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'Billie Jean' Bat Mitzvah: Indulging in M.J. Nostalgia

By Rebecca Honig Friedman

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A rerun of “American Idol” with Adam Lambert singing Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” reminded me that Michael Jackson is probably one of the hardest artists to mimic well in karaoke. And if you’re going to attempt an M.J. tune, it is generally best to choose one you, well, know. This is one of the many lessons I learned from my junior high bar/bat-mitzvah-going experiences, while making a karaoke-style music video of “Billie Jean” – a song I’d never heard.

Picture my awkward, adolescent self, reading off a karaoke teleprompter, trying to make sense of the lyrics (“not my lover?”) and pick up on the tune, while I stood in front of a camera attempting to dance to the unfamiliar beat. In fact, don’t imagine it, I’m embarrassed enough already. This was the hi-tech kids activity at the bat mitzvah of the week: Make-your-own music video? More like embarrass yourself on video at the most awkward age, so you can find the tape years later and remember the pain. (If you can laugh it off it means you’ve grown up well.)

I don’t know if this is still in fashion, and I suspect if it is the technology has been upgraded, but in my day, one of the coolest activities for the kids at bar/bat mitzvahs was the music video. Those who never made a music video at a bar/bat mitzvah in the early 1990s may need some explanation. One-upping karaoke, these productions had kids singing along to pop songs in front of a green screen backdrop while a video camera recorded their awkward attempts at performance. The resulting video, collected at the end of the party, had horrifyingly bad graphics, which bore little if any relationship to the song, flashing behind the performers.

Strangely enough, the other video I made at that bat mitzvah, of the Right Said Fred song “I’m Too Sexy,” wasn’t half as embarrassing. (By the way, despite the “Billie Jean” and “I’m Too Sexy” performances, at twelve, I was worlds away from the kids at last week’s bar-mitzvah bust.) The problem was that I let my friend Karen, whose musical tastes were more developed than mine (she now works in the music industry, in fact), talk me into performing “Billie Jean” with her, even though I’d never heard the song.

“You’ll remember it when it starts playing,” she assured me.

I didn’t.

My experience of Michael Jackson up until then had consisted of being terrified by “Thriller” – not just the music video but also the ViewMaster reel of said video – and, on a more positive note, singing and dancing along to “Bad” and “Beat It” on my friend Jesse’s record player (yes, record player!) – though, sad to say, the Weird Al spoofs “Fat” and “Eat It” got even more playtime on that turntable – and watching the premieres of “Black or White” and “Remember the Time” on FOX.

Michael Jackson’s non-anthemic singles were off my radar, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t even realize that “Billie Jean” was a Michael Jackson song when I tried and failed miserably to sing along with it at that party. It was not until some years later that I finally saw the real video of “Billie Jean,” probably on a VH1 special of some sort, and realized just how horrible, how sacrilegious, the very making of my cheesy, ear-wrenching video had been. But I was probably more struck by just what a different impression was made by that Michael Jackson, who still bore a resemblance to the little boy in the Jackson 5, than by the M.J. of my adolescence – I clearly remember watching the premiere of the “Remember the Time” video, and exclaiming repeatedly, “He looks like a girl, he looks like a girl!”

All of this is a long way of saying that I’ve never consciously listened to Michael Jackson’s music for the music itself, without in some way being distracted by his person. It may be a sad byproduct of growing up in the MTV generation that an artist’s image often overpowers his music, but in the case of Michael Jackson, that image was deliberately crafted and sold to the public. After all, Jackson almost single-handedly developed the art of the music video. He styled himself the King of Pop.

But in the end, it appears, he lost control of his carefully crafted image, and watching some of the later interviews and videos of Jackson – in which his face seems held together by makeup – are far more painful than watching my “Billie Jean” video.

The lesson I take away from all of this?

Don’t try to mimic Michael Jackson. Do try listening to his music without accompanying video. Do burn “Billie Jean” bat mitzvah video directly after posting.

Rebecca Honig Friedman writes the Jewish women’s issues blog Jewess. She also produces original programming for The Jewish Channel and reports for TJC’s “Week in Review” and Newsdesk blog.

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