Billie Jean at 40: A History of the Style Behind the Song

On this day 40 years ago, the music industry experienced a seismic shift. Once that would forever alter the course of music videos and pave the way for future artists. If you haven’t already been able to tell by looking at the pictures above, today is the 40th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean'' short film making its debut on MTV. And to celebrate, we’re going to walk you through a little bit of the song’s history, the iconic style behind the video and its respective performances, and how both evolved over the years. This is another fun one as we continue to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Thriller.

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Billie Jean History

Image credit: CBS Records

“Billie Jean” was released as the second single off the Thriller album, following up Jackson’s duet with Paul McCartney “The Girl Is Mine.” It took just three weeks for the song to reach No. 1 on the R&B Chart becoming his fastest-rising number one single since the early J5 days. Two months after its January release, “Billie Jean” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the track also grabbing the top spot in the UK, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Italy, and Austria.

The song also won Best R&B Song and Best R&B Male Vocal Performance at the 1984 Grammy Awards, following up on its Favorite Pop/Rock single win at the American Music Awards a few weeks prior. And that was only the beginning as “Billie Jean” would go on to become one of Jackson’s most iconic tracks.

Image credit: CBS Records

Centered around a paparazzi photographer following Jackson around but never catching him, the film was magic and featured Michael rocking an iconic look that we would only ever see him wear in the video (because the performances would bring forth the signature iconic look for the song). For the “Billie Jean” video, Jackson wore black tailored leather pants that cut off around the ankle, a satin black blazer, pink calf socks, white penny loafers, and a pink dress shirt with a red bow tie. While that in itself was groundbreaking, it was the performance costume that would help elevate the song to the next level.

Image credit: CBS Records

Image credit: CBS Records

While it’s unknown exactly who designed Jackson’s costume for the Motown 25 event, we do know that the jacket worn during The Jacksons’ Victory Tour the following year was designed by legendary costume designer Bill Whitten. In the years that followed, Jackson would don similar versions of the “Billie Jean” outfit that would be slightly updated, but never straying from the original look.

Below is an evolution of the “Billie Jean” outfit over the years.

Image credit: MGM

Motown 25 (1983)

Image credit: CBS Records

Victory Tour (1984)

Image credit: CBS Records

Bad Tour (1987)

Image credit: HBO

Dangerous Tour (1992)

Image credit: CBS Records

History Tour (1997)

Image credit: CBS

That’s going to wrap up the latest segment of our year of Thriller 40 coverage. Make sure to keep up with us for more style and entertainment content.