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The Meaning of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”

Released as the second single from his 1982 number one hit album, Thriller, “Billie Jean” is one of Michael Jackson’s most widely-known and beloved songs, and one of the most famous songs of the entire 1980s.

The song was a smash hit upon release, topping the charts in several countries including the United States, UK, Canada, France, Switzerland and Belgium, and cracking the top ten in many more.

Blending elements of just about every genre that gets the people moving, from dance-pop to funk and R&B, “Billie Jean” is a timeless classic that shows us just how deserving Michael Jackson was to be crowned “King of Pop.”

Lyrically, “Billie Jean” tells the story of a woman who Jackson was intimate with who later claimed to be pregnant with his child.

Jackson denies this claim, and the song details their encounter while also giving a warning to other guys to “always think twice” before engaging in a one night stand, because you could end up in his shoes.

The Real Billie Jean

While this story may lead to the assumption that “Billie Jean” is based off one specific person, she is actually a fictional composite of the types of women who Jackson and his brothers frequently encountered.

Jackson spoke of this in his 1988 memoir, Moonwalk:

There never was a real Billie Jean. The girl in the song is a composite of people my brothers have been plagued with over the years. I could never understand how these girls could say they were carrying someone’s child when it wasn’t true.

Michael Jackson on the meaning of “Billie Jean”, 1988.

He further elaborated on this in a 1996 interview, as per MTV:

“Billie Jean” is kind of anonymous. It represents a lot of girls. They used to call them groupies in the ’60s. They would hang around backstage doors, and any band that would come to town they would have a relationship with, and I think I wrote this out of experience with my brothers when I was little. There were a lot of Billie Jeans out there. Every girl claimed that their son was related to one of my brothers.

Michael Jackson on the meaning of “Billie Jean”, 1996.

The 2004 Michael Jackson biography, The Magic and the Madness by J. Randy Taborrelli goes deeper into the story of “Billie Jean”, with Jackson offering a specific memory of a woman who took things too far in 1981.

This woman sent him a letter claiming that he was the father of one of her twins. Jackson ignored these letters, as fan mail of this sort had become fairly common for him at that point in his career.

However, this woman who he had never met continued to send him letters claiming that she loved him and wanted to be with him, and guilting him for ignoring his own flesh and blood.

The final straw, and the part that disturbed Jackson enough to give him nightmares, was the final parcel that the woman sent.

In it she included a photo of herself, a gun, and a letter that told him to use the gun on himself at a specific time. She would kill herself at the same time, after killing their baby, of course, and thus they would all be together in the afterlife.

This woman did not end up killing herself, as the Jacksons later discovered, but thankfully ended up in psychiatric care.

These letters disturbed Jackson enough to give him nightmares, and provided the artistic fodder that resulted in the iconic “Billie Jean”.

Finally, there is a gem on the 2008 re-issue of Thriller for its 25th anniversary that includes a clip from a 2005 interview with Quincy Jones. He discusses the story of how Jackson met the woman who claimed to be the mother of one of her twins after she climbed over the wall surrounding his property.

Listen to that clip below, which also includes talk about “The Girl Is Mine” and “Beat It”.

The Making of “Billie Jean”

This wild lyrical inspiration is only as good as the musical arrangement can make it, and as we know, Jackson had that part covered as well.

It all started with the bass line that serves as the 29-second intro, which according to the Michael Jackson bio For the Record (Halstead, 2007), was a point of contention between Jackson and producer Quincy Jones.

Jones apparently disliked the demo, wanted to change the name of the song to “Not My Lover”, and doubted whether it should be included on the album.

In particular, Jones wanted to cut the bass intro, to which Jackson replied that it makes him want to dance.

This he said about the song in 2005, during that Thriller interview shared above:

I said, ‘Michael we’ve got to cut that intro,’” Jones recalls. “He said, ‘But that’s the jelly!’” — Jackson’s personal slang term for a funky beat is “smelly jelly” — “‘That’s what makes me want to dance.’ And when Michael Jackson tells you, ‘That’s what makes me want to dance,’ well, the rest of us just have to shut up.

Quincy Jones on the making of “Billie Jean”, 2005.

Jackson felt very strongly about “Billie Jean” right from the jump. In his memoir, he claims that he knew the song was a hit because of the way it made him feel when he heard it.

He knew the song was special, and he was so excited that it consumed his entire mind:

A musician knows hit material. It has to feel right. Everything has to feel in place. It fulfills you and it makes you feel good. You know it when you hear it. That’s how I felt about ‘Billie Jean.’ I knew it was going to be big while I was writing it.

I was really absorbed in that song. One day during a break in a recording session I was riding down the Ventura Freeway with Nelson Hayes, who was working with me at the time. ‘Billie Jean’ was going around in my head and that’s all I was thinking about.

