In honor of this week’s posthumous release of Michael Jackson’s Exscape, I think it would be worthwhile to remember that, coincidentally, this week also marks the thirty-first anniversary of the television airing of the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever NBC special. Though the special was filmed in March of 1983, it did not air until May 16th of that year. The television release date of the special is often associated with Michael Jackson’s debut of his moonwalk, since roughly forty million people tuned in to watch the program, and that night was the first time most of those people ever saw Michael dancing that way.
Though versions of the moonwalk existed decades before the NBC special, Michael’s performance boosted public awareness of the dance, and sparked a fad. When the show aired, Thriller was still making massive waves, and Michael Jackson had risen as one of the biggest names in music. His following albums later solidified his position in the pop world, but Berry Gordy’s insistence that Michael perform at Motown 25 shows that he was still appreciated by his Motown affiliates, and still had ties with the rock world.
Michael Jackson’s performance at the show, though remembered for his moonwalk, was also a stunning display of his vocal talent and commanding stage presence. That night, he sang his hit “Billie Jean,” which, musically, shows less of a rock influence than “Thriller” or “Beat It” (what is more “rock” than the opening guitar riff of “Beat It”?), but Michael’s performance of the song stripped away any superficial gloss that shows up on so many other hit radio songs. He was not afraid to sing about a common problem on national television, but rather than seeming like he was whining about not wanting to be tied to an old lover through a kid, his raw emotion offers a glimpse into the mind of a person who has a lot to lose and truly feels panicked at the thought of people taking advantage of him. The performance showcases Michael’s brilliance, because he was famously calculated in his approach to presenting his work to audiences, yet in the moment, he seemed like he was channeling gritty emotions as they came to him, and coping with those emotions by performing passionately.