Since I heard about social proof, and more specifically Joshua Bell’s famous busking experiment, I’ve wondered what in fact determines my own musical taste: how independent is it of others? Like anyone, I want to think I’m a free spirit.
This may not be helpful, but the only sure example I have where I responded independently to a piece of music was Michael Jackson‘s Billie Jean. I really did not like his music in the period up to 1983 for very particular reasons: Off the Wall had been played in our house for several years till it drove me up the wall.
From what may have been the very first UK airplay of Billie Jean, I immediately went out and ordered the 12″ version, making the record an outlier in an LP collection of otherwise orthodox neurotic-boy-outsider (NBO) teenage angst music. That’s if you exclude the bootleg Buddy Guy album that found its way to small-town Lincolnshire by some miracle or another. Much is made of the revolutionary impact the accompanying video had on the success of Billie Jean, and that may all be true, but I know that did not influence me.
It didn’t stop there. Soon after, and in a similar fashion, I heard the roughly contemporaneous Walk Right Now, penned and performed by Jackson and brothers.
Walk Right Now certainly does illustrate my early experiences of social proof in action. I upset and embarrassed a good many of my adolescent chums with this one, particularly one who was a dyed-in-the-wool Joy Division and Morrissey fan. He loathed it, until his big brother (whom he worshipped) returned from Cambridge porting it in his own diminutive singles collection. Things were crossing over fast in 1983 for those of us with parochial musical tastes and where the only good record shop occupied the tiniest of former corner stores. Within a few months of Billie Jean’s release, my friend found his erstwhile NBOs, New Order, going all techno-dance on him, creating a yet more legendary 12-inch.
It seems impossible to know the truth about Michael Jackson. Maybe, with Billie Jean, he flew too close to the sun. I understand New Order, meanwhile, retired and went yachting.
And here, as promised, we cross over from maudlin to up-tempo.Donate and help me buy back my Fender ('About' tells you why)