Billie Jean by
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Michael Jackson sings Billie Jean

I’ve always loved to dance and grew up in and with Motown and the Jackson 5. Little Michael was a phenom. Great voice, dancing whiz; he could do everything and captivated us. We loved to sing along to those early songs and imitate the dance moves.

He outgrew his brothers and became the biggest show on earth with hit after hit back in the early 1980s; “Thriller”, “Billie Jean”, “Rock With You”, “Bad”. Each was hugely danceable and Michael had all the right moves and signature looks, from his red leather jacket to the single, sequined glove. But on the TV show commemorating the 25th anniversary of Motown, on May 16, 1983, he introduced the Moonwalk, which became his signature, startling, dance move. Try it if you dare (I did, I couldn’t figure it out). I had an early recording device and replayed it over and over again, frame by frame. I still couldn’t do it.

But the fame and years of intense practice and abuse from his own father took their toll. Years of plastic surgery made his face look stranger and stranger. His fantasy of being “just a kid”, living on a large estate outside of LA with Bubbles, his chimp, and a menagerie of other child-like wonders, raised eyebrows. As did his custom of befriending young boys, whose parents allowed them to sleep in the same bed with Michael. We were supposed to believe it was all platonic. He fathered his own children with a nurse he married, then divorced.

The boys who slept in his bed maintained that nothing was amiss. Michael became weirder and weirder, more isolated, couldn’t sleep, died unexpectedly on June 25, 2009, from acute propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication, administered by a doctor to help him sleep. A life cut short by so much excess, isolation and strangeness.

Then the stories came out that he had, indeed, had improper relations with the young boys with whom he’d shared his bed. My stomach turned. One could feel pity or distain for this child abuser, but how could I listen to his music in the same way?

I couldn’t. And I didn’t. I stopped listening for a long while.

Josie

I take a wonderful exercise class twice a week: Core Synergy. There is a revolving playlist of tunes, many from my past that have great beats and make me want to get up and dance (I don’t; the point is to keep our workout on track and tempo-driven). “Billie Jean” came up on the play list many years ago. I commented on it to Josie, our fantastic teacher, who we all absolutely adore. She rebuffed me. Her thoughts: It was on the parents to supervise. How could they neglect their children so much as to ALLOW them into his bedroom, night after night? Had they no sense? No, she would continue to play that song, for the great beat. The parents were idiots. Were they so swayed by his money and power that they didn’t know how to properly parent?

I take her point, and continue to enjoy my workout, including occasionally hearing “Billie Jean”.

I discussed this with my very wise son recently. He called that blaming the victims. His reaction was that Jackson has been “cancelled and uncancelled” many times by now. Michael was very troubled and it was fine to stop listening when he started to creep us all out. But with his sudden death, you could mourn the loss of a genius, for he was one, even as strange and troubling as he was, separate the music from how he lived his life, and just enjoy the great legacy of music he left behind.

That makes sense to me.

 

 

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    Excellent story, Betsy, and a great example of just how difficult this dilemma can be — and often, as here, context is so very important. Michael Jackson was himself clearly quite troubled himselfand undoubtedly abused, at least in emotionasl ways, growing up and being exploited by his family and many others.

    Your last paragraph well captures my own ambivalence about this situation. You have a very wise son indeed.

  2. Thanx Betsy, it makes sense to me too, altho as I commented elsewhere, I think I draw the line at Mel Gibson.

    I believe Fred Astaire was quoted as praising Michael Jackson as the best dancer of his generation!

  3. Wonderful exposition, Betsy. As I said to Suzy, “it’s complicated”. I think that in fact it’s impossible to separate the artist and the art; they don’t exist separately. But we are free to work our perspective, and to change it over time, on that dyad.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      And our perspective does change over time, Tom. We get new information, or, as in Jackson’s case, he dies, so we our feelings change yet again. Time does not stand still. The one thing I do not “get”, is being upset with our founding fathers who fought for liberty, but as did all Southern gentleman of their era, they had some slaves. Yet we want to remove their names from buildings. I’m not talking about Confederate generals. I’m talking about Washington and Jefferson (who, I understand, is more problematic, but still wrote the Declaration of Independence). You just can’t hate everyone of our founding fathers. Lincoln evolved on the subject of Abolition. There needs to be room for nuance.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Of course, we Motown girls grew up loving Michael and dancing to Billie Jean. But your son made an excellent point. It is not fair to blame the victims,. While I can acknowledge and sympathize with his troubled upbringing, I want to dance when I hear his music. But I also try to resist the impulse because of what he did. Confusing.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    I have to admit that I was never a Michael Jackson fan, even though I did love “Billie Jean” as a dance song. It seemed very tragic that so much talent was mixed in with such deep emotional turmoil. Seems especially common with gifted artists. Though I don’t condone his relations with children, I wonder if he had felt more accepted on some scale of gender and racial matters, that he could have had a healthier and more authentic life.

  6. Jeff Gerken says:

    I guess it is good that you can find something redeeming in Jackson. I found him so strange that I never really listened to his music. The moonwalk thing was cool, though.

  7. Suzy says:

    Thanks for this story, Betsy! I did love the Jackson Five – we were kids when they were, and their songs were so bouncy and happy. Michael grew progressively weirder, and I didn’t like most of his later music, although I have to agree that Billie Jean was terrific! I don’t feel the need to cancel him, especially now that he’s dead, but I mostly don’t listen to him anyway. As we are (mostly) all saying, it’s complicated and it’s personal.

  8. Marian says:

    Like your comment about Washington and Jefferson, Betsy, although they aren’t artists. Recently I learned that Jefferson tested a primitive version of smallpox inoculation, which probably saved many lives. However, he tested it on his slaves, presumably without their consent. How complicated can you get?

  9. I wonder if you feel the same way about Michael as I feel about Woody (although he’s still alive). I don’t condone his alleged behavior — “alleged” being key since nothing has been proven and I certainly haven’t witnessed anything — and I still appreciate his considerable contributions to the arts. To me, that makes it less complicated, albeit still personal.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, I think I feel similarly, Barb. Though, somehow, the fact that Jackson IS dead, so he can never harm anyone, nor create anything ever again, somehow changes the equation for me. Now he is stuck in amber and it somehow frees me to enjoy his music a bit more. That doesn’t forgive him, but he can’t be punished any longer either. I don’t know if that makes sense. But somehow, with death comes some peace.

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