The current wave of “Michaelmania” continues this month with the release of two very high profile books, Zach O’Malley Greenburg’s Michael Jackson, Inc.: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire and Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard’s Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson In His Final Days, which I will be reviewing within a few days. However, we should not forget that there are a lot of very worthwhile MJ books out there that may not have the advantage of big wind publicity, but are nevertheless just as valuable for contributing to our understanding of Michael Jackson, the man and artist. One such book that I would like to highlight today is Veronica Bassil’s ebook, Thinking Twice About Billie Jean, a book that had been on my “to read” list for quite some time but which I was only able to finish this week.
Many of you may recall that I also reviewed Bassil’s book Michael Jackson’s Love of Planet Earth in April of 2013:
Since I have begun incorporating discussions of “Earth Song” into my class curriculum, Michael Jackson’s Love of Planet Earth has become a valuable resource and a reference that I always recommend to my students.
In Thinking Twice About Billie Jean Bassil turns her attention to another Michael Jackson classic that is worthy of scholarly attention and further analysis.
Sometimes it’s too easy to become blase’ about “Billie Jean.” It’s a song we’ve all grown up on, and for fans as well as serious scholars of Michael’s work, it is also a song that we’ve become a bit weary of hearing-in the general press and from the consensus of many critics-overhyped as Jackson’s “creative peak.” But if we’re honest with ourselves; if we cast aside all cynicism at those critics who refused to look past Thriller (as well as allowing that cynicism to color our judgment) then “Billie Jean” can certainly be appreciated for all that it is, as Michael’s undeniable pop/dance masterpiece, but also, as the strangely prophetic song that revealed to us his darkest hour-and some glimpses into his darkest secrets. Bassil’s book is one that leaves no proverbial stone unturned in examining every aspect of the song. She not only offers up an insightful analysis and explication of the lyrics, but also takes a holistic approach in looking at the additional layers of meaning as they are applied to both his live and video performances of the song.
“Billie Jean” has a unique history among the works of Michael’s canon. As a performance piece, it had achieved the status of an iconic classic, one that was both static and yet constantly evolving. It is the only Michael Jackson song I can think of for which its live choreography did not have its roots in the short film for the song, but rather, a TV appearance that came several months later. (To this day, it still seems a bit odd to me to go back to the original “Billie Jean” video and see that there is no moonwalk; no fedora; no single glove) but, if we put aside those iconic elements long associated with the Motown 25 performance, we can see that Michael had already very much internalized the song’s major themes and symbolic elements. It was simply that, between the three very different mediums of recording, video, and live performing, Michael may have been one of the first music artists to recognize how all of the different mediums can contribute to the layers of a song’s meaning. For example, according to Bassil, the added element of the moonwalk step-which had not been present in the original video, but was added later for Motown 25 and thereafter became a permanent signature move performed during the song-contributed an important physical reinforcement of the song’s dual forces-retreat and assertion, both defensive measures that the singer/narrator undergoes under the weight of accusation. However, Bassil notes that on an even deeper and more personal level, this also represented the duality of Michael’s own life:
“To fade away or retreat while yet asserting himself and advancing is a movement that characterizes Jackson’s life. His break with the past to become a solo performer is apparent in his introduction to Billie Jean on Motown 25 when he acknowledges “the good old days with my brothers,” who have just left the stage after performing their Jackson 5 hits with him; Michael then shifts forward by saying, with a pause for emphasis, “but I like . . . the new songs. ” His Motown 25 performance, looking back at the “old songs ” before revealing the “new songs” and his new persona as a solo King of Pop, is a transition that resembles the “retreat backwards / advance forward” movement of the moonwalk.”
Bassil, Veronica (2013-11-18). Thinking Twice About Billie Jean (Kindle Locations 1468-1470). Kindle Edition.
But what exactly did “Billie Jean” mean? The question is at once both simplistic and complex. On its surface, the storyline is obvious enough. It’s a song about a seductress; a “groupie” who is accusing the singer of having fathered her child. But the song’s stark power comes from the asserted denial of the singer, thus setting up a tension between accused and accuser that is never quite relieved-or resolved, other than through the power of “no” or as Bassil puts it, quoting the Sanskrit “neti neti-not this, not this.”
