The song-set that made Michael Jackson the sensation of his generation, and the all-time best-selling album by far (110 million to runner AC/DC’s Back in Black’s 49 million), Thriller is a milestone in the history of pop music—and pop movies. With his seven videos off the nine-song album, Jackson crashed the informal color barrier of MTV, while validating the channel’s creed that music videos were not just marketing tools but potent cinematic statements. And the breakthrough came with a song, written by Jackson, that his producer Quincy Jones thought too weak to include. Supposedly based on a sad and absurd real-life incident in which a troubled woman accused Jackson of fathering one of her twins (“She says I am the one,/ But the kid is not my son”), “Billie Jean” is a denial of paternity—a celebrity’s cry of victimhood. To a funky riff in a minor key, the song tells female fans that a star like Jackson is both irresistible and untouchable. They are condemned to heartbreak, he to solitude.
The “Billie Jean” video, directed by Steve Barron, snapped the neck of everyone who saw it with its straight-on display of Jackson’s star quality. A sinister sleuth trails Michael with tabloid allegations, as the singer slouches poutily in his pink shirt and bowtie. Not until nearly two minutes into the video does he start dancing, and then it’s phenomenal. Any pavement flagstone, trash-can rim or back-alley stair his feet land on glows magically. The bed sheets he slips into turn phosphorescent. His moves are no less radiant: little miracles of spinning, strutting, hunching and moonwalking. The new medium had its ultimate showman, for Michael Jackson was not just the Al Jolson and Fred Astaire of music videos but his own beautiful, bad self.
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