When you know certain biographical details about a pop star’s life, it can be easy to snicker over the contradictions between said singer’s life and what he or she claims to experience in the songs they sing. In 1985, for example, then-closeted pop stars Elton John and George Michael both collaborated on a duet called “Wrap Her Up” in which they both took turns fawning over women they considered really attractive.
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson (1983) could easily be one of these songs. The song is about a seductive young woman who seduces Michael Jackson and then entraps him by claiming that she has had his son. Considering that Michael Jackson has never convincingly demonstrated any such sexual interest in adult women and considering that Jackson doesn’t seem to be the biological father of his own children, it would seem that “Billie Jean” would inevitably turn into a giant punch line. But it hasn’t. It is considered one of Jackson’s signature songs and brims with authenticity. Even though the song is about an experience that probably would have more likely to have happened to one of his groupie-besieged older brothers, Jackson’s performance is illuminated by a genuine sense of tortured sexuality. Years after the song was recorded, it seems that we are getting a sense of just how tortured Jackson’s sexuality may in fact be.
The song is not a disco song in terms of structure and content; it’s a Motown-flavored rock/pop song with disco elements such as the introductory beat and bass line (the same one used for Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”, another pop song rife with sexual contradictions). It’s as if the story the song was telling takes place in a disco. When Jackson meets Billie Jean, there is no indication of anything Jackson really likes about her. We know she must be attractive because she has captured the attention of everyone else at this nightclub, but the male protagonist never really comes out and says that he desires her. “She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene,” says Jackson, perceiving her as more of a generic icon than object of desire. When she approaches him, his response is surprise. “I said don’t mind but what do you mean I am the one?” It is an honor to be chosen by this popular lady, but she herself isn’t something he seems to want all that badly. Nor does she give any reason as to why he’d be “the one.” He just is. And from the get go, we are immediately suspicious of this woman. Our suspicions deepen further as Jackson recalls various warnings people have given him about women (suspicions that Jackson probably did actually grow up hearing). The most interesting warning, though, comes from his mother who tells him to “be careful of what you do because the lie becomes the truth.”
The chorus fills us in on the result of the dance between Jackson and Billie Jean. “Billie Jean is not my lover/she’s just a girl who claims that I am the one/but the kid is not my son.” She is then described as having “schemes and plans.” But just when you start feeling sympathy for Jackson, Billie Jean shows Jackson’s girlfriend a photo of a baby “his eyes looked like mine.” The lie has become the truth.