“It’s such an incredible performance –
and it did so much for him! It boosted his entire career…that night, that one moment in time…. it was a great moment”
Smokey Robinson – BBC: The Culture Show Michael Jackson (2009)
Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” performance at Motown 25: Yesterday, Today And Forever (March 25th, 1983)
“I knew that my son was going to do what he did…he went on and It was like shooting a rocket up to the moon”
Katherine Jackson – The Life Of An Icon‘You’re a hell of a mover, man. You really put them on their asses last night….
(Directed by David Gest, 2011)
You’re an angry dancer. I’m the same way. I used to do the same thing with my cane.’Fred Astaire (1983)
It was a breezy evening, March 25th 1983. And at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in California, an alphabet catalogue of’ “Hitsville” Motown school greats and established stars filled the space to perform their greatest hits, in celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Motown. The idea behind the “Hitsville” term was utilised upon the record labels founding, by Berry Gordy, in Detroit,1959. It explains the convergence and ‘crossover’ that black artists breached in to, be it through soul and a challenging pop influence, which was not so present before the record’s start up in the USA. What we saw was an emergence of a “The Motown Sound”; boasting a style and a genre that was unique to that label’s following. Be it through the feel good rhythmic and swing sounds of Stevie Wonder’s“Signed, Sealed & Delivered” (1970), or the upbeat, lifting sounds of Diana Ross and The Temptations re-edition (1970) of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High enough” (1967).
The lineup was nothing short of star studded. The event was celebrated
in true Motown style, with the featurings of performances by:
Lionel Richie, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder,
The Supremes, The Miracles, The Four Tops, The Jackson Five,
and Michael Jackson.
Let me just re-iterate that to you. One moment says a thousand words:
The “moonwalk” that dazzled millions: Cementing his place in the history books of popular music and culture
So you remember, now?
Well, incase you don’t know who or what Michael Jackson was about – I urge you to watch this video, before you read on further. Observe this biographic piece, taken from Jackson’s own fictional ‘pop meets sci-fi’ film, “Moonwalker” (1988).
A genius in a field of his own. Observe the greatness:
Credits go to user MrRafinhaJackson:
All this music, pop fandom, and 1980’s musical nostaglia may not come back to all alernative, indie, heavy metal or rock fans, I’m afraid. But also, considering it was 30 years ago — you, the reader, quite rightly could have not been born in this period of the early eighties – March 1983, to be precise. But, quite certainly, I’m sure you would have seen atleast an image or a segement of the performance during your childhood. or at some point in your lifetime, unless you really were not giving the slightest of interest to popular culture and music, or, you were a die-hard Prince fan, for instance.
In my estimation, you probably don’t even have to know his name to identify what went on in this performance – I mean, the iconography surrounding “Billie Jean” is self-explanatory – you know it’s origins:
Jackson – the rhinestone glove – the glittery jacket, the light up tiles in the music video – the Moonwalk. But also, who is “Billie Jean”? This was a rumour Jackson played with very much in the media, much to his amusement. It was almost ‘art imitating life’.
‘Billie Jean is not my lover!’ (above):
The historical roots of “Billie Jean” (1982) – it’s iconic material success, and it’s evolution in Jackson’s career (performance at Madison Square Garden, New York, 2001
in celebration of Jacksons’ 30th Anniversary as a solo artist)
Read these descriptions from Jackson’s own experience:
Billie Jean is based on the groupies that used to hang around Jackson and his brothers when they were in The Jackson 5.
“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”
Biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli writes that a woman wrote to Jackson claiming he was the father of one of her twins.
Leaving the roots of the song behind, the performance were the iconic elements of a ‘musical master’ in the making, at work. He rose to fame as a small child from the Steelworks of Gary, Indiana, and then came out with this. From here on in, Jackson was in charge of his own destiny. However you may argue it, “Billie Jean” (1982) marked his status within the industry, making the transition from group star – to pop superstar. In my view, it was like no other – it was all a spectacle, and as Jackson always like to say in his career, much for the reasons of what were perceived eccentricities – the ‘razzle dazzle’ – all part of making the public believe he was a strange individual; one who did not lead a normal life, which, in all estimation, is true, given his huge status as a person noticed and recognised globally – however, he was able to lead a relatively normal life within reach, when at least away from sight of the ferocious, scrutinising press and media attention. To the average listener of Michael Jackson, you would be very surprised to find out how actually normal his life was. Neverland, Peter Pan, the odd appearances – it was all there to fool you. And you fell in to his trap. It all stems back from the showmanship in this performance. It’s his purpose – he felt – as an artist, to entertain and challenge the audiences perception – so that everyone would be saying “what is Jackson doing next”. As the saying goes, ‘any publicity is good publicity’. Take the elephant man’s bones and the hyperbaric chamber photo publicity stunt, which was actually featured in the the National Enquirer, 1987. All part of Jackson’s mystique, inscrutable and enigmatical presence. He knew what he was doing – to say Jackson was a naive ‘man-boy’ child would be an understatement. A daring, young, up and coming media ‘savvy’ orientated entertainer would fit the bill more appropriately.
He was the fishing rod. And we were just his bait, you see. It was PR at it’s highest potential.
He was the master of manipulation. Not only in dance, but in the media, also.
