30 years ago this week, on January 2nd, 1983, “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson was released. It became one of the biggest singles of that year and an instant classic.
It is hard to believe that producer Quincy Jones “hated” this song so much that it almost didn’t make it onto the “Thriller” album, along with a slew of Grammy wins the next year. It is rumored the song had to be mixed 91 times before we heard the version on the album. The song is rumored to be inspired by groupies that Michael and his brothers would run into on the road.
“Billie Jean” was also released shortly after as a music video. The format was fairly new and it was in MTV’s early days where video and music actually ruled……as long as you were a white artist. John Cougar Mellencamp and David Bowie on live interviews on MTV brought up the fact of MTV not playing music videos by black artists but MTV stood with the stance that they are giving “Middle America” what they want, and according to MTV, it was not videos by black artists.
Walter Yetnikoff, the president of Michael’s record label, CBS, serviced the video to MTV. MTV refused to play the music video, if you can believe that. Yetnikoff was about to go public with MTV’s racism towards black artists and black music videos.
“I said to MTV, ‘I’m pulling everything we have off the air, all our product. I’m not going to give you any more videos. And I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a black guy.'”-Yetnikoff 1982
MTV relented and added Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” along with Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” to heavy rotation. Here it was. Finally. Black on our TV…and it was beautiful.
The music video for “Billie Jean” was different than any video that MTV played at the time. There was a high production value to it. Here was Michael in a bow-tie and rocking a tux jacket over his shoulder. Michael was being followed by a paparazzo while strolling through a neighborhood, all while the the sidewalk lit up with each step he took on it. “Billie Jean” was the music video that started Michael putting more into each video that came after like “Beat It” and “Thriller”. Without “Billie Jean” and it’s major MTV success, those videos are, quite simply, nothing.
“Billie Jean” was a song that was born to have a music video and the video 30 years later stands the test of time. The song however, had an even more powerful effect on the prominence of Michael Jackson to come for years. All because of one amazing performance.
The 25th Anniversary of Motown was upon us and Michael was given a spotlight moment and he made the most of it…and then some. The debut of a new dance move that Jackson coined the “Moonwalk” was performed that night. Michael performed to a background track of the song but his performance showed intensity by Michael. The black sequin suit with the one sequin white glove. For weeks, people were wondering what happened to the other glove. If he wore both, no one questions it. Wear one and it causes a weird fashion buzz.
It is quite interesting when you look back on MTV’s stance of not wanting to play Jackson’s “Billie Jean” because he was a black artist. Some may say, Michael Jackson made MTV. Over the years, his videos would debut on the network and with major hoopla surrounding it. Was MTV still feeling shameful for what they used to stand for or was it knowing that Michael Jackson video’s were good for business?
We live in a world where Psy has the most watched YouTube video ever with “Gangnam Style” sitting at over a billion views while “Billie Jean” has just under 80 million and the Motown 25 performance under 50 million. Quite sad. Is it worse that artists like Michael Jackson and Prince had to fight to be on MTV 30 years ago so now rappers can be on the channel pouring Ciroc on girls butts instead of doing something creative with the video format?
“Billie Jean” was a landmark song and video that really catapulted Michael Jackson into super stardom. The song is still as fresh as it was 30 years ago and the video has aged very well. You can still play this song at the club and get a good response to it and see the white guy try to pull out a few MJ moves…..but still not be able to clap on the 2 n 4.-DocFB
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