Thirty years ago today, a “big bang” of sorts occurred on television. This moment would profoundly affect R&B, rock, pop, MTV, and general pop culture.
On March 25, 1983, Michael Jackson performed “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever TV special, and a superstar was born.
Originally intended as a show commemorating Motown’s 25th birthday, it ultimately went down in history as the night Jackson introduced his signature moonwalk, demonstrating that he was a musical force in his own right. The fedora, the spangled white glove, the sparkly socks, and the loafers: all became synonymous with the performer, and his style, voice, and dance moves have been mimicked–but never duplicated–ever since that show.
Interestingly, Jackson almost did not appear on Motown 25. Wanting to concentrate on his solo career, he initially resisted performing as part of the reunited Jackson 5. Motown founder Berry Gordy personally appealed to his former protege, and Jackson reluctantly agreed, provided that Gordy allowed him a solo spot. Despite his latest single “Billie Jean” not being a Motown song, Gordy quickly consented — after all, what would the Jackson 5 be without Michael Jackson?
As the announcer enthusiastically introduced them, the Jackson brothers bounded onstage, their clashing costumes unintentionally emphasizing how the Jackson 5 had grown apart. But they gamely performed a medley of their greatest hits, a particularly moving moment occurring when Michael and Jermaine traded vocals on “I’ll be There.” They executed fun dance moves, thrilling the crowd by giving them a blast of 1970s nostalgia.
When they completed the medley, everyone except Michael ran offstage. Jackson paced the stage, shyly stating how he shared “magic moments” with his brothers during the Jackson 5 years. Then his expression intensified when he said, “but I especially like the new songs.” Anticipating what was about to happen, the audience rose to its feet, cheering even before the first drumbeat to “Billie Jean” began playing. Out of nowhere Jackson produced a fedora, planting it on his head while he assumed an angular, Bob Fosse-esque pose. Yes, he chose to lip-sync to the recording, but his astounding dance steps made up for the lack of live vocals.
The crowd screamed and yelled as he executed flawless spins, his white socks flashing as he paid homage to James Browns’ style of fast footwork. The kicks, the moves that seemed to defy gravity, and even some flashes of humor (such as miming combing back his hair in a 50s do) dazzled the crowd. But the best was yet to come.
The instrumental break kicked in, and history was made: Jackson glided backwards, his feet appearing to hover over the stage floor. Gasps could be heard as he ended the move with a flourish: standing on his toes. By the time the song faded and he froze, accepting a standing ovation, one knew that something special had just happened. From then on, Michael Jackson would transition from a former child star and R&B sensation to an international superstar.
For my generation, the Motown 25 performance represents the closest we ever got toward a “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” moment. The next day, we eleven-year-olds were scraping our feet on the playground blacktop, trying to figure out how he did the moonwalk. Shortly after, everyone owned a copy of Thriller, his videos became “happenings” that were highly anticipated, and he would become one of the best-selling artists of all time.
It’s hard to believe that 30 years have passed since I sat in my parents’ den, probably avoiding homework, staring in amazement at Jackson’s moves. While a similar moment will most likely never occur again — cable and internet have greatly fragmented audiences — it still represents a watershed moment in music and pop culture history.