"Thinking Twice About Billie Jean" by Veronica Bassil: Book Review

veronicaBassilThe 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:

http://www.allforloveblog.com/?p=8007

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.”

billie jean5
Negation-“No! Not This!”-Is One Of The Song’s Most Powerful Elements, According To Bassil

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.

billie jean2However, 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:

Introduction

“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”

“The Moonwalk”

“She Told Me Her Name Was Billie Jean”

“She Was More Like a Beauty Queen”

“La Belle Dame Sans Merci ”

“Mercy”

” The Vale of Soul Making”

Conclusion

Appendix

Bibliography

Acknowledgements

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.”

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zi_XLOBDo_Y[/tube]

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.billie jean7And 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:

http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Twice-About-Billie-Jean-ebook/dp/B00CR4MJQU

 

10 thoughts on “"Thinking Twice About Billie Jean" by Veronica Bassil: Book Review”

  1. Here is the Amazon Discussion of “Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days.”

    Conrad Murray’s Staunchest Supporters & More Betrayal
    Sunspot says:
    These renegade bodyguards, William Whitfield and Javon Beard, went on Good Morning America on the first day of jury deliberations in Murray’s criminal trial for having killed Michael Jackson. On national TV, they declared Murray’s innocence and argued that he should not be convicted and not go to jail. That was Nov. 4, 2011, and their performance can be viewed on Hulu and the GMA website. How is that for betrayal of their deceased employer Michael Jackson? But Whitfield and Beard got their 15 minutes of fame that day.

    GMA: http://www.hulu.com/watch/296794

    Three days later Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson and sentenced to 4 years in jail [later reduced to less than 2 years]. Whitfield and Beard have remained Murray’s advocates.
    With this book they are exposing MJ and his three minor children to public scrutiny – these same men who pledged and were paid to keep MJ, Prince, Paris, and Blanket PRIVATE and away from public knowledge. The children were 10, 9, and 5 years old when Whitfield and Beard were employed to protect them. Their father even veiled them to keep them unrecognizable and relied on bodyguards to keep them private. More betrayal now, with this book, for children who pay an exorbitant price just for being the offspring of the greatest entertainer of our time. If the bodyguards of the children of President Obama or Matt Damon or Ben Affleck were exposed in this way in a tell-all book, people would be outraged. Because it is Michael Jackson, it seems, people take for granted anything that otherwise would be bizarre, off limits, and inappropriate, and this attitude extends to his innocent children.
    You can buy this book or ignore it or boycott it.
    If you care about Michael Jackson or his children, you will know your best option.

    CM Supporters & Lies: it should be “… Protecting Michael Jackson Many Months Before His Death”
    Brad says:
    In the title of their book and elsewhere, Whitfield & Beard claim to have been with MJ “in his final days,” whereas they had NO CONTACT with MJ during all of 2009 [he died on June 25, 2009] – in fact, no contact with him for 8 months before his death. [Documents & testimony from the Murray trial verify this time frame.]
    These bodyguards have also misrepresented and lied about the amount of time that they were in service to Michael Jackson; they claim 2-1/2 years of service. They were with him only from the end of December 2006, to October 2008 (21 months – not 30 months).
    The bodyguards describe their book (on Amazon) as covering their time with MJ “from Neverland to his death.” Neither of these bodyguards even visited Neverland and they had no contact with MJ for fully 8 MONTHS before his death.
    In the description of their book (on Amazon), they claim to be “the only two men who know what 60 million fans around the world still want to know: what really happened to the King of Pop?” In reality, they have no more information than anyone else who has followed MJ’s last months. They also insist that Conrad Murray is innocent and should never go to jail [GMA program – 11/04/11], which assertions reveal their ignorance regarding the proven cause of MJ’s death.

    BETRAYAL of MJ & his young children!
    Tammy thao says:
    Both of these bodyguards are violating their confidentiality contracts with Michael Jackson by releasing this book.
    Both are violating required confidentiality regarding Prince, Paris, and Blanket – all MINORS.
    MJ’s young children are very vulnerable to betrayal, exploitation, and embarrassment. Paris attempted suicide in June 2013, partly because of painful media intrusion into her private life. The children’s guardians have not approved these bodyguards’ public disclosures about MJ’s children.
    William Whitfield bragged on Good Morning America on March 10/11, 2010, that he had “kept Michael Jackson’s financial records.” He would be divulging this private and confidential information in his book about MJ.
    These bodyguards are revealing private information in spite of the undisputed fact that their paid jobs for him required that they keep this information private and confidential.
    These bodyguards are revealing private information and events about Michael Jackson, his family members, and his minor children for the SOLE PURPOSE of making money on their betrayals, many of which will be detrimental, damaging, and embarrassing to the Jacksons.
    Theirs is the ultimate betrayal of their employer MJ, whose primary goal for them was to keep his personal life safe & private.

