JACKSON GETS HIS MTV
From the start, Jackson's vision for "Thriller" was to "take it to the next giant level," Weisner says. "It was about how we were going to marry the album with the visual extension."
So it was with high hopes that Weisner walked into the office of a 16-month-old network called MTV with the Steve Barron-directed clip for "Billie Jean." While MTV had played videos by a few black artists, including Garland Jeffries and Joan Armatrading, it had notoriously declined to play the video for Rick James' "Super Freak," leading the R&B singer to brand the channel as racist.
"I remember taking a red-eye to New York and going to MTV [with] a rough cut of 'Billie Jean' and MTV declining the video," Weisner recalls. He walked from there to Epic headquarters. "I sat down with [CBS Records head] Walter Yetnikoff," he says. "We then went to [CBS head] Bill Paley, and he and Walter [told MTV], 'This video is on by the end of the day or [CBS Records] isn't doing business with MTV anymore.' The record company played hardball and that was the day that changed history. That was the video that broke the color barrier."
That's not the version of events remembered by Les Garland, then-senior executive/VP of programming at MTV Networks. " 'Billie Jean' set the standard that day for what excellence in music video stood for," he says. "There was never a question that we were putting it on." The only delay, he says, was that he wanted to show the clip to his boss, Bob Pittman. "There was never a threat from Walter Yetnikoff-it's folklore," he says. "He got more upset because we didn't play Willie Nelson or Barbra Streisand." (Yetnikoff didn't respond to interview requests for this story.)
Either way, "Billie Jean" immediately went into heavy rotation with eight plays per day, catapulting Jackson and MTV to another level of success. And Jackson's triumph broke down the barrier for Prince, Billy Ocean and Eddy Grant.
" 'Billie Jean' opened [the door] to more R&B videos being made and that led us to making more space for a wider variety of music that went beyond this initial AOR format," Garland says.
MTV wasn't the only TV exposure that changed the course of Jackson's career. On May 16, 1983, NBC broadcast "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever," and Jackson performed an instantly iconic rendition of "Billie Jean" and unveiled his sequined glove and the James Brown-inspired moonwalk. The next day, Fred Astaire called Jackson to congratulate him.
"That was staggering," Weisner recalls. "Everyone forgets that all those Motown giants and legends were on the show. The next day all anyone was talking about was Michael."