Michael Jackson’s Thriller remains the single most iconic era of pop music, and for good reason. It still stands as the best-selling album of all time with more than 33 million copies sold in the U.S., as certified by RIAA. As awe-inspiring as that number is, the music itself is as timeless now as it was then, from the spooky titular cut to a song like “Billie Jean” and its slinky, provocative bass line.
“She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene / I said, “Don’t mind, but what do you mean, I am the one / Who will dance on the floor in the round?’,” he sings. The opening verse sets the scene of a woman hellbent with feverish adoration, sinking her claws into his life. Despite unreciprocated feelings, he can’t shake her loose.
Once upon a time, roughly a year before the record was released, a young woman claimed one of her twins was his. In 1991’s “Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story,” biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli claimed the iconic track took direct inspiration from this incident. One could surmise it to be true, all things considered, especially when it comes to the chorus:
“Billie Jean is not my lover / She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one (Oh, baby) / But the kid is not my son, hoo!,” sings Jackson, a tinge of playfulness to his voice.
However, Jackson states in his 1988 autobiography, “Moonwalk,” that “there never was a real Billie Jean,” he writes. “The girl in the song is a composite of people my brothers have been plagued with over the years. I could never understand how these girls could say they were carrying someone’s child when it wasn’t true.”
He then dissects how the song came to him. “A musician knows hit material. 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 [this song]. I knew it was going to be big while I was writing it. I was really absorbed in that song,” he says.
Jackson took a break from recording and went for a leisurely ride along Ventura Freeway with his longtime assistant Nelson Hayes. “[This song] was going around in my head, and that’s all I was thinking about. 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. If the car had exploded, we could have been killed. But I was so absorbed by this tune floating in my head that I didn’t even focus on the awful possibilities until later.”
In listening to “Billie Jean,” the bass line may feel more than a little familiar, and it is. Musician Daryl Hall, famously one-half of Hall & Oates, claims Jackson told him “directly… that he hoped I didn’t mind that he copped that groove. That’s okay; it’s something we all do.” The groove in question originally appears in “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” off the duo’s 1981 record Private Eyes.
There’s certainly a musical fingerprint present in both, even if “Billie Jean” beefs up the production with a slicker, more full-bodied style. Producer Quincy Jones didn’t like the bass line or the title, infamously pushing to change “Billie Jean” to “Not My Lover,” so as not to confuse with then-tennis pro Billie Jean King. Obviously, Jackson had his way.
Perhaps expressing long-subdued resentment or ill feelings, Jones gave a candid interview with The Vulture in 2018, during which he stated Jackson was “as Machiavellian as they come,” he said. “I hate to get into this publicly, but Michael stole a lot of stuff. He stole a lot of songs. [Donna Summer’s] ‘State of Independence’ and ‘Billie Jean.’ The notes don’t lie, man.”
He later walked back those comments in a series of tweets, as reported by ABC News.
Regardless, “Billie Jean” is forever immortalized in the pantheons of pop music. The second single from Thriller, it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won two Grammy Awards, Best R&B Song and Best R&B Male Vocal Performance