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Celebrating Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'

Stacy M. Brown | 4/3/2013, 4:20 p.m.

MTV Tried, But Couldn't Ignore the King of Pop

The words on Michael Jackson's bathroom mirror underscored his determination not to be denied.

Angry after being snubbed by the Grammy Awards and rejected by MTV following his 1981 hit album, "Off The Wall," Jackson prophetically declared by writing in red lipstick on his mirror that his next recording would sell, "50 million records and I won't be ignored."

The "Thriller" album, his next recording, would sell in excess of 50 million copies and, 30 years later, there is still no ignoring the LP's second single, "Billie Jean."

The song's video saved MTV from extinction.

"That (the playing by MTV of the "Billie Jean" video) was a pivotal moment in the history of music and for all African-American recording artists," said Joe Gorham, a disc jockey at WHUR-FM radio station in Northwest.

This week, marks the 30th anniversary of Jackson's historic performance of "Billie Jean," on the Motown Records 25th anniversary television special. It also marks the 30th anniversary of the song's video debut on MTV.

"Michael opened the door for black artists to have their videos played on MTV," Gorham said.

The debut of the video in 1983 proved to be a pivotal moment in pop culture history.

"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," said Rob Tannenbaum, co-author of, "I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution."

"It's not enough to say that the 'Thriller' videos forced MTV to integrate. Michael helped save the network from being shut down," Tannenbaum, 38, said.

"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 the network and call it quits. However, Jackson's three 'Thriller' videos, "Billie Jean," "Beat It," and "Thriller", debuted in 1983 and, by the first three months of 1984, MTV had [earned] their first quarterly profit," he said.

Ironically, MTV was rescued from failure by a musician who didn't fit the channel's original rock-and-roll only format, Tannenbaum said.

The single, "Billie Jean," was released on Jan. 2, 1983 and topped the Billboard singles chart for seven weeks. It also topped the Hot 100 charts in the United Kingdom, Spain, Switzerland, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden and was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Rolling Stone magazine lists the song as 58th in its 500 greatest songs of all time. Additionally, Jackson won two Grammy Awards and an American Music Award for "Billie Jean."

"I recently learned that Michael wrote the baseline to the song himself," said music producer Will Eastman, who co-owns the U Street Music Hall in Northwest. "He had the longest intro before a vocal drop ever at that time. It was historic, an amazing track," said Eastman, 43.

As a result of the song's success, Jackson earned induction into the Music Video Producers Hall of Fame.