Song: “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson
Reached #1: March 5, 1983 (his fourth, 7 weeks)
I’m sitting at the keyboard trying to find an angle to write about this video that you haven’t already heard in the last 30 years…
I could talk about the historical significance – along with “Thriller”, it’s one of the videos that convinced MTV that it was OK to feature people who weren’t actually white.
I could talk about the album – Thriller changed the recording industry.
I could talk about Michael – his erratic life and/or unnecessary death.
But you know all of that.
I’d rather talk about the tricks our minds play on us… specifically, the Mondegreen. That’s where you hear something different from what the singer/speaker intended you to hear… and, of course, I’m talking about the line that most of us have heard as “the chair is not my son”. This isn’t Neil Diamond singing to a chair that’s not listening… no, it’s the tragic story of a fatherless chair.
Of course, it really isn’t – and even though it’s obvious from the song’s context that he’s singing that “the child is not my son”, we still hear “the chair is not my son”. There have been books cataloging Mondegreens – but I haven’t really seen any research as to why we hear the wrong words, especially when it’s not even difficult to hear the right ones.
Personally, I think Douglas Adams had it right when he created the Babelfish for his Hitchhiker’s Guide book series – the Babelfish exists by “eating” soundwaves and “excreting” a matrix which decodes them for your brain. While that’s obviously not real, I think the idea of sound-as-code explains Mondegreens. Think about how a foreign language sounds to you – it’s a stream of data your brain simply can’t decode. That’s, I think, what happens with a Mondegreen – your brain slips out of phase on the incoming audio data stream and twists it into something it thinks it can understand. And you can’t do anything about it… which is why you’re going to hear “the chair is not my son” when you click “play” on the embedded video even though you know that’s not the lyric. It’s your brain messing with you. And it happens all the time…
Oh, right. I’ve been referring to Mondegreens, so I probably should explain – the misheard lyric got the name Mondegreen from a line of a dirge that went “and they laid him on the green”… but was heard as “and then Lady Mondegreen”. The non-existent Lady Mondegreen is the spiritual ancestor of MJ’s fatherless chair.
Tomorrow, the first pop #1 for one of Motown’s flagship vocal groups…
Other songs that reached #1 on March 5:
1966 – “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by S/Sgt Barry Sadler (his first, 5 weeks)
1977 – “Love Theme from A Star Is Born (Evergreen)” by Barbra Streisand (her second, 3 weeks)
2005 – “Candy Shop” by 50 Cent feat. Olivia (his third, 9 weeks)