Michael Jackson video director recalls smashing MTV's color barrier with 'Billie Jean': "I thought, 'When people see this, the world is going to change'"
MTV became "MJTV" after it premiered Jackson's groundbreaking, Steve Barron-directed video. But the network almost didn't air it at all.
On March 10, 1983, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video premiered on a then-fledgling cable channel called MTV. And it changed the network — not to mention the music video medium and pop music in general. But MTV, whose playlist at the time consisted almost entirely of white rock artists, almost didn’t play the video at all, with executives at the network initially saying, “It’s not MTV’s audience.” Forty years later, the video’s director and author of the memoir Eggs n Chips & Billie Jean, Steve Barron, recalls how shocked he was when he heard that news.
“I presumed MTV would play what was a really great pop song, and so I was really surprised when I heard it might not go on MTV after we finished it. I was confused as to why, because this video felt different — it felt extraordinary when I was making it, like beyond anything else that was out there, or beyond anything I’d ever seen in terms of movement and style and instinct,” Barron tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I thought it was going to be enormous, that everyone would have the reaction that we were having, and that all we had to do was show them. I thought it would definitely be seen everywhere.
“I just felt this absolutely wasn’t right,” Barron continues. “What do they mean, it ‘isn’t their audience’? Obviously, I was filled with suspicion about the real motives behind the nonacceptance of the video.”
Thankfully, after CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull his label’s artists from MTV if “Billie Jean” wasn’t put in rotation, MTV relented. And the rest was history.
Jackson wasn’t the first Black act played on MTV — artists deemed to have rock-crossover appeal, like interracial ska group the Specials (the 58th artist played on the network, on day one), Tina Turner, Musical Youth, Prince, and Eddy Grant, did receive some airplay. But as Rob Tannenbaum, co-author of I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, told The Root in 2013: “MTV’s playlist was 99% white until Michael Jackson forced his way on the air by making the best music videos anyone had ever seen.”
With “Billie Jean,” Jackson became the first artist added to MTV’s heavy rotation — but that didn't even happen until the final week of March 1983, well after the single had reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, eventually the video smashed through the network’s color barrier. “Michael Jackson became MTV. He was MTV,” Barron says.
Barron was already a veteran video director by '83; he first caught Jackson’s attention with his glossy clip for the Human League’s Second British Invasion-launching “Don’t You Want Me” from 1981, which had a cinematic quality due to it being shot in 35-millimeter film. (“I think Michael was obviously very sharp and recognized the difference in the film quality,” says Barron.) The illuminated floor tiles in “Billie Jean” were inspired by another one of Barron’s early videos, for Adam & the Ants’ “Antmusic.” However, Jackson and Barron’s collaboration took everything to a new level.
Vaguely tasked with creating “something ‘magical and cinematic,’” Barron came up with the concept of “everything around Michael glowing, and coming off his energy, basically. … The idea really was the Midas touch, that what Michael came in contact with would just glow — that he had that superpower.”
Barron faxed the treatment to Jackson’s management, and “didn’t get much feedback from them, really, except the typo had to be changed, which was highly embarrassing. I had to change the typo,” he chuckles. “I started it with, ‘A guy walks down the street.’ But I actually accidentally put, ‘A gay walks down the street.’ A complete and utter typo.” Luckily, Jackson’s camp wasn’t offended, and the shoot was on. “One of the only notes management told me to give the go-ahead was, ‘Keep some time allowed in the video for Michael to dance. He’s thinking of doing some dancing in it.’”
Unfortunately, Barron was on a tight $50,000 budget — a far cry from the $150,000 CBS would drop on the “Beat It” video that made its debut on MTV just three weeks later (and went straight into high rotation), or the $2 million spent on “Thriller” in December 1983 — so not everything went according to plan. It turned out Barron would have to shoot with 16-millimeter film, not 35, and Jackson’s idea to have the tailor shop’s mannequins spring to life and dance behind him was also nixed. Barron was also unable to rig up touch-sensitive pressure pads for the light-up pavement stones, which meant Jackson’s choreography would have to be incredibly precise to get the right effect.
“The art department had to compromise. They just couldn’t afford the pressure pads; they couldn’t afford the automation of it. And so, it was in the hands of electricians,” Barron recalls. “On the pre-light day, they worked out how they would just switch it on as Michael walked across these stones — not knowing how fast he was going to walk, or how fast he was going to dance. So, it was disappointing. I actually had to take Michael across that part of the set on the morning of the shoot, and I apologized: ‘Michael, I’m sorry these things don’t automate. I’m going to show you which ones light up and which ones don’t. We can rehearse it a few times.’ I felt very embarrassed telling him, because I knew that was kind of restrictive and would take some learning. But he said, ‘No, no, let’s just shoot it.’”
Barron’s “mind was blown” once the cameras started rolling. “I had no idea how he was going to move. It looked like nothing I’ve ever seen or worked with before. He added this sort of trepidation into the dance, which was about remembering what would light up and what wasn’t, but to the viewer it’s just got this eccentricity to it and this unpredictability. It was completely magic. And as I tracked back with him through that whole chorus, the eyepiece in my camera literally steamed up because of the image. The heat of me watching what was going on just made it disappear into a fog, because it was so incredible.”
At that moment, not knowing about the difficulties with MTV that lay ahead, Barron had “more than a hunch” that the “Billie Jean” video would be a groundbreaker. “I thought, ‘When people see this, the world is going to change,’” he recalls. “It was just irresistible and brilliant and totally enthralling to watch. We were all pretty breathless. The crew broke into spontaneous applause.”
Barron remembers the entire process of working with Jackson, who was only two years younger than him, as being “a joy, really. He was a curious cat. He’d ask about everything. He was fascinated by the craftsmanship, the art department, everything. He would constantly look for knowledge. He was a collector of information and details. It felt like he tried to find the magic in things — a bit of a childlike curiosity, but a grownup brain.”
There was talk of Barron directing the follow-up video for “Beat It,” but Jackson wanted to go in even more of a dance direction for that clip, and Barron’s experience with choreography was limited. Barron therefore didn’t end up working with Jackson again until much later, in 1992, for a rerelease of the Jackson 5 classic “Who’s Loving You” repurposing footage of a 13-year-old Jackson. While Barron recalls Jackson being lighthearted, “soft-spoken,” and carefree in 1983, he saw a change in the pop star over the years.
“I’ve seen this in many famous people, with them slowly growing more weary as they get older and are beaten down by the press wanting to lure them in and then bring them down and find newsworthy things about them,” Barron muses. “It can be obviously hard to cope with to have that constantly around. … I think as he got older, he obviously did get more and more paranoid and wary about who he could trust, and who he couldn’t trust.”
When Jackson died in 2009, Barron says he was “very, very, very sad and felt a loss — but I wasn’t surprised. I remember thinking a few years before that I couldn’t imagine him being around for too long. I just felt he was too troubled, too in trouble, too messed up for him to survive.”
However, Barron prefers to fondly remember Jackson as the young man who altered the course of MTV and pop culture 40 years ago. “MTV turned into ‘MJTV,’” he laughs, “because Michael was the most prolific, brilliant, showman, artist imaginable, coming along at the same time as music video was being recognized. It was the answer to everything. It was what made everything so enormous. Michael was the artist who transcended everyone, topped everyone, was better than any of them. And so, there was that little resistance, but then there was total gratitude.”
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
'Unauthorized musical fable' tells bonkers Michael Jackson story from viewpoint of his evil alien glove: 'We're canceling cancel culture'
When Steve Barron ruled the VMAs with ‘Take on Me’ and ‘Money for Nothing’