MJ Studies Today LXXV

Abstract: This month’s MJ Studies Today column looks at the history and recording of Michael Jackson’s megahit song “Billie Jean” originally released on the “Thriller” album in 1982 and then as a single on 2 January 1983, over 39 years ago. Frequently voted in popular music polls as one of the greatest songs in the history of pop, and one of the most popular of Jackson’s many classic tracks, the song has not been without its (belated) controversies, which are also touched on by Kerry Hennigan in her in-depth discussion of the song.

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’” and MJ blogger. Student of Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXXV: The Legacy of Billie Jean – 39 years after the release of Michael Jackson’s epic hit single.” (14-3-2022). The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 8, No. 3 (2022). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxxv/

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The Legacy of Billie Jean – 39 years after the release of Michael Jackson’s epic hit single.  By Kerry Hennigan

Photo montage by Kerry Hennigan 2022

Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was released thirty-nine years ago, on 2 January 1983. It was the second single off his 1982 album Thriller, the world’s top selling album, which turns 40 this year. “Billie Jean” has become synonymous with Jackson’s musical and visual legacy. The iconic combination of fedora, sparkly jacket and crystal-encrusted glove was first seen when Jackson performed the song on the Motown 25 television special of 1983. Jackson executed a backwards sliding dance step that became famous as “the moonwalk’ and the audience went wild. They continued to do so on each occasion and in every country in which Jackson performed the song throughout his career.

“Billie Jean” still frequently rates at the top of most lists of Jackson’s hits as judged by music media as well as in on-line polls. Even people who would never consider themselves Jackson fans know and acknowledge the status of “Billie Jean.” A lot of this has to do with the mechanics of the track – from the signature beat to the famous declaration, “but the kid is not my son.” The identity of the girl, “Billie Jean,” who claims the singer is the father of her son, has been the subject of much discussion, as Jackson acknowledged in his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk.

Even as late as 1996, while on tour in Thailand, he was still answering questions about it. “There is a girl named Billie Jean, but it’s not about that Billie Jean. Billie Jean is kind of anonymous. It represents a lot of girls. They used to call them groupies in the ’60s. They would hang around backstage doors, and any band that would come to town they would have a relationship with, and I think I wrote this out of experience with my brothers when I was little. There were a lot of Billie Jeans out there. Every girl claimed that their son was related to one of my brothers.”[1]

According to Jackson himself, the song was almost called “Not My Lover.” Quincy Jones, who co-produced the track with Jackson, objected to calling it “Billie Jean” on the basis that people would immediately think of Billie Jean King, the tennis player. Fortunately, Jackson’s instincts prevailed on this occasion. “A musician knows hit material,” he said in Moonwalk. “It has to feel right. Everything has to feel in place. It fulfills you and it makes you feel good. You know it when you hear it. That’s how I felt about ‘Billie Jean.’”[2]

“Billie Jean” had its birth as a home demo recorded at Michael’s 16-track studio in the Jackson Havenhurst household in 1981. Keyboard player Bill Wolfer recalls: “Michael and I started by sitting down at a Rhodes piano, and Michael sang me the bass line. I started playing it, and then he sang the top notes of the three chords that ascend and descend over that ostinato bass. At that point, we spent maybe an hour or more trying out different harmonies for the rest of the chords. There are a million ways you can harmonize those notes, and I tried them all before I landed on the one he was looking for. The amazing part about that is that, to me, several of the combinations I tried sounded very hip to me – they worked – but Michael never lost sight of what he had been hearing in his head. He didn’t play an instrument, but he was definitely a musician.”[3] Long-time Jackson musical collaborator and touring musician Brad Buxer similarly referred to the song as an example of Jackson’s musical genius in a 2005 interview with Geraldo Rivera.[4]

The late Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, who played the drums for the recording of “Billie Jean,” considered his involvement with the recording had made him a part of history. “I feel great to have been associated with one of the biggest pop song records in the history of music,” he told author Brice Najar. “I had that feeling, you know, it just felt that special to me because there was something hypnotic about that song!” The specially made Yamaha drum kit Chancler used for the session is in the Rhythm Discovery museum in Indianapolis. [5]

Bruce Swedien said years later that when he was mixing “Billie Jean” he thought mix 2 “was killer.” He called Jackson, Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton into the control room and played mix 2 for them. “They loved it!!! They were all dancing and carrying on like crazy!!! Smiles all around!” Swedien recalled. “Then Michael slipped out of the control room, turned around and motioned to me to follow him… Then he whispered to me, ‘Please Bruce, it’s perfect, but turn the bass up just a tiny bit, and do one more mix, please….’” Swedien reports doing up to 91 mixes, and in the end, it was mix 2 the producer decided to go with. [6]

“Billie Jean” belatedly became the centre of a minor controversy when, in a 2018 interview, producer Quincy Jones claimed Jackson had “stolen” the track from a Donna Summer 1982 release, “State of Independence” on which Jackson had sung in the “all-star” choir. The song, however, had originally been written and recorded by Jon Anderson and Vangelis in 1981. While Jones was engaged in litigation with the Michael Jackson Estate and Sony Music for royalties that he claimed were owed him for subsequent use of recordings he had produced or co-produced for Jackson, he gained some headlines by calling Jackson “greedy” and “Machiavellian.”[7] (He was eventually awarded US$2.5 million – considerably less than the initial $10 million claimed.) [8]

