatic monologue at all.
The answer: the situation is totally fictional according to Jackson. So, his monologue is still more or less a characterization of himself in the situation. Just like a dramatic monologue, the song has a clear audience. Jackson makes that clear when he warns, "So take my strong advice, just remember to always think twice." That audience, usually another fictional character in dramatic monologues, seems to be you, us, and Michael Jackson's listeners.
But why should you care? It might be just lovely that "Billie Jean" has some similarities to an age-old poetic device, but what do you get out of knowing that as a fan? Well, let's bring it back to the story of the song, and why Jackson would create a fictionalized account of his own experiences in the Jackson 5.
Usually writers create stories to convey certain themes or general messages to the audience. "Billie Jean" is a cautionary tale of the dangers involved in "breaking young girls' hearts." The dramatic monologue, in which Jackson becomes the victim of this "beauty queen's" obsessive affection, allows Jackson to express his own personal feelings.
Consider if the song were in third person. It would have a totally different feel. Just like writers use science fiction or fantasy scenarios to express a theme that might be opaque in more realistic circumstances, Jackson could be using the story as a vehicle for personal expression of certain feelings that he had at the time of composition. During the time that Jackson was working on Thriller, he felt extreme loneliness. "Even at home, I'm lonely," he said. "I sit in my room sometimes and cry. It's so hard to make friends." (Source)
Additionally, Jackson was taking on a new kind of independence, firing his father as his manager when he turned 21 in 1981. "Billie Jean" seems to hint at the problems of this newfound independence, conveyed through a sense of naiveté. The verses leading up to the first chorus are markedly upbeat—disregarding the melody—with no foreseeable problems. Lyrically, the song begins like the ballads on Thriller, with the promise of love: "She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene."
But Jackson's jaded narrative shows cracks in his questioning. "What do you mean I am the one?" he asks, only to pay for his lack of understanding later. He harps on the phrase "I am the one" as if regretting not seeing the signs earlier. The pre-chorus finds Jackson expanding on this naiveté when he lists the wise warnings he chose to ignore, "be careful who you love," "be careful what you do."
Later, Jackson is left repeating over and over his denials of Billie Jean's love because of his mistakes. Thematically, the song warns of the trouble you can find yourself in when you're out on your own. The dramatic monologue, the idea that Jackson can assume this role in this story, allows him to express what might be his own sense of frustration and naiveté as he emerged from the shadow of his youth to become an independent adult.