Tamara Palmer: How the 'Billie Jean' Video Changed MTV

tags: pop culture, The Root, Billie Jean, Michael Jackson, MTV, pop music



Tamara Palmer is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and the author of Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip-Hop. Follow her on Twitter.

(The Root) -- "Billie Jean," who was not Michael Jackson's lover, is turning 30 -- or at least her video is, and it's an important anniversary in the evolution of both black music's visual expression and America's iconic music network. On March 10, 1983, MTV played "Billie Jean" for the first time and forever changed the course of its music programming in the process.

"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," Rob Tannenbaum, co-author of I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, told The Root. "Compared to Michael, MTV staples like REO Speedwagon and Journey suddenly looked even more boring. And when Michael's videos created higher ratings for MTV, network executives claimed they'd 'learned a lesson' and tentatively embraced the softer side of black pop music, especially Lionel Richie."

Tannenbaum's book, an oral history featuring artists, label executives and MTV executives, recounts the frequently cited story that CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull his artists from MTV if "Billie Jean" wasn't put in rotation....



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