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The 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born: Number 1
Studio quibbles. The MTV color line. A Rolls-Royce engulfed in flames.

Blender, October 2005

Michael Jackson, "Billy Jean"

Once upon a time — before the courtroom dramas, the serial plastic surgeries, the nights spent in hyperbaric chambers and the play dates with Corey Feldman — Michael Jackson was just a run-of-the-mill 24-year-old musical genius, driving a burning Rolls-Royce with a melody stuck in his head.

It was the summer of 1982. Jackson was on Los Angeles’s Ventura Freeway, commuting home after a day in the recording studio, where he and producer Quincy Jones were working on the follow-up to the singer’s smash solo debut, Off the Wall. As Jackson recalled in his 1988 autobiography, he was “so absorbed by this tune floating around in my head” that he failed to notice the smoke billowing out from the undercarriage of his luxury sedan.

“We were getting off the freeway when a kid on a motorcycle pulls up to us and says, ‘Your car’s on fire.’ Suddenly we noticed the smoke and pulled over and the whole bottom of the Rolls-Royce was on fire. That kid probably saved our lives.” But not even that brush with death could shake Jackson’s obsession with his work in progress. “Even while we were getting help and finding an alternate way to get where we were going, I was silently composing additional material.”

The song was perhaps the most personal Jackson had ever written, a guilt- and fear-streaked paternity drama inspired by the singer’s run-ins with delusional female fans. Jackson had been working on it for months and was certain that he had something special on his hands.

“A musician knows hit material. Everything has to feel in place. It fulfills you and it makes you feel good,” Jackson would recollect. “That’s how I felt about ‘Billie Jean.’ I knew it was going to be big when I was writing it.”

Jackson was right: “Billie Jean” was, to say the least, “hit material.” Released in January 1983, the song topped the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks, held the No. 1 spot on the R&B; chart for nine, sold more than a million singles and launched pop’s biggest-ever commercial juggernaut, Thriller, which has sold upwards of 47 million copies worldwide, more than any album before or since.

But the song’s place in history transcends mere numbers. “Billie Jean” shattered MTV’s color line and went a long way toward destroying the racial apartheid that had prevailed on commercial radio for decades. Ushering in the modern music-video era, the single also pioneered a new kind of sleek, post-soul pop music whose echoes can be heard to this day. Above all, “Billie Jean” marked a coming of age, the moment when a former kiddie singing star blossomed into a new generation’s equivalent of Elvis and the Beatles — the late 20th century’s preeminent pop icon.

Not bad for a song that, to this day, remains one of the most sonically eccentric, psychologically fraught, downright bizarre things ever to land on Top 40 radio. Jackson’s previous solo hits had been awash in the lush sounds of disco, but “Billie Jean” was almost frighteningly stark, with a pulsing, cat-on-the-prowl bass figure, whip-crack downbeat and eerie multi-tracked vocals ricocheting in the vast spaces between keyboards and strings. Over the years, listeners have grown used to Jackson’s idiosyncratic vocal style — the falsetto whoops, “hee-hees,” James-Brown-on-helium grunts and gonzo diction (“the chair is not my son”?) — but in 1982 no one had ever heard anything quite like it, which only heightened the song’s unsettling effect, the sense that “Billie Jean” was a five-minute-long nervous breakdown, set to a beat.

This weirdness wasn’t accidental. Bruce Swedien, Jones’s longtime studio engineer, remembers: “When we recorded ‘Billie Jean’ … Quincy told me, ‘Okay, this piece of music has to have the most unique sonic personality of anything that we have ever recorded.’ Jones had Jackson sing vocal overdubs through a six-foot-long cardboard tube, and brought in jazz saxophonist Tom Scott to play a rare instrument, the lyricon, a wind-controlled analog synthesizer whose sour, trumpet-like lines are subtly woven through the track. Bassist Louis Johnson ran through his part on every guitar he owned before Jackson settled on a Yamaha bass with an ideally thick and buzzing sound.

Swedien, meanwhile, turned his search for the perfect beat into an arts-and-crafts project, hiring carpenters to construct a special plywood drum platform, ordering a custom-made bass drum cover, using everything from cinder blocks to specially designed isolation flaps, all to capture just the right imaging on the snare and hi-hats. “See if you can think of any other piece of music where you can hear the first three drum beats and know what the song is,” Swedien has said. “That’s what I call sonic personality.”

A major component of that personality almost didn’t survive the final cut. “Billie Jean” opens with an unusually long bass-and-drums intro — Jackson doesn’t begin singing until the 0:29 mark—that Jones wanted to trim but Jackson vehemently insisted be kept.

“I said, ‘Michael we’ve got to cut that intro,’” Jones recalls. “He said, ‘But that’s the jelly!’” — Jackson’s personal slang term for a funky beat is “smelly jelly” — “‘That’s what makes me want to dance.’ And when Michael Jackson tells you, ‘That’s what makes me want to dance,’ well, the rest of us just have to shut up.”

It was Jackson’s dancing, as much as his singing, that propelled the “Billie Jean” phenomenon. On May 16, 1983, more than 50 million viewers watched Jackson debut his famous moonwalk in a mesmerizing performance on the Motown 25 television special. Then there was the “Billie Jean” video, in which Jackson slinks and whirls through a fantasy cityscape, with a sidewalk that lights up like a disco floor underfoot. MTV rarely aired videos by black performers, and when they refused to show “Billie Jean,” CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff went ballistic. “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.’” “Billie Jean” was promptly put in heavy rotation, and neither Jackson nor MTV ever looked back.

Those video images have lodged permanently in the cultural memory. But it’s Jackson’s songwriting that makes “Billie Jean” such a riveting psychological drama — the real thriller on his landmark album. Few songs have provided so much fodder for armchair Freudians: paranoia, sexual terror, temptation and shame mingle in lyrics that lurch from outright denials (“The kid is not my son”) to seeming admissions of guilt (“This happened much too soon/She called me to her room”). Today, “Billie Jean” seems more than anything like a parable of the twisted relations between celebrities and their fans, a theme dramatized in the video, in which Jackson is pursued by a creepy gumshoe in a trench coat. Count on the most famous man in the world — a guy who has had audiences tearing at his clothes since he was 10 years old—to deliver the great artistic statement on celebrity stalking.

Whatever its larger autobiographical and historical significance, “Billie Jean” is first and foremost a dance track. Untold millions of radio and MTV plays have not reduced the power of a song that simply explodes out of the speakers.

“‘Billie Jean’ is hot on every level,” says Greg Phillinganes, a legendary L.A. session musician who played keyboards on the song. “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.” Twenty-three years on, Michael Jackson can rest assured: No one has made smellier jelly.

Available on: Thriller (Epic)

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