"King of Pop" by Ralph Michael Brekan, 1998
By the time he was twenty-three, Michael Jackson was already a legend in the music business. As part of the Jackson Five and as a solo artist, Jackson had proved himself to be one of the most popular -- not to mention most exciting -- performers in pop music. In 1979, Jackson's first solo album, Off The Wall, had spawned four hit singles and sold more than eight million copies.
Could he top it? Jackson, his management, and the executives at CBS Records all hoped so. And by the time his next solo album, Thriller, was ready for release in the fall of 1982, it was clear that everyone involved was out to make the record a mega-success. They wanted to get as much radio air play on as many different radio formats as possible. In January, with Thriller having just hit the stores, Epic released two singles simultaneously, hoping to get both in the top ten at the same time. One was "Billie Jean," a dance track aimed at urban and Top-40 radio; the other was "Beat It," a rock-flavored song featuring heavy-metal guitarist Eddie Van Halen that was targeted at album rock radio.
Radio was only one part of the strategy that Epic and the Jackson camp had plotted out for turning Thriller into a mega-hit. The other was music video. In many ways video was a natural for Jackson. While offstage Michael might have been painfully shy, the instant he stepped in front of an audience or a camera his every move demanded that you watch him, as he danced and spun and slid and darted and dipped to the music. He was a truly visual performer, the kind you needed to see in order to fully appreciate, and the kind for whom music video was ideally suited.
Nevertheless, all involved with Thriller knew that getting MTV to play Michael Jackson videos was anything but a sure thing. The reason was simple: In the channel's first eighteen months, as it had become a cult hit among white suburban teenagers all over America, it had played only a handful of clips by black artists. From Bob Pittman's and everyone else at MTV's point of view, it was simply a matter of format. Ever since the MTV flag was planted in the moon during the summer of 1981, the channel had positioned itself as a rock and roll station. And because only a few black acts -- Tina Turner, Prince, Joan Armatrading, the Bus Boys -- played what most people called rock and roll anymore, only a few had their clips played on the network. For Pittman, programming head Les Garland, and the rest of them, the situation was no different from radio, where few album rock stations played many black artists.
But that argument didn't fly with everyone. MTV's original head of talent and artist relations, Carolyn Baker, who was black, had questioned why the definition of music had to be so narrow, as had a few others. What's more, as MTV received more and more press attention, a growing number of journalists and music critics and black artists really began to slam the network for its segregated view of music. True, the critics said, album rock stations didn't play many black acts, either. But other radio formats did, and black music was still widely available on the radio. MTV, on the other hand, was still the only music video channel on television, and therefore, according to the critics, it had an obligation to expose black acts and to educate its viewers to what else was out there.
Perhaps the most vocal critic of MTV was black musician Rick James. Despite the fact that his most recent album, Street Songs, had sold more than three million copies in 1982, MTV had passed on clips for his songs "Super Freak" and "Give It To Me Baby."The funk star clearly wasn't pleased by what he considered a snub, so in early 1983 he took every opportunity to publicly call MTV a racist network.
Despite the inability of Rick James and other black artists to get their clips on the air, in January Michael Jackson and Epic went ahead and made videos for the two singles they had just released. Steve Barron, a twenty-seven-year-old British director who'd done clips for the likes of Human League, Rod Stewart and Adam and the Ants, shot the video for "Billie Jean." Bob Giraldi, a forty-four-year-old American commercial director best known for his Miller Lite "Tastes Great, Less Filling" ads, shot "Beat It."
"Billie Jean" was finished first, and in the middle of February Epic delivered the clip to MTV -- at which point Bob Pittman and Les Garland and everyone else involved with programming MTV found themselves facing a dilemma. On the one hand, "Billie Jean," with its thumping beat and bass line and heavy use of sythesizers, was clearly not a rock and roll song -- at least not the way MTV was defining it. But by the time the video itself was delivered to them, there were some equally compelling reasons why the channel should play it. "Billie Jean" was as hot a song as the music industry had seen in years. After only a handful of weeks on the charts, it was already in the Top 10, and it looked as if it was headed for No. 1. Moreover, CBS and Epic had a great deal invested financially, strategically, and emotionally in Michael Jackson, and they desperately wanted the clip played.
