Most people have had relationships that began with promise but ended badly. This is certainly the case with myself, and in my case, I can think of one popular song that always reminds me of the optimistic beginning and disastrous end of a certain relationship. This song is "Billie Jean," a well-known and bestselling single by the late Michael Jackson from his 1983 album Thriller -- which still ranks among the best-selling albums of all time. Many people will remember the slow and ominous chord progression of the song's opening, or the memorable video which introduced America to the "moonwalk," Jackson's signature dance move. What is most interesting to me is the way in which the song follows Knapp's classic ten stages of relational development. This is apparent from the song's opening, where the singer and a young woman meet as strangers in a social situation, in the midst of a crowded nightclub:
She was more like a beauty queen, from a movie scene
I said "don't mind, but what do you mean I am the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round?"
She said "I am the one, who will dance on the floor in the round?"
The first verse of the song illustrates the first stage of relational development, which is "initiating." Generally this is small talk, where two people meet each other for the first time. For most people, this stage is not quite as melodramatic as it appears in "Billie Jean" -- here, the initiation is begun by the singer seeing the woman as being particularly striking ("more like a beauty queen, from a movie scene") and the small talk is suggestive and haunting. A woman who announces within moments of meeting you that you "are the one" is generally giving you a profound warning sign. The chief reason I relate to this song in particular is that I learned this lesson the hard way: instantaneous intimacy is usually a strong clue that the other person may be a little bit unstable, to say the least.
In reality, Billie Jean is trying to blur together the first five stages of relational development right there in the nightclub. Ordinarily, the initiating phase -- with its nondescript small talk -- progresses to the second stage of experimenting, which is casual social talk. Billie Jean might introduce Michael Jackson to her friends, for example, or he would introduce her to his. This would then progress to intensifying, in which each partner starts to exhibit their own unique personal idiosyncrasies in the attempt to discover likeness or similitude within two very different personal identities and worldviews: this is what we talk about when we discover a new couple finding out what they have in common. And the fourth stage is integrating, when the couple finally joins together as a social unit, by participating jointly in social groups. This is generally followed by bonding, which is a public ritual -- the classic example of the bonding stage exhibited in public is, of course, a wedding. But there are other ways to do it also. My suggestion is that Billie Jean is someone who wants to push ahead through all five of these essentially at the same time: although this obviously depends upon how we interpret the cryptic phrase at the center of the song's lyrics, "you are the one, who will dance on the floor in the round." This sounds like a playful opening line, of the sort that's intended to provoke a response, although the next verse tells us that Billie Jean did indeed engage in some form of small talk:
She told me her name was Billie Jean, as she caused a scene
Then every head turned with eyes that dreamed of being the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round.
Billie Jean's conversation leaps past small talk into becoming intense -- she "caused a scene" as she invites the singer to join her in a public social phenomenon, which is a one-on-one dance in a crowded nightclub. In some sense, then, the nature of the dance already sounds like a bonding ritual -- we are led to believe that this element of Billie Jean's opening approach is necessarily social because she is so attractive. Everyone is looking because she's beautiful and they envy the man who gets to dance with her. This is, of course, ignoring the possibility that is revealed later in the song -- that Billie Jean might indeed be a form of predatory borderline personality with an instantaneous sense of intimacy that...
In some sense, of course, that is because the "dance on the floor in the round" is meant to be understood, in the context of the song, as more than just a dance -- it is a sexual encounter that comes from instantaneous attraction, and it is initiated by Billie Jean herself. This is how the song is generally understood, and this is certainly the meaning that is revealed in the song's repeated bridge and chorus:
People always told me, "be careful of what you do:
Don't go around breaking young girls' hearts."
And mother always told me "be careful of who you love,
And be careful of what you do, 'cause the lie becomes the truth" [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.
The difficulty here is that, considering how the singer met Billie Jean, it's hard to believe that the singer is the one who goes "around breaking…hearts": she was the one who approached him and announced that he was "the one." In other words, the decision to become a couple -- the shared social activity of integrating, and the public ritual of bonding -- essentially happens when the singer agrees to dance with Billie Jean. Of course within the context of the song, to "dance on the floor in the round" is obviously a sexual metaphor: what is disturbing is that Billie Jean has turned this seduction ritual into a public display, which should have been a warning sign.
For those who are familiar with the song, I should clarify: the reason why "Billie Jean" reminds me of an important past relationship in my life is not because this relationship ended in the way that the song does, with an unwanted pregnancy and the denial of paternity. Instead, I am using the song to indicate the stages of a relationship, and how they can sometimes operate when one of the people turns out to be delusional, mentally unstable, and has clearly entered into the relationship for manipulative purposes. In such a case, the "lie becomes the truth" when the other partner has a weak relationship to the truth from the outset: this is the sort of person who will say anything, however untrue or hurtful, because presumably the necessity for some kind of relationship took precedence over who the partner was in the beginning. That is why the lesson of the song comes in the second verse: "Take my strong advice / just remember to always think twice." But the background reveals the internal conflict, as we hear "don't think twice / do think twice" -- showing how difficult it is to resist in such situations. But Michael Jackson in his own autobiography reveals that the song's title almost carried a much more emphatic message, admitting that "Not My Lover is a title we almost used for 'Billie Jean'."(Jackson 191) These words are part of the lyrics, of course, but they underscore the way in which the relationship happens instantaneously and falls apart quickly: the differentiation that occurs in the sixth stage, where differences in character are exhibited, is here exhibited when she "told my baby we danced till three / then she looked at me." At this point Billie Jean claims that the singer fathered her baby, as part of her "schemes and plans." The circumscribing stage, or off-limits talk, is revealed as the singer denies that this is the case -- he is forced to admit the relationship with Billie Jean, but denies the result. Stagnation is presumably the phase the singer has already entered at the time he expresses the song -- he and Billie Jean are no longer in a real relationship, and this leads ultimately to the final two stages, avoidance (where the singer keeps his distance from a woman who is clearly mentally unstable but who has ruined his life) and finally "terminating" (which is the end of the relationship). However in the case of "Billie Jean," the end should have been readily apparent from the beginning: this is why I find the song so relevant, as I think many people (myself included) have become involved with unstable personalities who follow instantaneous leaps to intimacy with unwarranted hostility and lies.
Jackson, Michael. "Billie Jean." Thriller. 1983. Web. Accessed…
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