“I thought, ‘If people see this, the world will change'”
On March 10, 1983, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video premiered on a then fledgling cable channel called MTV. And it’s transformed the network — not to mention the medium of music video and popular music in general. But MTV, whose playlist consisted almost entirely of white rock artists at the time, almost didn’t play the video at all, and network executives initially said, “It’s not MTV’s audience.” Forty years later, the video’s director and writer the memoirs Eggs n Chips & Billie JeanSteve Barron recalls how shocked he was when he heard the news.
“I assumed MTV was going to play a really great pop song, so I was really surprised to hear that after we finished it, it might not be on MTV. I was confused as to why as this video felt different — it felt extraordinary when I did it, like anything else out there or anything I’d ever seen in terms of movement, style and instinct,” Barron told Yahoo Entertainment. “I thought it was going to be tremendous that everyone would have the reaction that we had and that we just had to show them. I figured it would definitely be featured everywhere.
“I just felt like that wasn’t right at all,” Barron continues. “What are you doing mean, is it ‘not their audience’? Obviously, I was filled with suspicions as to the true motives behind not accepting the video.”
Thankfully, MTV caved in after CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff threatened to remove his label’s artists from MTV if “Billie Jean” didn’t go on rotation. And the rest was history.
It wasn’t Jackson First Black Act starred on MTV — artists with rock-crossover appeal, like interracial ska group The Specials (the 58th artist played on the network on day one), Tina Turner, Musical Youth, Prince, and Eddy Grant received some airplay. But as Rob Tannenbaum, co-author of I Want My MTV: The Uncensored History of the Music Video Revolutiontold The origin in 2013: “MTV’s playlist was 99% white until Michael Jackson forced his way into the air by shooting the best music videos anyone had ever seen.”
With “Billie Jean,” Jackson became the first artist to be added to MTVs difficult Rotation – but that didn’t happen until the last week of March 1983, long after the single had reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Eventually, however, the video broke the network’s color barrier. “Michael Jackson became MTV. He was MTV,” says Barron.
Barron was a veteran video director as early as 1983; He first caught Jackson’s attention with his shiny clip for the Second British Invasion Human League Launches “Don’t You Want Me” from 1981, which had cinema quality due to being shot on 35 mm film. (“I think Michael was obviously very smart and recognized the difference in film quality,” Barron says.) The lighted floor tiles in “Billie Jean” were inspired by another of Barron’s early videos, such as: “Antmusic” by Adam & the Ants. Jackson and Barron’s collaboration, however, took everything to a new level.
Vaguely commissioned to create “something magical and cinematic,” Barron came up with the concept “that everything around Michael would glow and basically lose its energy. … The idea was really the Midas touch that what Michael came into contact with would be easy glow – that he had this superpower.”
Barron faxed the treatment to Jackson’s management and “didn’t really get much feedback from them other than that the typo had to be changed, which was very embarrassing. I had to change the typo,” he laughs. “I started with, ‘A guy is walking down the street.’ But I actually accidentally wrote: ‘A Cheerful goes down the street.’ A complete typo.” Luckily, Jackson’s camp was not offended and filming had begun. “One of the few notes that management told me to give the green light was, ‘Give Michael some time to dance in the video. He’s thinking about dancing in it.’”
Unfortunately, Barron was on a tight $50,000 budget — a far cry from the $150,000 CBS charged for the “Beat It” video, which debuted (and went straight into high rotation) on MTV just three weeks later. or the $2 million spent on “Thriller” in December 1983 would fall – so things didn’t go according to plan. It turned out that Barron had to shoot with 16mm film, not 35, and Jackson’s idea of having the tailoring mannequins come to life and dance behind him was also scrapped. Barron was also unable to mount touch-sensitive pressure pads for the glowing cobblestones, meaning Jackson’s choreography had to be incredibly precise to get the right effect.
“The art department had to make compromises. They just couldn’t afford the pressure pads; they couldn’t afford the automation. And so it was in the hands of electricians,” Barron recalls. “The day before the light, they worked out how they were going to just turn it on while Michael walked over those rocks – not knowing how fast he was going to walk or how fast he was going to dance. So it was disappointing. I actually had to walk Michael through that part of the set the morning of the shoot, and I apologized, “Michael, I’m sorry these things aren’t automated. I’ll show you which ones glow and which ones don’t. We can rehearse it a few times.” I was very embarrassed telling him because I knew it was kind of limiting and would require some learning. But he said, ‘No, no, let’s just shoot it.'”
Barron was “blown away” when the cameras started rolling. “I had no idea how he was going to move. It looked like nothing I had ever seen or worked with before. He put that kind of trepidation into the dance, which was about remembering what would and wouldn’t light up, but for the viewer, there’s just this eccentricity and this unpredictability. It was completely magical. And as I was being retraced with him through the whole chorus, my camera’s eyepiece literally fogged up at the image. The heat with which I watched what was going on just made it disappear in a haze because it was so incredible.”
At that moment, unaware of the impending troubles with MTV, Barron had “more than a hunch” that the “Billie Jean” video would be groundbreaking. “I thought, ‘If people see this, the world will change,'” he recalls. “It was just compelling and brilliant and totally captivating to watch. We were all pretty out of breath. The crew erupted in spontaneous applause.”
Barron recalls the whole process of working with Jackson, who was only two years his junior, as “a real joy. He was a curious cat. He would ask about anything. He was fascinated by the craftsmanship, the art department, everything. He would constantly search for knowledge. He was a collector of information and details. It felt like he was trying to find the magic in things – a bit of childish curiosity but a grown-up mind.”
There was talk of Barron directing the follow-up video for “Beat It,” but Jackson wanted to go even more in a dance direction for this clip, and Barron’s experience with choreography was limited. Barron therefore did not work with Jackson again until much later, in 1992, for a Re-release of the Jackson 5 classic “Who’s Loving You” Reusing footage of a 13-year-old Jackson. While Barron recalls Jackson being light-hearted, “soft-spoken,” and carefree in 1983, he saw a transformation in the pop star over the years.
“I’ve seen it with a lot of famous people who get tired as they get older and get crushed by the press trying to lure them in, then bring them down and find out newsworthy things about them,” Barron muses. “Obviously having that around all the time can be difficult to manage. … I think as he got older he obviously became more and more paranoid and suspicious of who he could and couldn’t trust.”
When Jackson died in 2009, Barron said he was “very, very, very sad and felt a loss — but I wasn’t surprised. I remember thinking a few years ago I couldn’t imagine him being around for too long. I just felt like he was too worried, too troubled, too confused to survive.”
However, Barron prefers to remember Jackson fondly as the young man who changed the course of MTV and pop culture 40 years ago. “MTV became ‘MJTV,'” he laughs, “because Michael was the most prolific, brilliant showman, artist imaginable, and emerged at the same time that music videos were gaining recognition. It was the answer to everything. That made everything so powerful. Michael was the artist who outperformed everyone, outperformed everyone, was better than everyone else. And so there was this little resistance, but then there was total gratitude.”
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/michael-jackson-billie-jean-music-video-mtv-color-barrier-183325080.html “I thought, ‘If people see this, the world will change'”