However, singer-songwriter Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates told The Guardian “I got talking to Michael Jackson and he said: ‘I hope you don’t mind. I stole the groove from “I Can’t Go for That” for my song Billie Jean.’ I told him: ‘Oh Michael, what do I care? You did it very differently.’ Hall added, “I can’t say I’d ever noticed but he was quite insistent.” The other half of the Hall & Oates duo, John Oates, added, “Michael Jackson once came backstage after one of our shows in Los Angeles and told us: ‘I loved to dance to that song in my bedroom in front of the mirror.’ What can I say? It’s an amazing groove…”[9]

“Pop music history is the history of near overlap,” Jon Caramanica wrote in the New York Times. “Ideas rarely emerge in complete isolation. In studios around the world, performers, producers and songwriters are all trying to innovate just one step beyond where music currently is, working from the same component parts. It shouldn’t be a surprise when some of what they come up with sounds similar — and also like what came before.”[10] (In March 2018 the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies published an episode of its podcast that discusses the issue of authenticity in art, including “Billie Jean.”) [11]

One of the most important aspects of “Billie Jean’s” legacy is its music video (or “short film” as Jackson preferred to call them). Directed by Steve Barron, it was this video that broke down the colour barrier on MTV. The channel had previously excluded the work of many great Black artists from its roster of music videos purely on the basis of race. In an essay published by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mikal Gilmore wrote, “[Jackson] forced the mainstream press to accept that the biggest pop star in the world could be young and black and he made new media such as MTV accommodate that truth as well. Michael Jackson didn’t just grab the gold ring: He hooked it to a new bar and set it even higher, and nobody has yet snatched it with quite the same flair or results.”[12]

As music critic Mark Fisher described it, “Billie Jean” is “not only one of the best singles ever recorded, it is one of the greatest art works of the twentieth century, a multileveled sound sculpture whose slinky, synthetic panther sheen still yields up previously unnoticed details and nuance nearly thirty years on.” [13] Bruce Swedien declared it an example of “sonic personality.” He explains, “I don’t think there are many recordings where all you need to hear is the first few drum beats, and you instantly know what song it is.” [14]

In the recent plague of media-promoted “cancel culture,” popular songs like “Billie Jean” and the work of other so-called controversial artists have caused commentators to query the need to separate the artist from their art. In an era of dubious or outright fabricated controversies, the components that contribute to the success of a song like “Billie Jean” i.e. the recording itself, its accompanying short film, Jackson’s live performance of it, is proof that such a separation is not only impossible, but certainly in Jackson’s case, totally unnecessary.

Thirty-nine years on, Michael Jackson fans and music lovers are entitled to continue to celebrate the song and the artistic genius who created it.


[1] MTV News. 1996. http://www.mtv.com/news/1615349/michael-jackson-answers-fan-questions-in-1996-thailand-interview/

[2] Jackson, Michael. Moonwalk. 2010 Arrow paperback edition.

[3] Lecoq, Richard and Allard, Francois. Michael Jackson All the Songs. The story behind every track. Cassell Illustrated. 2018.

[4] https://youtu.be/dLSTrl8m8xk

[5] Najar, Brice. Let’s Make HIStory. https://bricenajarlmh.com/en/

[6] Gearspace.com. The REAL Story on “Billie Jean” Q & A with Bruce Swedien. https://gearspace.com/board/q-a-with-bruce-swedien/84587-real-story-quot-billie-jean-quot.html and Lecoq, Richard and Allard, Francois. Michael Jackson All the Songs. The story behind every track. Cassell Illustrated. 2018.

[7] https://www.vulture.com/2018/02/quincy-jones-in-conversation.html, and

[8] ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory/court-overturns-quincy-jones-win-michael-jackson-lawsuit-70523594

[9] The Guardian, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/02/hall-and-oates-how-we-made-i-cant-go-for-that-no-can-do-interview

[10] Caramanica, Jon. The New York Times, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/07/learning/should-musicians-be-allowed-to-copy-or-borrow-from-other-artists.html

[11] Merx, Karin. “Episode 35 – ‘A Good Artist Copies, and A Great Artist Steals’ ” Michael Jackson’s Dream Lives On: An Academic Conversation 5, no. 3 (2018). Published electronically 06/03/18. https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/episode-35/

[12] Gilmore, Mikal. “Michael Jackson.” https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/michael-jackson

[13] Fisher, Mark, quoted in Vogel, Joseph. “Man in the Music. The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson.” 2019 Vintage paperback edition.

[14] Swedien, Bruce. In the Studio with Michael Jackson. Hal Leonard Books, 2009.

Illustration: “’cause the lie becomes the truth” photomontage by Kerry Hennigan, 2022. No infringement is intended of original photographic copyright in this not-for-profit, educational exercise.