Monday, January 17, 2011

"Billie Jean" (1983)

1. Michael Jackson, "Billie Jean" (Jan. 29, 1983, #1, 7 wks.)

If anybody ever figures out the secret to writing the perfect pop song, I think they are going to have to name it "Billie Jean" in honor of Michael Jackson's greatest moment. This song works on so many levels, not least that it's the purest and most sincere pleasure to hear, with that snaky, sinuous bass, the whisper-soft keyboard chords that bring it up, the tightly propelled mix generally, the rapscallion guitar break, and the spine-tingling cascading string flourishes that slash across the chorus like lightning (I guess that's actually keyboards at this juncture in history, and thank you Quincy Jones, for everything you did). This little production, full of complexities and textures, soars and swoops and dive-bombs and rockets back up. It don't stop till you get enough, to coin a term. At times I swear it belongs on a permanent play loop. No other song necessary, ever. Then there's the matter of Jackson's appearance at the Motown 25th anniversary celebration, where he took the stage and performed this song and introduced the world to the Moonwalk, which for me might be the single most riveting television moment in all of rock 'n' roll history. I cannot take my eyes off it any time I see it again; the whole thing in its pristine moment is endlessly spooky good. At one time, in the blinding flash of Thriller as it was just having its way with the pop charts, all the songs seemed pretty good. But it didn't take long to realize this was the real flashpoint, the one I couldn't actually get enough of and that could leave me almost short of breath from the exhilaration (or was that me dancing?). I suppose you could complain about the silly story the lyrics tell, or maybe Jackson's choked-off way of singing, which makes it harder to follow the general through line of the song as closely as you might like. Go ahead. Complain away.


  1. Great job. I particularly enjoyed all the James Brown as we got near the top. Billie Jean wouldn't be my pick but it is a pretty good tune. Your writing was terrific throughout and that is why I read to the end. Balloon Juice sent me here.
    I'll keep reading.

  2. i've waited the end to write something. as adam said, your writing is terrific. now i'm gonna save all this list, print it and put on my library.
    thank you!

  3. Great accomplishment, here, JPK though I can see now you've slightly cheated by including this as a 2011 entry. ;)

    Seriously though, excellent writing throughout - some of these songs are favorites, some I've shrugged off though you've given me a new light to look at them in, many I haven't heard or if I have heard I've forgotten.

    And it works really well in the PDF; I find sometimes good writing gets diluted in some imperceptible way on a blog - whereas on the stark white of a page it jumps right out at you. Oh I love the presentation aspect of blogs regardless, but still, food for thought.

  4. Thanks, Joel! Yes, definitely a bit of a cheat -- by my calculation, just a little under 9% of it occurred in 2011. Probably if you were going to do your roundup again next year I might be tempted to nominate the current Other Hits countdown, which won't conclude until next month. I have heard from a number of people who liked it a good deal more in the PDF form, where it was all there to be consumed at once. Very interesting!