Remembering Michael Jackson (Part 1): Billie Jean After Motown 25

Heresy warning: the Motown 25 performance of Billie Jean is not my lover. It may have been the stuff of legend, but when I first watched it, I was totally underwhelmed. Because from the perspective of someone who was too young to have seen the Motown 25 performance and who only saw Michael perform it in 1992, by 1992 he’d got even better at it, and he’d added that extraordinary coda of sheer dance virtuosity which was the highlight of every concert.  (Trivia time: here’s the sort of perfectionist Michael Jackson was – despite the universal instantaneous acclaim for the iconic Motown 25 performance, including a congratulatory phone call from Fred freaking Astaire, Michael still wasn’t satisfied with how he’d done because one splitsecond of the performance wasn’t perfectly executed. Can you guess which bit? Answer’s at the bottom of the post.[1. When he went up onto his toes after the moonwalk, he’d intended to freeze there a splitsecond longer than he did. You can see it in the Motown 25 video around 3.43. Now watch any performance of Billie Jean from the years that followed and you’ll see he never messed that part up ever again.] )

It’s hard to pick just one performance of Billie Jean to feature because every performance was a little different and he always changed up the coda a bit, but here’s one from the HIStory tour which I particularly like. (Bear in mind he was 38 at this point and the performance was in the middle of his exhausting 2 hour long live show.) He didn’t max out the moonwalk in the middle as much as he did in other performances but the coda (starts at 8.25) is one of the best I’ve seen, and I love how he beatboxes himself to the song’s last line.

10 Comments

  1. Totally agree on future performances of Billie Jean being better than Motwon. I didn’t get why it’s always cited as the legendary performance. Although I guess if you haven’t seen a single Billie Jean performance before, that would have been insane..?

  2. I’m on the fence as to whether or not the Motown 25 performance was legendary.

    It certainly isn’t as polished as the later performances — his feet felt a little too loose, for want of a better way of describing it; his arms and shoulders were too tense, too close to his body, etc…

    But one thing which MJ had at Motown 25 which was missing from later performances was determination. In his eyes you can see the fire of a young man on the cusp of world-dominating greatness.

    And that alone makes it far more compelling, for me, than his Dangerous or HiStory tour renditions.

    Plus of course, the fact that that was the debut of the moonwalk.

  3. I remember watching that concert video with you, Michelle. And going quite crazy over it…

    Having you as one of my oldest dearest friend has been a blessing…and this goes beyond your introduction of Michael Jackson to me.

  4. Kelly: Yeah, I always figured it was the context in which I saw Motown 25 (working backwards from 1992) that made all the difference. On the other hand, I first saw Dangerous when he performed it at the AMAs around ’93. Even though he reworked it over the years pretty well, the performance I still go back to is the first, rawest version, because that was the one that made me go OMG!!!! at the time.

    Don: I totally agree with you on what does make the Motown 25 performance special, and I love the way you put it. I mostly wanted to highlight that it isn’t a case of “seen Motown 25, seen all there is to Billie Jean” because that’s an impression one might form from the obituaries.

    Pei Ee: Aw, ditto! We sure watched a LOT of videos in my living room, didn’t we? :)

  5. Mich, at this point the shared history you never knew we had starts to unravel itself because I WAS ALSO ZZZOMG AT THE AMA PERFORMANCE OF DANGEROUS BACK IN ’93!!! I’d forgotten about that performance until I was randomly youtubing MJ vids in the last week and came across it and it brought a silly grin to my face! Everything from the faux 007 opening to the drop-dead ending was so insanely slick, damn!

  6. Don: And there I was thinking the thing you’d identify with most in all these MJ posts is what I wrote in the first one about knowing the Pet Shop Boys discography by heart. :)

Leave a Reply to Kelly Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *