Billie Jean first appears in the third verse of the opening track of the record for which there was no precedent. “Billie Jean is always talkin’,” Michael Jackson sings in Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. “When nobody else is talkin’ / Tellin’ lies and rubbin’ shoulders.”
In many ways, the song is little more than a bouncy nod to the dance club, a simple bridge between the exuberance of Off The Wall and the grandeur of Thriller. Each line of the chorus ends with a refrain of “yeah, yeah” from the backup singers. The final verse invokes truth and belief and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ plays out to a seemingly joyful chant in an African dialect. But this is unquestionably, if you take the time to read the lyrics, a horrifying song.
“You’re stuck in the middle / And the pain is thunder / It’s too high to get over / Too low to get under / You’re stuck in the middle / And the pain is thunder,” Jackson sings. “You’re a vegetable / You’re a vegetable / Still they hate you / You’re a vegetable / You’re just a buffet / You’re a vegetable / They eat off of you / You’re a vegetable.”
He sings this before Thriller has sold a single one of its over 65 million copies. Before the moonwalk. Before 12 of the 13 Grammys he would win. Before Wacko Jacko. Indeed, long before Michael Jackson has assumed his duelling thrones as the King of Pop and his royal highness of weird, he fears the barbarians at the palace gates. And he says so, quite loudly. Even if his subjects are too busy dancing to notice.
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In this way, the greatest mystery of Michael Jackson is that anyone perceives much mystery at all. For a man now remembered as bizarre and reclusive, he was positively expansive about his fears, hopes, delusions and afflictions. And from a lifetime on stage, from the troubled and remarkable days of the Jackson 5, there was already so much to say. Most of it there in the form of Billie Jean.
The song of the same name, recounting the tale of a deranged woman and misplaced fatherhood, comes five tracks after he has named her and declared himself a vegetable. It was released as a single in 1983, almost the precise midpoint of his life. Taut, desperate, slick and paranoid, it is perhaps the exact moment at which his brilliance and madness were in perfect, fleeting balance.
Thriller’s title track was an epic tale of movie horror; Beat It invoked gang warfare. His next record, Bad, brought more violence with the title track and Smooth Criminal. Leave Me Alone is ostensibly a song about a girl—“Just stop doggin’ me around!”—but the video would be used to rage against the tabloid press he may or may not have been courting himself. And having written We Are the World to global acclaim two years earlier, he sings Man in the Mirror, a personal declaration of ’80s-era salvation.
If he never matched Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad, he spent the rest of his days chasing their achievement. Believing himself to be a martyr, he looks outward and imagines himself a messiah. The military dress that follows matches the toughness he tries periodically to project. He feels, so often, both deeply and naively.
He rages more explicitly against the attention—Scream, Tabloid Junkie and Privacy. He invokes humanity—Heal the World, Black or White and Earth Song. Even on Jam, a tight dance number featuring rapper Heavy D and, in the video, basketball’s Michael Jordan, Jackson cannot restrain his worldview. “Nation to nation, all the world must come together,” he sings, somewhat softly. “Face the problems that we see, then maybe somehow we can work it out.” He links a district attorney pursuing him on sexual abuse allegations to the CIA and the KKK in D.S. In a disturbing six minutes that flicks between anger and sorrow, he calls out for the painkillers that are now speculated to have stopped his heart (Morphine). With They Don’t Care About Us he laments racial disharmony and invokes Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 2001, on the opening track to Invincible, his last studio album, he declares himself “untouchable” and “unbreakable.” But he is, by then, entirely lost.
There might not be another pop star whose mania was so explicitly detailed. And there is so much of this mania to explore—having achieved an unrivalled status on the world stage he seems desperate to fulfill it, to live up to the myth and adulation. But if he believed the hype, it is perhaps because he knew only that, his entire life spent with a microphone in hand chasing acceptance and approval. To the point that, by the time he sang Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, he was already too far gone.
“If you really want to know about me there is a song I wrote which is the most honest song I’ve ever written. It’s the most autobiographical song I’ve ever written. It’s called Childhood,” Jackson told an interviewer in 2003. “They should listen to it. That’s the one they really should listen to.”
Childhood appears on HIStory, the 1995 collection of greatest hits and new material, and was released as the B-side to Scream. “Have you seen my childhood? / I’m searching for the world that I come from,” Jackson asks with the song’s first line. “No one understands me / They view it as such strange eccentricities / ’cause I keep kidding around / like a child, but pardon me / People say I’m not okay / ’cause I love such elementary things / It’s been my fate to compensate / for the childhood I’ve never known.”
He sounds, at first, like Barbra Streisand. But by the end he’s adopted the voice of a six-year-old. It is an attempt at an explanation for everything that has been. A story of original sin that hopes to tell how the happy-faced boy and the twisted-looking man are one and the same. How the yearning of those Motown classics led to a life of desperation. How the abuse of his early years left him eternally wounded.
All of which is to say that Michael Jackson never had a chance.