“Billie Jean” (1983)
MTV, thinking it was a rock station, refused to play it at first.
Jeff Ayeroff, A&M Records Exec: Quincy Jones called one day and told me to come to his office and meet Michael. I played them the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” video and said, “That’s who should do the video.”
Steve Barron, Director: Michael liked “Don’t You Want Me,” so his management contacted me. They said he wanted something cinematic. I had this flash to do something magical, where he’d have a Midas touch and everything he touches lights up.The budget was set at somewhere around $55,000. Jackson’s manager Freddy DeMann called me and said Michael had been practicing dance moves in front of the mirror, so it would be good to save some of the video for him to dance.
Susan Blond, CBS Records: I brought this amazing video to MTV, and they said, basically, “This doesn’t fit onto our network.” I first met Michael when he was a kid, and he was obsessed with the Osmonds—they were getting more coverage because Michael was black. This had been a major thing with Michael—his whole life, he had been excluded from the media because he was black.
Bob Pittman, MTV Co-Founder: Rick James made the claim that MTV wasn’t playing any black videos. I figured, “That’s ridiculous, people will watch MTV and know it’s not true.” I learned my first great PR lesson there. The press ran with MTV PLAYS NO BLACK VIDEOS, ALLEGES RICK JAMES. All of us realized, “God, we’d better work extra hard to find some black videos.” So we looked for artists. And when the guys saw “Billie Jean,” they said, “This is it.”
Walter Yetnikoff, CBS Records President: My recollection about “Billie Jean”—and I was drinking and drugging a lot during that period, so my memory’s a little spotty—is that I called Pittman and said, “You have to play this video.” He said, “We’re a rock station, we don’t play black music.” I said, “That’s great. I’m pulling all my videos.”
David Benjamin, CBS Records: I helped negotiate our contract with MTV, and there was a clause that allowed us to pull all our videos on 24 hours’ notice, in case we hadn’t negotiated the proper clearances with our acts. We hadn’t intended it, but that clause gave us a heavy hammer to wield.
Pittman: If anybody at CBS thought that we weren’t going to play Michael Jackson, they were out of their minds. Walter claims that he made us play the video. That’s such a typical Walter trick, to make himself seem important to his artists.
Yetnikoff: Now they say they played “Billie Jean” because they loved it. How plausible is it that they “loved it”? Their playlist had no black artists on it. And at the time, Michael Jackson was black. So what is this bullshit that they loved it?