Billie Jean may not be my favorite Michael Jackson song. That honor is arguably reserved for the original demo version of PYT. However, 80% of the time I will argue that Billie Jean is not only Michael Jackson’s best song, but the best song. Like, the best song in pop music history, on visceral, technical, emotional, etc. levels. I can talk for at least an hour about it. It is Michael’s masterpiece.
The thing I love the most about Billie Jean is that I feel like I’m inside his head when I listen to it. I mean I literally feel like I’m in a large dark room that could be the inside of his head. That sounds so silly, but that’s the visual that goes with it for me. It’s not a straightforward narrative, it’s almost a stream-of-consciousness cry. And that bassline is like a throbbing heartbeat, like a pain in your temple. That song moves me something serious. There are all these little breaks in the storyline where if you just listen on the surface you’re like wtf is he talking about.. but then… I don’t know, the story fills itself in. Like he said once, the instruments are telling the story for you, you just have to listen.
It is my favorite song to really get into… like sit down in a dark room with headphones, get myself in a zone and just listen to it nonstop. I even like listening to the demo because it’s like another part of the story, before it’s all fleshed out. I rarely dance to it, and I get irritated if it comes on while I’m dancing, or doing something else, because I really want to pay attention to it. I usually have to stop what I’m doing or ignore it completely. And it’s weird for me, because I like happy songs… sometimes when I’m down I put on Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough and it doesn’t just make me forget about being sad, the song makes me happy. I can think of one other artist with one other song that does that. But Billie Jean… I dunno, it takes me somewhere dark, and a little sad, and angry, maybe? I can’t describe it. And when I get into that kind of mood, I just let it take me further into it, and it’s like I can come out of it again. It’s odd.
There’s an ad lib after the second verse; it’s distorted so that you can’t really hear whether he sings “do think twice” or “don’t think twice.” A friend of mine once described that as “the pinnacle of pop history.” I never realized anyone else noticed it. The lyrics to the whole song, when you really listen to it, are ambiguous. He’s telling you she’s not his lover, but he subtly changes the second verse and admits it (’cause we danced, on the floor, in the round) And he plays around with pronouns to confuse you:
She told my baby we danced till three, then she looked at me
Then showed a photo my baby cried his eyes were like mine (oh, no!)
‘Cause we danced on the floor in the round, baby
the first “my baby” you think is his current lover, and the second one could be, which would take the meaning to, BJ showed my girl a photo and my girl said his eyes looked like mine and believed her…
but I never even thought of it being that way until pretty recently… I always read the second “my baby” as an admission of guilt, that the kid was, in fact, his son, because they had (danced on the floor in the round) Is his “oh no” an answer to his girl, or distress over the realization? (I effing love that “oh no”)
The fact that it can go either way is marvelous. He’s toying with you. the whole song, you never really know whether or not to feel bad for him or not. I remember being a little kid and being enthralled that he could get away with the song, because it was obvious to me that he was admitting the child was his and denying it at the same time. What is this anguish? Is it a lie or is it guilt?
People always told me be careful of what you do
And don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts
She came and stood right by me
The smell of sweet perfume
This happened much too soon,
She called me to her room
And there’s the literal and figurative climax that began the story but ends it, careening into a denouement of repetition that’s either the truth or a desperate attempt to make it the truth. He’s begging, pleading, but does he want you to believe him or forgive him? Excuse him? You don’t know. Does he know?
God, this song is something else. By the time I ever watched the entire Motown 25 performance full out, I’d already gotten into my thing with it… so the dancing with the song just put me over the edge. I’ve only watched the whole thing all the way through on Youtube. I don’t know if I could really stand it emotionally watching that performance on a full sized TV with stereo sound. The parts that always get me are when he does the jumps and runs at “cause the lie becomes the truth” and “happened much too soon/she called me to her room” and when he kind of does the slumped down thing and inverts his knees… it’s like a whole other storyline.
I can’t believe I just sat for a
half hour and typed out an essay on Billie Jean. See what this song does to me?