    Prince, Paris & Blanket are betrayed & exploited in this book!
    Tina H. says:
    Prince, Paris, and Blanket Jackson – these bodyguards’ clients – are all still minors, entitled to their privacy, and at especially sensitive ages to have to deal with yet more betrayal, inappropriate exposure, exploitation, and public scrutiny. They are VICTIMS of this book.
    William Whitfield promised several times, via social media, that he would obtain the approval of Katherine Jackson before releasing his book for publication. Unsurprisingly, that never happened because Katherine does not need any more heartache or public disclosures by paid employees to embarrass, exploit, and shame her family members – her children and her grandchildren.
    William Whitfield promised, via social media, to give a significant portion of the proceeds from his book to a large number of charities. There has been no mention of any contributions to charities since the announcement was made that the book would be available in June 2014.
    None of MJ’s security personnel were ever allowed inside his home without special permission for a special reason, ensuring that these two bodyguards’ exposure to MJ and his children was very limited. This reality begs the question of how much “information” that is “revealed” in the book is lies, misrepresentations, and/or exaggerations for the sole purpose of selling books. The bodyguards claim to expose MJ’s “home life,” whereas they were not allowed in his home!

    1. Hi Susan:

      Thanks for providing this info. However, as I mentioned in the post, I will be reviewing Whitfield and Beard’s book in a few days once I have finished reading it. In the meantime, I would like to keep all comments and discussions here related to “Thinking Twice About Billie Jean.” Any further comments relating to “Remember The Time” should be held until that post is up. Also, I am trying hard at this time to avoid reading other reviews of the book so that I don’t run the risk of my own opinions becoming colored by what other reviewers have already said. That is sometimes hard because the book is already being discussed all over social media and in mass media, too. I can only vouch that from what I have read so far, the worst aspect of the book as far as what they reveal that could be considered “betrayal” are the discussions of Michael’s finances, and I haven’t even gotten that deeply into that part of the book yet. But I think it’s important to actually read first so that I can fully understand the context of those discussions. Many of the stories they tell-cute, amusing or poignant as they are-are already going to be familiar to many readers from Dr. Moriarty’s book, but I suppose to the media at large, it’s all new stuff.

      Anyway, that is really as much as I want to discuss the book for now until the full review is up. But thanks for your input.

  2. “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.”

    This supposed ambiguity is a trait of writers, typically white women, who ‘see’ qualities in Michael Jackson that they want to see, and then project them onto him as if they were conscience strategies on his part. In no uncertain terms, he rejected the idea that he was anything other than a proud black man, vitiligo notwithstanding, straight, not gay, innocent, not criminal, and so forth.

    MJ often used “dance” as a metaphor for sex. I think Ms. Bassil missed that. But it’s encouraging to see serious explorations of his work, and shocking to see some of the truly nutty stuff that’s out there when you visit Amazon and look around.

    1. At the heart of it, Michael was always a proud black man and that part I definitely agree with. Meantime, many writers and journalists were scrambling to attach labels to him. There WERE a lot of binary elements, or dualities, that were apparent if one looks at the bigger scope of Michael’s life, work, and persona/image but how much of that was conscious or constructed on his part, and how much of it was simply others projecting those qualities onto him, it is hard to say. Michael DID write the song “Black or White,” for example, as a way of exploring one type of binary opposition, but at the same time, melding those opposites together: “It’s black/it’s white/it’s tough for you to get by.”

      Then there is the element of his sexuality, which much has already been written about-for example, how he projected such a tough and sexual image onstage, and yet by the same token courted an image of “Peter Pan” childlike innocence, which I believe played a large part in confusing an entire generation of critics and writers (and even fans to some degree) on how to perceive him, as a redblooded man or as this regressed, innocent being trying to live out a lost childhood? I believe the fact that it was a little of both is part of his fascination and appeal to female fans, but again, it begs the question: Did Michael intentionally court this sort of binary persona, or, as far as he was concerned, was it just all a part of being himself? I am sure he must have been quite amused sometimes at the spectacle of the whole world trying to figure him out and trying to figure which label to hang on him.