And who was Billie Jean? That is probably, no doubt, one of the pop music world’s most eternal burning questions, and remains a puzzling mystery despite Michael’s own claims that she was an amalgamation of several different women, and despite at least a few who have come forth claiming to be the elusive Billie Jean of pop mythology. Some of the long term followers of this blog may recall that I spent quite a bit of time with one of those women, Theresa Gonsalves, back in August of 2010 when we met in Gary, Indiana. But was Billie Jean any single woman, or perhaps, as he claimed, a composite made up of bits and pieces of many girls and from many experiences and stories? It is entirely possible that even if Theresa Gonsalves or anyone else out there is indeed “the real Billie Jean” that Michael would have done the gentlemanly thing in protecting her identity. In the end, it was probably easier and a lot less liable to simply claim her as a fictional or amalgamous being; a representative of the femme fatale.
However, Veronica Bassil raises another, even more intriguing possibility. Could it be that Billie Jean was never a real lover, or human being at all, but rather, a metaphor for the media and other forces that would soon conspire to tear him down? Could the song be looked at as a kind of prophecy of what was to come? (“The Lie Becomes The Truth”). We know that whoever-or whatever -Billie Jean was, she was not only the star of her own song, but also mentioned in “Wanna Be Starting Something” as the force that is always “talkin’ when nobody else is talkin’/tellin’ lies and rubbin’ shoulders” which may give a good indication that Bassil is onto something in the theory she proposes. Bassil’s theory is that the song is operating on several multi layers. There is the obvious one, of course, which is the story of the seduction-or possible seduction (since the singer never confirms whether he actually followed her into her room or not) and the paternity issue. As in so many of Michael’s songs on this topic, the male singer/narrator must deal with the moral implications of his actions. From a purely feminist perspective, it’s easy to dismiss “Billie Jean” as just another guy whining after-the-fact and trying to abdicate his responsibilities for his actions, and the fact that he tries so hard to cast all of the blame on the woman as “the temptress” could serve to make it even more unforgivable (there but for the grace of that infectious beat, of course!). However, to paint the song and its narrator- as well as its antagonist, Billie Jean-with such simplistic brush strokes is a disservice to both the artist and the creation. In the course of her book, Bassil patiently goes beneath all of the song’s layers to unravel the true complexities of this literal and metaphoric relationship, as well as the tug-of-war battle it represents between the opposing forces. In one of my favorite passages from the book, Bassil states:
“The relationship is presented as a denial of the relationship. It is a negative relationship—not my lover (the title of the song Quincy Jones wanted). This is somewhat like saying, as the surrealist René Magritte did, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“ This is not a pipe”), a sentence he placed above his painting of a pipe. In other words, the pipe is both here (present as a depicted artifact ) and not here (absent as a ‘real’ object) simultaneously. A similar assertion and denial appears in the way Jackson’s statement is sung as two lines, with a pause between the first and second part: Billie Jean is [assertion] Not my lover [denial] This kind of binary flip-flop or ambiguity is a trait of Michael Jackson’s life and oeuvre, a man who explored the “stuck in the middle” ground between opposites: it’s black, it’s white; it’s masculine, it’s feminine; it’s pure, it’s dirty; it’s innocent, it’s criminal; it’s beautiful, it’s ugly; it’s true, it’s false; it’s gay, it’s straight; it’s normal, it’s weird; it’s adult, it’s childlike, and so on. By embracing the dangerous space between opposites and blurring the boundaries between them, Jackson violated socially constructed, “safe” categories, taboos, and class divisions.”
Bassil, Veronica (2013-11-18). Thinking Twice About Billie Jean (Kindle Locations 498-501). . Kindle Edition.