We were getting off the freeway when a kid on a motorcycle pulls up to us and says, ‘Your car’s on fire.’ Suddenly we noticed the smoke and pulled over and the whole bottom of the Rolls-Royce was on fire. That kid probably saved our lives. If the car had exploded, we could have been killed. But I was so absorbed by this tune floating in my head that I didn’t even focus on the awful possibilities until later.

Michael Jackson on writing “Billie Jean”, 1988.

History has shown that Michael Jackson was correct about “Billie Jean” being a hit, and the fact that he knew it from the first time he heard the song is a testament to his sheer talent.

The song itself also offers plenty of evidence.

“Billie Jean” Lyrics Meaning

Opening with that bass groove that Quincy Jones almost cut, “Billie Jean” gives listeners plenty of time to make their way over to the dance floor before Jackson comes in with the first verse:

She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene
I said, “Don’t mind, but what do you mean, I am the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round?”
She said I am the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round
She told me her name was Billie Jean as she caused a scene
Then every head turned with eyes that dreamed of bein’ the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round

First verse to “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson.

Here Jackson describes his first encounter with this woman, who was gorgeous like something out of a movie. She asks him to dance, and he tells her that he’s happy to dance but wonders why he’s the one she chose.

As they make their way to the dance floor, she tells him her name is Billie Jean and everyone turns their heads to look at them, wishing that they were the one who had the chance to dance with her.

This takes us into the first pre-chorus, where Jackson sings about the mistake he made by getting involved with this woman:

People always told me, “Be careful of what you do
Don’t go around breakin’ young girls’ hearts” (Hee-hee)
And mother always told me, “Be careful of who you love
And be careful of what you do (Oh-oh)
‘Cause the lie becomes the truth” (Oh-oh), hey-ey

First pre-chorus to “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson.

Jackson says that people warned him about breaking young girl’s hearts, and the consequences that may come with that. Of course, he didn’t listen and now he’s gotten himself into a predicament.

Even his mother warned him that “the lie becomes the truth,” meaning that if he’s not careful, people will believe lies that are told about him as if they were true.

The chorus reveals what went down between these two, after that night on the dance floor:

Billie Jean is not my lover, uh
She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one (Oh, baby)
But the kid is not my son (Hoo)
She says I am the one (Oh, baby)
But the kid is not my son (Hee-hee-hee, no-no, hee-hee-hee, hoo)

Chorus to “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson.

Michael insists that Billie Jean is not his woman, no matter how much she wants to be. She still claims that he’s “the one”, except now it’s the one in terms of spending his life with her, and raising a child, rather than just a fun night on the dance floor.

She’s pregnant, or has a young child, and she claims that he is the father. Jackson is adamant that the kid is not his son.

His mother’s warning heeds true in the second verse, when we find Jackson in court:

For forty days and for forty nights, the law was on her side
But who can stand when she’s in demand? Her schemes and plans
‘Cause we danced on the floor in the round (Hee)
So take my strong advice
Just remember to always think twice
(Don’t think twice) Do think twice! (A-hoo!)
She told my baby we’d danced ’til three, then she looked at me
Then showed a photo of a baby cryin’, his eyes were like mine (Oh, no)
‘Cause we danced on the floor in the round, baby (Ooh, hee-hee-hee)

Second verse to “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson.

The verse begins with a reference to the Bible, as in Genesis 5 and the story of Noah’s Arc, when it rained for forty days and forty nights to cleanse the earth of its sins.

By this he means that he fought long and hard with the law to prove that he was not the father, and for a while they did not believe him. Especially because they did in fact dance together, and it is implied that they also may have slept together.

This is where he offers his advice to other men, to think twice before allowing themselves to be enchanted by a beautiful woman at the club. Perhaps, to lean on another Jackson quote, one should try not to be a “Smooth Criminal”.

She pulls out a photo of a crying baby, who happens to have his eyes, offering further evidence that this was in fact the son of Michael Jackson.

Up next, the second pre-chorus offers more details of what happened that night:

People always told me, “Be careful of what you do
And don’t go around breakin’ young girls’ hearts” (Don’t break no hearts; hee-hee)
But she came and stood right by me
Just the smell of sweet perfume (Ha-oh)
This happened much too soon (Ha-oh, ha-ooh)
She called me to her room (Ha-oh, hoo), hey-ey

Second pre-chorus to “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson.

Everything happened fast, and she came onto him. He found her attractive and the next thing he knows he’s back in her room, and you know what happens next.

While Jackson may not have been the father of the groupies’ children in real life, the song leaves room for interpretation as to whether or not he is the father.

He claims that he isn’t, sure, but according to his story, he certainly could be…

The song ends with two more choruses, as Jackson really drives home the point that he is not the father and the rest of us dance the night away.

Watch the music video for “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson below.