Michael Jackson - Billie Jean - "But what if the kid is my son?!?"
Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (released 1983) is showing up in my YouTube feed. Maybe it’s to mark the 35th anniversary of the Thriller album (released 1983). The YouTube clip is from NYC, 2001, unknowingly just the day before 9-11, and now has 38 million views.
The audience’s reaction shows the universal appeal of this particular Michael Jackson song. Michael isn’t just singing and dancing. He’s connecting. The audience, of all ages and ethnicities, is chanting, shouting, jumping, hooping, dancing, and crying.
Michael doesn’t just perform. He entertains. The white glove. The hat. The crotch-grab. The robot. The moonwalk. He turns moves—that we do as parodies at parties—into legit, drop-the-mike, walk-off moves.
And this is the dissonance of the song Billie Jean. The song is an anthem. It’s a jingo for Pepsi. It was the first song by a black artist on heavy rotation by MTV, albeit at first reluctantly.
But at the same time, the song's darker lyrics marked a turning point for Michael Jackson. The song is about a mentally unwell woman claiming to be Michael’s lover. The song is about Michael denying that he is the father of her son. And the song is the one performed by Michael Jackson, for a Pepsi ad, when the pyrotechnics gave him second-degree burns leading to disfigurement, which may have started Michael’s downward spiral into plastic surgery.
How did “But the kid is not my son!” become the gleeful chant for a new Pepsi generation?
The dissonance is also there in the NYC 2001 video clip. Michael’s uncontrollable grin at the start shows his pure joy of being up there. He’s performed this song live thousands of times by now, but he’s still loving the moment. But, at the same time, his body and face are starting to show the effects of a hard life. He’s tired. The spark, from earlier performances, is no longer there. And it’s hard to recognise the boy that wowed us in The Jackson 5 with “ABC” (1970). The innocence is painfully gone.
And this is the dissonance of human existence. We put our heroes on a public pedestal, and yet tear them down in our private gossip. And then we do the same to ourselves. We force ourselves to appear perfect in public—perfect Instagram shots, perfect holidays, perfect Christmas newsletters. But privately all is falling apart. And then we do the same to our children. We tell them we love them just the way they are. But then we force them to do whatever it takes to get ahead—languages, music, sports, tuition.
In the Bible, Jesus solves our dissonance. Jesus becomes our public face. He is perfect, so we don’t have to pretend to be perfect. It’s OK to be just who we are.
At the same time, he becomes our private healer. In our deepest, darkest, most private moments, he is there with us. He loves us the way we are. But he loves us too much to leave us the way we are. And his spirit transforms our private lives to match our new public persona.
In Jesus, we are the children that God is proud to call his own. God puts us on a pedestal. God shows us off in his Instagram shots. God brags about us in his Christmas newsletters.
In Jesus, we are the new generation—where God’s gleeful chant to us is:
“But that kid is my son!”