      And we see these binary elements come into play with how most of the women in his songs are portrayed, usually either as idealized beings (the madonna) or as femme fatales (the whore). There are some exceptions, of course, but this seems to be a trait of most of the songs he wrote himself. Again, he may or may not have even been conscious of this as a motif pattern in his songs (often writers/artists are not, as these things tend to well from the subconscious mind; it is usually left for others such as listeners, critics, and scholars to note these patterns) but it is undeniably there, so I think the binary ambiguity of “it’s dirty/it’s innocent” is a valid one in the context of discussing his work.

      But I have seen many examples of the kind of thing you’re talking about, where writers have tried to claim that Michael was trying to be white, or he was trying to be feminine, or he was trying to be this or that. I think what we have to distinguish between is what Michael himself consciously intended to project, and what is simply writers and scholars attempting to make their own sense of what often seems like a man of many contradictions.

      1. “Did Michael intentionally court this sort of binary persona, or, as far as he was concerned, was it just all a part of being himself? I am sure he must have been quite amused sometimes at the spectacle of the whole world trying to figure him out and trying to figure which label to hang on him.”

        This is a very intriguing question and I sometimes think MJ was a kind of trickster–amused that he had us trying to figure him out. In the Michael Bush book King of Style, he writes how MJ would deliberatle throw puzzling elements into his costumes with the specific purpose of making people “pay attention,” meaning to close closely and carefully at something. Bush talks about the letters CTE that were on some costumes and he reveals that MJ told them put any letters on–you pick them. Bush says the armband was another such feature, even though I had heard that it was to honor children and their need for our support.

        As you said, “I think what we have to distinguish between is what Michael himself consciously intended to project, and what is simply writers and scholars attempting to make their own sense of what often seems like a man of many contradictions,” and that’s not so easy!

        re the binaries, I think within all the binaries MJ presented us with, he saw a common sense of unity–that we are all human and all connected to other life forms. In BOW there are the lines about “where your blood comes from.” Ultimately, we are able to have a transfusion of blood (as long as it’s our blood type of course) from any other human, if need be, regardless of race, class, gender. I came across a quote from the Dalai Lama which says, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” I think MJ would agree.

        Thanks for this very thought-provoking review!! It led me to look at the video again. I never fully appreciated what you said re it being so different from the way he performed it on Motown 25 and thereafter. When looking at it again I noticed that there are a lot of torn newspaper pages flying around the streets and then the man following him picks up a newspaper with the headline “Billie Jean Scandal.” Interesting too what you said re BJ: “Her entire existence seems to become something of a moot point.” The video has 110 million views on YT and I’m glad the song is seeing a reappearance on the charts!

  3. Hi Raven, and thanks for this review. I had not heard of the book.
    I wonder if you have read the biography of James Brown entitled
    “The One.” In that book, the phrase “the one” is explained as referring to the *one* beat, as in ONE-two-three-four, and that Brown focused on that first beat. So it has me wondering whether “the one” in “Billie Jean” might also be a metaphor…is the speaker the rhythm or the dance itself?
    I’d like to know your thoughts.

    1. I haven’t read the James Brown book but one of my colleagues did a review on it as part of the same book review series for which I did my seminar on Dancing The Dream last year. I definitely recall him explaining how the phrase “The One” referred to the “one” beat. It’s very possible that there was a connection, especially since we know how much Michael idolized James Brown, and would have been very much aware of Brown’s emphasis on the “one” beat. In most cases, art and inspiration usually draws from a well of subconscious ideas. It’s doubtful that Michael would have sat down and said, “I want to use this line ‘I am the one’ because it refers to…” but, rather, it most likely sprang from some subconscious idea, which could have been a conglomarate of many influences both conscious and subconscious. I know that when I write a line of verse, or use a specific image or metaphor, I am normally not thinking too much about what it “means” or trying to analyze why I wrote it. I just know it feels “right” somehow, like when you finally connect a puzzle piece that fits after many frustrating attempts with pieces that don’t. Creating, for me, is a lot like that and I think it is true for most artists. Often times, only afterward, do I go back and say, “Ah! I know now why that line or that phrase came to me.” Something will trigger a memory; it might be something I read years ago, or some memory buried deep, or some association that I realize I was only half conscious of. But suddenly the pieces all fall into place, and I realize that no other line, or phrase, or image could have ever worked. Certainly “I am the one” absolutely could be a metaphor for the beat, in the same way that in Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” it can be argued that all of the characters are actually metaphors for jazz.

  4. He was never convicted. I rlieaze there are people on both sides of the fence on that issue, but I am a very neutral thinker that also happens to believe strongly in due process. I just think it would be nice for people to acknowledge his life for at least one day, then go back to theorizing or bickering. He made amazing contributions to music and in return the price he payed was to never lived a normal life.I feel sad for him. He was a mess.

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