Which is why to some of you reading, if not so familiar with Jackson – are probably hasten to wonder about his somewhat odd and eccentric image in the latter years.
This performance, and his career, was of his own making. He had control of his image – the two sides – one being the “King of Pop”, after this performance, and the second being the constructed “Wacko Jacko” image.
If you watch the “Leave Me Alone” (1987) music video, you shall understand the origins of this notion, which he ironically plays with to feed off the media’s constant speculation, glorification, sensationalism and*bottom-feeders of Jackson’s private life (*bottom-feeders being the under-skilled tabloid journalists out with an agenda to report lies and negativity in order to increase readership and ratings – which ultimately – had an adverse effect on Jackson’s career after “Billie Jean” (1982) and far in to his later reclusive years, unfortunately.
But alas, “Billie Jean” at Motown: 25 was also a blessing. It was, essentially, before the onset of rumours, before the ‘extortion’ attempt molestation scandals (if you need proof – here it is for you) and before the changes and ‘distortion’ of appearance and for what some people viewed as, the Peter Pan of pop. It was, in a sentence, Jackson’s time of glory. In the media and the spectators eyes, he could do no wrong. Since the catapulted success of “Thriller” (1982), released four months before the “Billie Jean” performance, December 1982, this meant career and image wise – Jackson could just about do anything but ‘walk on water’. He was established in the African American community riding off the success of his 1979 solo debut, “Off The Wall”, which, considering it is always compared to the ultimate successor, “Thriller” (1982), actually in fact has a few underrated achievements of it’s own. Taken from ‘allmichaeljackson.com’, Jackson’s “Off The Wall” sold more records than any artist at a time when the record industry was experiencing a major slump in sales. To date, Off The Wall has sold over 20 million copies world wide”.
The beauty of a performance like this, is that no one can change or edit it. It’s not like a movie or a song – which can be copied, or covered, or distributed in different ways. This performance was unique. It cannot be repeated. It can be mimicked, as we have seen through current ‘R n B’ influences such as Chris Brown and Ne-Yo, but as it stands, ultimately, “Billie Jean” – the legacy – remains an ‘unchanger’ in the history books.
Personally, it is the light-bulb moment I like to most remember – especially when someone asks me about my longtime marriage affair with Michael Jackson’s music, if that’s what you can call it. It’s Jackson the electrifying entertainer, Jackson the enigmatic performer, and Jackson the gliding moonwalker – all captured in it’s most rawest form. The orchestration and choreography of the performance are so simple, so compelling and so spectacular that it sets up for a very original and timeless concept as there are no special effects, no abstract lighting, no staging effects, nor any pyrotechnics.
It is these simple facts taken from the performance – that are testament to his genius ability to capture and captivate an audience, let alone a theatre sized one – which, when you look at it, bases it’s performance on three single elements – the fedora hat, the rhinestone glove and the glittery jacket (and the ‘moonwalk’, not forgetting). Conclusively, HE was the special effect in the performance – nothing else. He embodied theatrics, ‘mise-en-scene’, theatre, mood, pathos, shock, awe and precision choreography down to the ‘tee’, that by the time you had finished watching the performance – you wanted more.
And boy, did he make you want it! Just imagine watching this for the first time again – most people were mesmerised, glued to their seats, or, as in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, groups of both men and women of all races – standing up in awe with acclaimed crowd roar for this bewildering African American force.
To understand this further, take a look at this cultural and musical analysis made of the performance, contributed by choreographer and tap dancer, Savian Glover. Study:
Credits go to user arXter:
“It became the seminal moment of his career,” says former Motown Record executive Suzanne De Passe. “That night, he crossed over into a whole new audience.”
The performance not only influenced, and shocked the artists at yester-years Motown label, including Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson, but provided a blueprint and direction for artistry and performance – within the influences of new-born artists of today. Such a visual performance did so much for so many. It ‘inspired’ the ‘a-spired’.
Beyonce: Oh my God… that performance – Motown 25… it just was groundbreaking.
Dick Clark: It was standing ovation time. It was mesmerizing.
Mary J Blidge: It was electrifying.
Jill Scott: That was the first time I realized how much emotion could go into music.
Shaggy: That moonwalk… that’s what got me, that’s what got everybody.
Steven Ivory: It was Michael’s coronation.
Pharrell Williams: If you weren’t a Michael fan, you became a Michael fan.
It was the second single, “Billie Jean,” that made Jackson the King of Pop and catapulted “Thriller” on its way to 104 million records sold, a figure unlikely ever to be touched in an industry that no longer subsists on album sales.
The first true multimedia album was “the ultimate crossover dream, [it was] a song both timely and out of its time,” wrote The New York Times.
Now, regardless of whether you are a fan, or whether you made yourself whole heartedly blind to the stars of the 1980’s (Prince and Madonna as other key examples), I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. The Jacksons performed, with Michael, as part of a brief reunion; their medley of greatest hits performed were the famous trio of number one hits, which included “I Want You Back, Stop (The Love You Save) and, the emotional ballad,
I’ll Be There”. Finally, have the privelege of watching the performance, and of course, the star of the show, Michael Jackson, premiering the first ever ‘Moonwalk’.
This was as big as it could get:
Credits go to usr BretHDvids: