The Meaning Behind Michael Jackson’s 1983 Classic “Beat It”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Pop music was never the same once Thriller was released.

Michael Jackson’s sixth album introduced one of the most expensive music videos (with a $1 million budget) at the time for “Thriller,” and one focused more on choreography, and costume design—and the first to run like a short film at 13 minutes around a zombified storyline. Thriller also gave Jackson the most hits off a single album with “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” “Human Nature,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” his Paul McCartney duet on “The Girl is Mine,” and the harder rocking “Beat It.”

Anti-Violent Message

Though the word “beat” can connote an act of violence, the meaning behind the song, written entirely by Michael Jackson and co-produced with Quincy Jones, is actually centered around avoiding violence at all costs and pulling oneself away from a fight.

Told from the perspective of a man who often finds himself in situations where he’s either the winner or loser, in the opening verses, Jackson is telling a young man, who has joined a gang and is still trying to prove himself, to stay away.

They told him, “Don’t you ever come around here”
“Don’t wanna see your face, you better disappear”
The fire’s in their eyes and their words are really clear
So beat it, just beat it

You better run, you better do what you can
Don’t wanna see no blood, don’t be a macho man
You wanna be tough, better do what you can
So beat it, but you wanna be bad

As the song progresses, it’s a battle of good versus evil, showcasing the pressure many men face to stand up for themselves (and fight) or be considered weak and how this can continues a vicious cycle of violence.

They’re out to get you, better leave while you can
Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man
You wanna stay alive, better do what you can
So beat it, just beat it

You have to show them that you’re really not scared
You’re playin’ with your life, this ain’t no truth or dare
They’ll kick you, then they’ll beat you
Then they’ll tell you it’s fair
So beat it, but you wanna be bad

Just beat it (beat it), beat it (beat it)
No one wants to be defeated
Showin’ how funky and strong is your fight
It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right
Just beat it (beat it, beat it, beat it)
Beat it (beat it, beat it)

Peace Wins

No one wants to be considered a “loser,” but handling a situation peacefully is the way to go. In the video, directed by Bob Giraldi and choreographed by Michael Peters—who also performs along with Vincent Paterson as one of the two lead dancers (gang leaders) acting out a knife fight—by the end both sides reach a truce … and dance along with Jackson.

The video also shows how music, and art, can help end some violence.

Eddie Van Halen

Sealing the fate of Jackson’s classic hit was one of the most iconic guitar riffs provided by none other than the late Van Halen guitarist, Eddie Van Halen. Along with Toto guitarist Steve Lukather and other members of the band, Van Halen rounded out the official “Beat It” band.

When Van Halen was first asked to write a guitar part for Jackson’s new single he initially thought he was receiving a prank call, but laid down a guitar part to share with Jackson once he realized the request was real. “I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in,” said Van Halen in a 2012 interview. “And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, ‘Look, I changed the middle section of your song.’”

Van Halen was wondering how Jackson would react to his guitar parts.

“Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it,” remembered Van Halen. “And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, ‘Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.’”

The Legacy of “Beat It”

“Beat It” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and won the Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance in 1984, along with two American Music Awards. The song helped launch Michael Jackson into pop stardom and made Thriller one of the best-selling albums of all time.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage

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