How the 'Billie Jean' Video Changed MTV


(The Root) — "Billie Jean," who was not Michael Jackson's lover, is turning 30 — or at least her video is, and it's an important anniversary in the evolution of both black music's visual expression and America's iconic music network. On March 10, 1983, MTV played "Billie Jean" for the first time and forever changed the course of its music programming in the process.


"MTV's playlist was 99 percent white until Michael Jackson forced his way on the air by making the best music videos anyone had ever seen," Rob Tannenbaum, co-author of I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, told The Root. "Compared to Michael, MTV staples like REO Speedwagon and Journey suddenly looked even more boring. And when Michael's videos created higher ratings for MTV, network executives claimed they'd 'learned a lesson' and tentatively embraced the softer side of black pop music, especially Lionel Richie."

Tannenbaum's book, an oral history featuring artists, label executives and MTV executives, recounts the frequently cited story that CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull his artists from MTV if "Billie Jean" wasn't put in rotation.

"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," Yetnikoff scoffs in the book. "And at the time, Michael Jackson was black. So what is this bullsh-t that they loved it?"

The threats from Jackson's studio exec paid off, both for Jackson and his black contemporaries. "Yetnikoff fought for Michael and this music video to be played on MTV, and once the video was in rotation everyone understood why," said DJ Dave Paul, who is bringing his San Francisco-based club night, "The Prince and Michael Experience," to Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and even the tony towns of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and Cape Cod, Mass., over the next few months. "It would have probably taken another two to three years, in my opinion, for MTV to [fully] integrate black artists without the success of 'Billie Jean.' "

The message about the crossover appeal of black music didn't fully sink in.

"Many of those same [MTV] executives had to learn the same lesson again about five years later: They thought rap videos would alienate their viewers, whom they described internally as 'white, suburban, male, affluent,' " said Tannenbaum. "They put an episode of Yo! MTV Raps on the air as an experiment, well after midnight, and as with Michael Jackson's videos, the ratings were phenomenal and resulted in a significant programming change."


It's important to note that MTV's embrace of "Billie Jean" wasn't just a cultural breakthrough. The music channel might not exist today had it not changed its tune on black music.

"It's not enough to say the Thriller videos forced MTV to integrate," Tannenbaum insisted. "Michael Jackson helped save the network from being shut down. MTV executives had expected to lose $10 million before they showed a profit. The network quickly lost $50 million, and its parent company was prepared to shut down MTV and call it quits. Jackson's three Thriller videos came out in 1983. In the first three months of 1984, MTV had their first quarterly profit. Ironically, MTV was rescued from failure by a musician who didn't fit the channel's original 'rock 'n' roll-only' format."


Since Jackson's magical steps lit up 30 years ago, black music videos have grown to the point where a few generalizations to describe them would never suffice to really capture it all. There have been significant strides in filmmaking quality due to technological advances and a wider palette of thought when it comes to conceptualizing what a video can be. And, of course, the flip side is that there have also been major setbacks in expressing misogyny, violence and negative stereotypes to a wide and increasingly more impressionable audience, as countless YouTube videos of young children dancing to and reciting profane rap lyrics might attest.

But the fact that there is a balance to strike in these videos at all can be attributed to this one big breakthrough, a pivotal moment in music history as a whole.


Tamara Palmer is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and the author of Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip-Hop. Follow her on Twitter.