The Thriller album, which turned 40 in 2022, became a phenomenon after Michael Jackson managed to convince everyone that the song to be worked on was the one he wrote about a fan obsessed with him. That’s right, there was even a woman who stalked him and wrote him letters about a child she claimed was his. At the time, a young Michael avoided speaking on the subject which contributed to further harassment by photographers and reporters and encouraged him to further isolate himself. The song was a way of expressing his feelings without addressing her directly. Her name was Billie Jean.
Okay, the woman wasn’t even called Billie Jean, her real name was not public then, but the harassment was very real, so much so that producer Quincy Jones even reported that, to the singer’s panic, she even invaded his home and was found in the pool with a bathing suit and sunglasses, as if she was the owner. More than a son, she accused Michael of being the father of one of her twins, which for the next ones was even funny. When he recalled the fact in his autobiography, Moonwalk, the singer also mentioned that if it were up to Quincy, we wouldn’t have Billie Jean. I mean, the name. The producer wanted to change the title to “Not My Lover” because the name suggested by Michael could be confused with tennis star Billie Jean King, who was ultra popular at the time. We know who won the battle.
By the time the song exploded, women claiming to be “Billie Jean” had multiplied, prompting the star to explain explicitly about her. “There’s a girl named Billie Jean, but it’s not about that Billie Jean,” he explained at the time and in his biography. “Billie Jean is kind of anonymous. She represents many girls. They used to call them groupies in the ’60s. They were backstage and any band that came to town would have a relationship with them, and I think I wrote that from experience with my brothers when I was little. There were a lot of Billie Jeans out there and girls were claiming their baby was one of my brothers.”
Either way, Billie Jean was born to shine. The classic bassline, which forms the basis of the song, was worked on by Michael for three weeks and every rhythm track in the song was written on his homemade drum machine. The vocals were created and recorded in one go. And if Quincy Jones wanted to change the name of the song, he also tried to change its intro. “It was so long you could shave through it. I said we had to get to the melody sooner… but Michael said that’s what made him want to dance. When Michael Jackson says something makes him want to dance, you shut up,” admitted the producer.
If Billie Jean sings about obsession, she also found fertile ground in the composer himself. In his autobiography, he recalled various incidents during the recordings and explained that “a musician knows hit material. It has to look right. Everything has to be in place. It fills you up and makes you feel good. You know when you hear. That’s how I felt about ‘Billie Jean.’ I knew it was going to be big as I was writing it, I was really absorbed in that song.”
The creative conflicts with Quincy Jones, who worked with Michael until the Bad album (when they broke up) did not heal with time. Almost ten years after the singer’s death, Quincy accused Michael of having plagiarized a Donna Summer hit – State of Independence – to write Billie Jean. The singer’s hit is from the same year as the album Thriller, 1982, and was produced by the same Quincy Jones and had the participation of the star in the backing vocals. “Michael stole a lot of stuff,” the producer alleged in an interview with Vulture. “He stole a lot of songs. ‘State of Independence and ‘Billie Jean. Notes don’t lie, man. He was as Machiavellian as he looks.” At the same time, the producer filed a lawsuit accusing the King of Pop’s estate of withholding royalties, for which he won more than 9 million dollars in court.
Just from what was played on the radio, Billie Jean would already be a classic, but it was its video that changed “everything”. Literally. Inaugurated in 1981, the music channel MTV did not include many black artists and it was Michael Jackson who broke down racial barriers. He was not the first black artist to rotate regularly on the network, but he was among the most requested and played videos in all programming, opening the doors for others, including the brilliant Prince.
The issue of racism was because the Channel’s programming followed the rules of segregation of radio stations, prioritizing rock and music by white artists. If MTV didn’t show videos of other races, record companies didn’t invest in the productions of artists of color either. Hence the relevance of Billie Jean, as well as Michael Jackson‘s vision and insistence.
In The Girl is Mine, Michael and Paul McCartney made the traditional script of the time, with images of the two competing in different situations, but Billie Jean brought the singer solo – in the studio – dancing. It seems trivial, but it was innovative because its dance moves were synchronized with the light that stepped on the squares and was a precursor to the Dance Dance Revolution video game.
Directed by Steve Barron, who had worked with Human League with Don’t You Want Me, the original concept included a group of dancers, but, for budget, they simplified and invested in the idea of having Michael with “a Midas Touch” and the squares he stepped on illuminating with his passage. All were recorded in a single day and the feeling of making history. But even with the weight of the Michael name and the innovation, MTV resisted. They wanted to use Beat It first because there was another white artist next to the singer (guitarist Eddie Van Halen), but both Michael and the record company insisted. And yes, Billie Jean already dominated the radio, so the channel “gave in”. In a few weeks, it was the most played video on MTV and when Beat It and Thriller were released, Michael Jackson became the main star of the entire channel.
Everything about Billie Jean is classic. When presenting it live, Michael wore the most classic look of his career (white T-shirt, black sequined blazer, hat, and shiny socks) and presented the most impressive break step of the time: the moonwalk. It won the 1983 Grammy Awards for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance and Best Rhythm & Blues Song. The song was covered by different artists, from Caetano Veloso to Chris Cornell, making it one of the most beloved by fans of the King of Pop.
And the real Billie Jean? Well, his name is Lavon Powlis and her story is the tragic side of it all. According to biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital but never gave up her fight. After Michael’s death in 2009, she claimed to be the biological mother of his youngest son, Blanket, and was seeking estimated billions of dollars in child support. However, Justice found no “biological connection” and suggested she seek psychiatric help. One never knew whether she listened to the advice.