Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

It wasn’t just the moonwalk that made “Billie Jean” great

Illustration for article titled It wasn’t just the moonwalk that made “Billie Jean” great

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Our favorite songs featuring unusual instruments.


Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (1982)

The second single from Michael Jackson’s renowned Thriller is fondly remembered for many reasons. Among them, the critical: It snagged two Grammy Awards, one American Music Award, and an induction into the Music Video Producers Hall Of Fame, which helped Thriller become one of the bestselling albums of all time. And there was also the cultural: It helped to break down MTV’s racial barrier as one of the first videos by a black artist to be aired in heavy rotation. Later, he would premiere his famous moonwalk to this song at his Emmy-nominated performance on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.

The lyrics are as iconic as the video’s illuminated sidewalk: The chorus, “Billie Jean is not my lover / She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one / But the kid is not my son / She says I am the one, but the kid is not my son,” left many fans wondering if Jackson, or one of his brothers, had an illegitimate child. Jackson would go on to state that Billie Jean represented a lot of the “groupies” he and his brothers had encountered, women who would often claim to be carrying on of the Jacksons’ children.

Finally, there’s the composition, with its distinctive bass line played by Louis Johnson. But hiding among all of these factors is a musical underdog—the cabasa. A percussion instrument constructed with loops of steel ball chain wrapped around a wide cylinder, it shows up to accompany the standard hi-hat drum beat, pushing the song toward an unforgettable groove. It’s been said that “more thought went into the production of this single than would go into the entire recording careers of Axl Rose, Coldplay, Shania Twain, or Gwen Stefani,” and including something as small and relatively unused in pop music as the cabasa may not be as noticeable as the moonwalk, but it’s just as memorable.