The table of contents provides an intriguing glimpse of the many facets broken down in this book:
“Breakin’ My Heart”
“I Am the One”: A Dancer ”
“I Am the One”: A Unique Being ”
“I Am the One”: A Defendant “
I Am the One”: A Solo Superstar ”
“Billie Jean Is Not My Lover”
“And Be Careful What You Do”
“The Lie Becomes the Truth”
“This Happened Much Too Soon”
“Law Was on Her Side”: Background
“Law Was on Her Side”: California
“Law Was on Her Side”: People v. Jackson
“The Law Was on Her Side”: Evidence
“She Called Me to Her Room”
“She Told Me Her Name Was Billie Jean”
“She Was More Like a Beauty Queen”
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci ”
” The Vale of Soul Making”
The first chapter, “Breakin’ My Heart” sets the tone for the entire book, in letting the reader know that this isn’t going to be merely another academic explication of the song’s lyrics, but a thoroughly holistic approach that acknowledges that the song’s greatest power-and most intense truths-may come just as much from what is not said-or, at least, the parts that may not be found in any lyric sheet, since by nature, lyric sheets and liner notes only record what is written down. However, part of Michael’s innate power as a performer came from his ability to imbue a song with ad libs, and often it is these ad libs that add a whole other dimension to the song or story.
I will look closely at the lyrics to Billie Jean, but it is perhaps in the adlibs, the seemingly unscripted and spontaneous bursts of emotion, where the most direct and condensed message at the heart of the song can be found. Jackson recorded his adlibs via a six-foot cardboard tube, giving them a strange echoing sound as if from another dimension: “You know you did! Breakin’ my heart, baby! Look what you done to me! No, no, no, no, no!” These lines together with many nonverbal adlibs, such as moans and shouts, tell the story of someone tormented, someone hurting bad, someone revealing a lot of righteous indignation too. Someone expressing complicated feelings of fury, entrapment, anguish and betrayal , and someone issuing a strong denial and a plea for truth and merciful compassion: “Look what you done to me!” “Breakin’ my heart, baby!” Billie Jean is a song about a man caught in a web of lies and trying to break free, and in many ways this is the story of Michael Jackson as well.
Bassil, Veronica (2013-11-18). Thinking Twice About Billie Jean (Kindle Location 179). . Kindle Edition.
Is it possible that Michael, penning this song as he would have been sometime in the very early eighties, was already foreseeing his level of global fame and the forces that he would have to stand strong against? Or is it simply easier to read into these things with the ability of hindsight, or to apply aspects of the song’s themes and symbolism prophetically to what we know, ultimately, would happen to Michael? I would venture to say that, regardless, what Bassil offers is a fascinating analysis that at least raises some ponderous questions of life’s ability to imitate art-or perhaps more accurately, of art’s ability to ignite the law of attraction, something that Michael very much believed in as attested by his many manifestos and advice to others.
Although it would be difficult for me to single out any favorite passages or sections of the book, I have to say I especially enjoyed the “I Am The One” chapters which focus on both the attraction and curse of being “the one” who will dance “in the round.” In the case of the singer/narrator, he is “The One” who stands accused, and in real life, Michael would come to be “The One” who would stand before the world, accused. But being “The One” is also a reference to being “The Performer,” the one upon whom all eyes are fixated. In fact, Michael’s entire modus operandi during this song is about “loneness” (ironic for a song that is also, supposedly, about a romance gone wrong).
“The phrase “I am the one” is repeated 13 times in the course of the song. At first it is a question that the singer asks of Billie Jean: ‘I said don’t mind, but what do you mean I am the one.'”
From the outset, “I am the one” is linked to dancing in “the round ,” meaning on a circular stage where the audience surrounds the dancer who is at the center, the object of all eyes: “Then every head turned with eyes that dreamed of being the one Who will dance on the floor in the round” From a performer’s view onstage, the dancer sees eyes, everywhere a sea of eyes, all attention fixed. This adulation is appealing, and others too, perhaps Billie Jean, dream of “being the one.” Andy Warhol spoke of everyone having 15 minutes of fame, and maybe we would all like to have the world’s attention. However, at this point in his life, Michael Jackson, who began performing at age 5, had already had a 19-year history of “being the one” surrounded by the eyes of his audience, including fans, paparazzi, media, the curious or jealous, the detractors, admirers, manipulators and deceivers. By the time of his death, he had had 45 years of being surrounded by the eyes of the world. That intense gaze must have been exhilarating, frightening, and infuriating, a gaze he could never escape, even in death. It has been suggested that such intense, life-long scrutiny led director Peter Weir to base The Truman Show on Michael Jackson’s life.