Finally, and maybe most compelling of all, the video itself was irresistible, the best a number at MTV had ever seen. Though the concept itself was enticing enough -- in it Michael played a sort of mystical healer, one whose powers allowed him to appear and disappear at will -- what really made the clip work was Michael's performance. Dressed in a glittering black jacket and wearing one white glove, he jumped and spun and slid all over the clip's surrealistic city street set. You couldn't take your eyes off of him.
It was a tough call to make, and years later there would be some disagreement about what exactly happened. The way Les Garland would remember it, the day he first saw "Billie Jean," he called Bob Pittman, who was in Los Angeles on business, and said that despite "Billie Jean" not being a perfect fit musically, he and the others at programming really thought they had to play it. Pittman agreed to look at it, so Garland sent it to him in California via overnight mail. The next day, Pittman looked at it, called Garland back, and, after the two of them discussed it for a few minutes, told him to go ahead and put it on the air.
Others would claim the decision wasn't that simple. That spring, a story began circulating that CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff and some others at the company had threatened to pull all of the label's videos off the air if MTV didn't play "Billie Jean." Years later Pittman and Garland would deny that any such threat was made, pointing out that such a stunt would have been ridiculous. How would Yentikoff ever explain to Billy Joel or Journey or any other CBS act that their clips were going to be sacrificed for the good of Michael Jackson's career?
Either way, on March 2, one week after the song hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100, the "Billie Jean" video debuted on MTV.
"Beat It" arrived a couple of weeks later, and if they were all impressed by "Billie Jean," they were absolutely floored by "Beat It." This second clip was even better than the first. Costing more than $150,000 and directed by Broadway choreographer Michael Peters, the video looked like an updated, inner-city version of West Side Story. They even got members of real Los Angeles street gangs to appear in it. But what made it great was the dancing. Michael, dressed in a red leather jacket, snapped and stepped and shrieked to the music, this time with more than a hundred talented extras moving along with him.
Never before had there been a video like this one. Almost single-handedly, this shy former child star had taken the entire field of music video and lifted it up a notch artistically. The reaction to both clips once they'd been aired -- and to the songs, and to the album, and to Michael himself -- made that clear. All across the country, in bars and basements and breakfast nooks and anywhere else that the MTV pipeline reached, people were watching the two clips and nodding that, yes, these were the best they'd ever seen, these were what video had the potential to become. Certainly record sales reflected people's excitement. Thriller had already sold more than two million copies by the time MTV first played "Billie Jean," but after the video went on the air, the album began to sell at a remarkable eight hundred thousand copies per week.
And as that spring went by, Michael seemed only to get hotter. In early May, forty-five million people tuned in to watch him perform a version of "Billie Jean" on an NBC-TV special called Motown 25. By June, "Billie Jean" had racked up an incredible thirteen weeks at No. 1, "Beat It" had spent several weeks in the Top 10, and Thriller had sold more than seven million copies.
Michael Jackson was the hottest pop star on the planet in nearly twenty years -- and you could see him almost hourly on your favorite music video channel. While Michael and MTV were both absolutely on fire, the two weren't competing with each other; they were helping each other. Some would turn on their televisions merely to catch "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," and then find themselves mesmerized by the rest of what they were seeing on MTV. Others would tune in merely to watch MTV, and then find their jaws dropping at Michael's videos. The synergy was phenomenal. It was as if a couple of supercharged rockets had somehow hooked up in midair, and now the two of them were hurtling toward the heavens, linked together and moving faster than anyone could ever have imagined.
After "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," everything changed. Everything. With MTV spreading like never before and Michael demonstrating how mesmerizing those promo clips could be, music video was suddenly everywhere. It was as though, after eighteen months of methodically infecting a select audience in American cities, the video virus just said, to hell with it, and began infecting everyone. The entire culture had been exposed.