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The Professor Will Now Unpack — Michael Jackson and Rick Astley

Higher education meets lower tastes
"Be careful of what you do," sings Michael Jackson in "Billie Jean." Jackson is pictured here three years before his 2009 fatal overdose on a general anesthetic that he took just to sleep at night. (Credit: MJ Kim via Getty Images)

Tom Zoellner is a tenured Professor of English at Chapman University, the author of numerous distinguished works of non-fiction, and an editor-at-large of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Professor Zoellner has graciously consented to briefly withdraw his critical gaze from high art and cast an eye for SPIN at classic pop and rock lyrics.

It’s time for an inquiry into questionable lyrics of the ‘80s. First we shall examine Michael Jackson’s mega-smash “Billie Jean,” in which he offers a Biblically-tinged lament that the presumptive mother of his child is being uncharitable to him.

For forty days and for forty nights
The law was on her side

According to California Family Code section Chapter 12, section 7662, a suspected father given “written notice alleging that he is or could be the natural father of the child” has THIRTY days to give a response.

The law says nothing about “nights” nor does it allow for a ten-day extension, but never mind. The more important legal error here is Jackson’s fundamental misunderstanding of civil procedure. At the time of the mother’s declaration, he is presumed blameless in the absence of evidence so, in a real sense, the law was on his side in that window.

Another problem: the Thriller album was released in 1982, a full six years before the advent of DNA blood-typing used to prove paternity. So his repeated profusions of innocence—”the kid is not my son!”—may have been enough to get him off whatever hook he perceives, even if he has his secret doubts because the child seems to be a physical resemblance to him.

Perhaps this is why he repeatedly informs us, with emphasis, that the dance they shared was “on the floor” and “in the round.” While the unprotected intimacy and possible conception surely happened in the privacy of her room after he got one whiff of the sweet perfume she wore, the public nature of the dance he frets about seems to point to a fear of witnesses that could be subpoenaed.

However, merely being witnessed dancing with the complainant does not cross the bar of evidence necessary to prove paternity. The ignorance of the judicial system he’s already displayed by thinking the court tallies “nights” in the response time to a petition is only confirmed.

And all this drama is about nothing more than child support, no? The court sets in on a scale according to income—it won’t break your bank.

So quit whining and pay.

“You wouldn’t get this from any other guy.” Rick Astley puts his mark upon a woman’s garments in Perth, Scotland, 2013. (Credit: Scott Campbell/Redferns via Getty Images)

Now let’s look at a questionable 1987 pop lyric, this one from the notorious “Never Gonna Give You Up,” by Rick Astley, a song beloved by internet pranksters. But it reveals another more insidious joke to a careful listener.

The premise of Astley’s message to a woman friend (“we’ve known each other for so long”) is that he knows she’s been pining for him, and he is prepared to offer her an unequivocal lifetime commitment on the spot. He promises to be faithful and stay in the relationship no matter what happens.

Bear in mind that this is all before they have even kissed, a level of uninformed decision-making that, by comparison, makes an arranged marriage in Amish country look positively pornographic.

That’s not even the most hair-raising part of this proposition. He then assures her: “You wouldn’t get this from any other guy.”

Whoa there, cowboy. You’re saying that no other man would be faithful to her – that she must either accept lifetime betrothal to Rick Astley or face years of disappointment and betrayal from various cads?

We want to think the best of him because he seems so earnest. But it doesn’t add up. He is displaying a prime gaslighting technique, verbally devaluing her stock on the market and telling her she’s lucky he’s there to provide a once-in-a-lifetime deal. “Only I can fix it.”

Our inescapable conclusion is that the target of this pitch is being snowed by an acquaintance hoping to climb out of the friend zone for a bout of hanky-panky before moving on.

And that, my friends, may be the real definition of a Rickroll.