Bassil, Veronica (2013-11-18). Thinking Twice About Billie Jean (Kindle Location 213). . Kindle Edition.
Of course, Bassil is not the first critic or writer to recognize that “Billie Jean” is very much what Walt Whitman might have described as a “Song of Myself.” It is, in fact, one of the few songs in which he remains the sole performer and sole focal point throughout. In the video, we never even see the presumed title character; indeed, her entire existence seems to become something of a moot point. But we do see a myriad of characters whose lives are impacted by their contact with “The One,” as Bassil points out, in ways that are both positive and negative. And, as many critics have noted, even though Michael used choreographed routines in his live shows that often featured dozens of backup dancers and musicians, when it came time for Billie Jean, he always performed it alone, just himself and the lone spotlight. Indeed, the entire performance was built on the concept of being “The One.”
At the heart of the book are the chapters entitled “The Law Was On Her Side” which go into quite a bit of detail on the allegations made against Michael. While at times the amount of attention and detail paid to the allegations threatens to slightly derail the focus from the song, I understand Bassil’s point in including this information and its significance to her focal point. If we are to understand Michael’s “Billie Jean” in the context of being a metaphor for his life and as a work of prophecy; if we are to fully appreciate that this is a song about being “The One” who stands accused, then it is absolutely crucial to fully understand how and why Michael came to stand in front of the world, both metaphorically and literally stripped naked, and accused of one of the most heinous crimes of all. Although the facts presented here will be familiar to most fans and to those who have researched the cases, Bassil does an excellent job of breaking down the details of the Chandler, Francia, and Arvizo allegations so that the casual reader will understand exactly what happened, and why. Especially interesting is the section where Bassil examines how and why false accusations of sexual misconduct rose exponentially in the United States during the decade of the 1990’s (not coincidentally, the very time in which Michael was first accused). Again, these segments may, at times, somewhat take the focus off the song, but they are important-especially for the casual reader-in establishing the connection between the anguish of the singer/narrator who is “The One” and stands accused, and that of the song’s creator who is attempting to bridge both “affirmation and denial.” One small issue I had with this section is that there is no mention of the recent Wade Robson allegations, which may make this section of the book seem inconclusive to those readers who are aware of Robson’s accusations. Perhaps at some point Bassil will revise the book to include this information, which is important (not because Robson’s story is believable) but because, just as with the Chandler and Arvizo allegations, these are allegations, also, that need to be debunked. But even moreso because they serve to demonstrate in a very scary way how death has not ended “The One”‘s persecution, but in many ways, has only intensified it-especially since the power of denial; the ability to invoke the power of the words neti neti -“not this; not this” (the power so crucial to “Billie Jean”‘s narrator and performer) is no longer an option. At least, not in life. That voice has been silenced; however, the message of eternal defiance against false accusation that was encapsulated in those four minutes and fifty-four seconds rages on, its power undiminished by the thirty-one years that have elapsed since it first exploded on the airwaves.And that leads us conveniently to the point I would like to end this review on. The singer is gone, but the song lives on. Just last week, “Billie Jean” saw a powerful resurgence, peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 chart at #14 more than 31 years after it held the #1 spot for seven weeks. It even climbed as high last week as #5 on the r&b chart. It is consistently ranked at or near #1 on every fan or critical list of “greatest MJ songs” and, in fact, consistently ranks at or near #1 on every list of the greatest songs of the 80’s, and of the greatest dance songs of all time.
But if you read between the lines, “Billie Jean” is much more than just one of the greatest dance songs of all time. It is an intensely personal song, one whose multi layers of pain, anguish, and darkness is belied by its infectious groove. There has never been a song quite like it, and until now, there has been no definitive book to my knowledge that has delved between its lines to peel back those layers. “Earth Song” has already been the focus of its own book, and I hope that soon, many more Michael Jackson songs will be singled out as subjects worthy of academic study. This one definitely does not disappoint.
Thinking Twice About Billie Jean by Veronica Bassil is available for purchase at Amazon.com: