In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Michael Jackson’s Bad, which went to No. 1 on Sept. 26, 1987, where it stayed for six weeks.
It’s a testament to the public’s complicated relationship with Michael Jackson that, with the possible exception of making Thriller, the most popular thing he ever did was die. You saw and heard this sentiment expressed over and over again—in the media and in private conversations, over the radio waves and via the suddenly gaudy sales numbers for his music—in the days and weeks after Jackson’s lifeless body was discovered on June 25, 2009, lying in a bed inside a rented mansion situated in a posh Los Angeles neighborhood. After a protracted professional and personal decline that began in the early ’90s—though it could actually be traced back to the mid-’80s, when the sky-high success of Thriller made some sort of crash, comparative or not, inevitable—Jackson became a person again when he stopped being an actual person on that fateful mid-summer afternoon. This wasn’t merely the old cliché about death being a good career move for pop stars; sure, there was an element of Jackson’s demise increasing the stature of his legend, but what people really got out of Jackson’s death was normalization. They now “had the old Michael back,” the one they remembered from his pre-Thriller ascendency, the man who seemed less ethereal and more of this world and plain old human.
Music critic and author Greg Tate expressed this most eloquently in an essay for the Village Voice:
Now that some of us oldheads can have our Michael Jackson back, we feel liberated to be more gentle toward his spirit, releasing him from our outright rancor for scarring up whichever pre-trial, pre-chalk-complexion incarnation of him first tickled our fancies. Michael not being in the world as a Kabuki ghost makes it even easier to get through all those late-career movie-budget clips where he already looks headed for the out-door. Perhaps it's a blessing in disguise both for him and for us that he finally got shoved through it.
I’m not sure that a 50-year-old father of three passing away prematurely can be described in good taste as a “blessing.” But Jackson’s death certainly was convenient for many of us, particularly Tate, who displayed incredible “rancor” 22 years earlier when he uncorked an astoundingly lethal hatchet job on Jackson in the pages of the Voice. All the critics that used Jackson’s death as an excuse to ruminate on the so-called “death of the monoculture”—a mystical time when peerless pieces of mass entertainment like Thriller crossed racial, gender, generational, and sociopolitical divisions and united the public in shared appreciation—ought to read Tate’s complete evisceration of Michael Jackson upon the late-summer 1987 release of Thriller’s belligerently hyped follow-up, Bad. Jackson was only a few years removed from the most tremendous triumph of his (or anybody’s) career, and yet he was now being regarded with extreme uneasiness (if not out-and-out disdain) in many corners of the pop-culture sphere. In a cover story charting the tortured creation of Bad that hit newsstands two months before the album did, Spin called the anti-Jackson feeling “the most powerful backlash in the history of popular entertainment,” which only sounds like hyperbole until you remember we’re talking here about Michael Jackson, a man who, like mountain vistas and the sexual dysfunction of Andy Dick, tends to justify hyperbole.
Tate’s Voice piece wasn’t really about Bad, an album he doesn’t even get around to mentioning until the final third of his furious screed, when he deems the record “as songless as Thriller is songful.” Bad was like an accidental shoulder bump with a cokehead biker; Tate wanted to whack Jackson in the head repeatedly with a pool cue, and here was a decent-enough excuse. Tate’s real beef was with how Jackson had distorted his appearance since his early days with the Jackson 5, and especially since Thriller. Railing hard against the “sickness of Jackson’s savaging of his African physiognomy,” Tate went for the racial jugular, accusing Jackson of selling out black people and achieving “a singular infamy in the annals of tomming.” In short, you could say that Tate did not care for mid-to-late-period Michael Jackson.
Clearly, Tate was moved to be a lot gentler toward Jackson upon his death. The contradictions formed in Jackson’s music by his life and lifestyle were now, if not simplified, at least easier to compartmentalize by those that had given up on him. You could now play Choose Your Own Michael Jackson. Thriller was the obvious popular choice; post-Thriller, on the other hand, meant traveling on a long, twisted path into the abyss. The voyage begins with Bad, which Tate memorably contrasted with the “pure pop pleasure” of Thriller as a record where Jackson was “sell[ing] his own race hatred.”
If we can dial back the rhetoric for a moment, the most obvious difference between Thriller—which still ranks with Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits: 1971-75 among the best-selling albums ever—and Bad is that Thriller was an unprecedented phenomenon and Bad was just a record. It’s a really good record at times, and certainly very successful when judged by any standard other than Thriller. It sold 8 million copies in the U.S., and spun off a record-setting five consecutive No. 1 singles: “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man In The Mirror,” and “Dirty Diana.” The album’s seventh single “Smooth Criminal”—there were nine in all, including the bitterly autographical “Leave Me Alone,” which was added to later editions of the record—went to No. 7 more than a year after Bad’s release.
A contrarian might even argue that Bad is better than Thriller. It’s certainly more of a personal tour de force in some respects; Jackson claims sole songwriting credit on eight of the original album’s 10 songs, including five of the hits. (“Man In The Mirror” was written by Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard, a songwriting and record-producing mercenary best known for crafting the canny alt-rock knock-off Jagged Little Pill with Alanis Morissette.) I’ll always treasure Bad for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” one of the breeziest, most casually charming pop songs of Jackson’s career. Riding an electro-pop update of Motown’s easygoing groove that’s so pleasingly laid-back you forget how it’s insistently pushing you forward, Jackson isn’t trying to be Super Michael on “The Way You Make Me Feel.” He’s not promoting world peace or feeding the hungry by uniting children and mid-’80s pop stars into an angelically resplendent, pixie-dust-covered choir. He’s just a guy trying to make it with a girl—a real, live, adult girl. This is the Michael Jackson of “I Want You Back,” “Rock With You,” and “PYT,” luxuriating in the silkiness of his voice and the impossible magnetism of his charisma, and getting anything he could possibly want because he knows how to ask for it the right way.
But no matter the merits of Bad, it was not Thriller, and therefore was considered a failure in many quarters, most decisively inside the Disney memorabilia-stocked walls of Jackson’s Neverland ranch. As Rolling Stone reported upon the album’s release in a lengthy story titled, with telling incredulity, “Is Michael Jackson For Real?” Jackson obsessively worked and re-worked Bad for two years (at a cost of $2 million) in a fevered frenzy fuelled by his need to top the sales of Thriller. That record sales were out of his control no matter how hard he worked on Bad was a fact that neither producer Quincy Jones nor anybody else in Jackson’s inner circle could communicate to him. Thoughts of exceeding Thriller followed Jackson wherever he went, even his bathroom, where he had taped a note to the mirror that read “100 million.” That’s how many copies Jackson wanted to sell of Bad, more than twice the world-beating figures for Thriller.
You could chalk this madness up to the familiar mythology of Michael Jackson—the naïve, delusional man-child whose tenuous grasp on reality was ripped loose by the disorienting effect of being dosed with the world’s most potent serving of fame. But much of the writing on Jackson emphasizes a less celebrated, more calculating side to his personality that makes the megalomania of his Bad period (and his subsequent downfall) more understandable. Along with being pop music’s biggest star and one of the most famous men on the planet, Michael Jackson was also a great, late 20th-century corporation, responsible for creating a ubiquitous brand and complicit in all the underhanded shenanigans intended to extend and prolong his cultural dominance.
Like many high-powered companies that ended up failing in the first decade of the 21st century, Michael Jackson faltered because what he was selling was ultimately a lie, though it was so seductive that even he fell for it. In Alex Gibney’s 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, journalist Bethany McLean (who co-wrote the book the film is based on) talks about how a patently crooked numbers-crunching device called mark-to-market accounting ended up being “a major cog in the downfall of Enron.” In essence, mark-to-market accounting allowed Enron to count profits based on projected earnings rather than the money that was actually coming through the door. Implementing mark-to-market accounting was a condition set down by Enron president Jeffrey Skilling for joining the company; it allowed him to be instantly rewarded for any bright idea that crossed his mind, collecting on whatever value he felt that idea was worth, and pass Enron off as a company much richer than it really was.
Jackson’s lie was that Thriller wasn’t a fluke of history, that he really was capable of not only making another album that would go on to sell 29 million copies in the U.S., and tens of millions more overseas, but that he could actually will it to happen. When Bad failed to out-do Thriller, Jackson only amped up the bluster, insisting that the media refer to him by the self-applied moniker “The King Of Pop” when promoting the release of 1991’s Dangerous. (He also revived the 100-million sales goal, which was even more implausible now that Thriller was nearly a decade old.)
It was Jackson’s version of mark-to-market accounting, his way of puffing out his chest as his status in pop culture dissipated. Behind the scenes, Jackson did what it took to make sure physical cold hard cash was circulating in his coffers. Before Bad was completed, Jackson sold the rights to the title song (along with the non-album track “The Price Of Fame”) to Pepsi for use in an ad campaign. Jackson was paid $15 million, which he insisted be paid up front so he could enjoy special tax breaks and the satisfaction of being paid three times what Pepsi paid him a few years earlier. (Rolling Stone noted that the advance would also allow Jackson renegotiate his deal down the line for as much as $10 million.) Jackson’s strangest attempt to expand his empire occurred in Fall 1986, when he took out a two-page ad in, of all places, Women’s Wear Weekly, proclaiming that “Michael Jackson’s name is now available for licensing” on everything from bumper stickers to lunch boxes.
Along with putting his likeness up on the auction block for the nation’s big-spending housewife population, Jackson had other, sneakier ways of getting attention. In the ’80s, Jackson was notoriously judicious with his image, buying up the rights to nearly every photograph taken of him and forcing backing musicians to sign stringent non-disclosure agreements. For the promotion of Bad, Jackson declined to do interviews; for the Rolling Stone feature, his cigar-chomping, Col. Tom Parker-esque manager Frank DiLeo spoke for him. “We’ve got to work this as if it was Miami Sound Machine,” he said of Bad’s exhaustive promotion. “You lose when you take things for granted. We don’t do that. We win. We’re into winning.” (DiLeo later gained notoriety for playing Tuddy Cicero in Goodfellas; the character’s name is similar to Uncle Tookie, Jackson’s nickname for DiLeo.)
In spite of the wall that Jackson could afford to build around himself, word of his various eccentricities—his obsession with the Elephant Man’s bones, his hyperbaric chamber, his habit of walking around in public donning a surgical mask—always seemed to end up in the media. The Rolling Stone feature opens with an awestruck depiction of Jackson’s relationship with his pet chimp Bubbles, who entertains a group of record store retailers gathered at Jackson’s home for a Bad promotional event while Jackson stands by and poses awkwardly in a series of photo ops. Bubbles later appeared in stuffed-animal form as part of a line of toys called Michael’s Pets based on the bevy of creatures in Jackson’s backyard zoo.
In her 2006 book On Michael Jackson, essayist Margo Jefferson writes about Jackson’s affinity for P.T. Barnum; he studied Barnum’s autobiography, and even handed out copies to his staff. “I want my career to be the greatest show on Earth,” he declared, and dutifully set off to exploit the freakier parts of his personality in the media. “He became producer and product,” Jefferson writes. “The impresario of himself.” But the strategy backfired; what the public wanted more than gossip and bumper stickers was music from Michael Jackson. “Even in seclusion, reports of his plastic surgery, his private menagerie, and his hyperbaric chamber conspire to make him a national joke,” Quincy Troupe wrote in Spin, “a joke reported each time another line of irrelevant Michael Jackson merchandise hits the stores.”
Jackson seemed to have more fun turning Bubbles into a children’s plaything than he had working on Bad, which proved to be a never-ending, stress-filled burden. He worked on 62 songs over the course of making Bad, and began recording scores of 48-track demos as early as 1985. In August 1986, he entered L.A.’s Westlake Studios with Thriller and Off The Wall producer Quincy Jones, and the pressure escalated. “There is so much stress and so much tension,” guitarist David Williams told Rolling Stone. “I was doing the exact same part at least five different times on each song. They were trying to match the other one, the Thriller album, at least.”
Jackson prolonged the process by letting himself be pulled out of the studio and into different projects like the 17-minute science-fiction film Captain EO, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and incorporated into an attraction at Walt Disney theme parks. Another short-film project was more directly related to Bad—at DiLeo’s insistence, Jackson set aside his preference for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and hired Martin Scorsese and novelist Richard Price to write and direct an extended narrative video for the album’s title song. Based on the true story of a black college student killed by a plainclothes policeman who thought he was being mugged, “Bad” attempted to merge the scale of the “Thriller” video—it cost $2 million and took six weeks to shoot—with the themes of the “Beat It” video.
Jackson used “Bad” to unveil a new “street” image—which included a wardrobe of black shirt, black pants, and a black belt with metal studs—initiated by DiLeo and nervous record execs concerned over Jackson’s lack of toughness. Considering N.W.A. was still a year away from unleashing Straight Outta Compton on mainstream pop culture, perhaps Jackson’s look played with the pop audience. (DiLeo certainly seemed to think so, declaring to Rolling Stone, “I bring a street attitude to Michael.”) Watching “Bad” today, Jackson looks like a Cirque du Soleil version of West Side Story; which is to say, just like himself.
The first single released from Bad was the soft-rock ballad “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” a duet with “Man In The Mirror” co-writer Siedah Garrett. It was easy-listening pop in the style of “She’s Out of My Life” and “Human Nature,” but Michael Jackson fans soon discovered an unmistakable darkness floating through the rest of Bad like an apparition. The kinetic “Smooth Criminal” was also given the extended-video treatment, and it was even more stylishly eye-catching than “Bad.” But the song itself carried real violence, with Jackson describing a killer coming through a window—“he left the bloodstains on the carpet”—and stalking a female victim to her bedroom, where “she was struck down, it was her doom.” Jackson sees the scene as an omniscient narrator without any power; he’s essentially a ghost in his own story, repeatedly asking the woman Annie if she’s okay but apparently unable to reach her. Jackson marries the lyric to the album’s most undeniable dance rhythm; the juxtaposition of death and thrills is both exhilarating and sickening, a sheltered man’s playtime fantasy that goes a few steps too far.
Even darker is “Dirty Diana,” a meaner and surprisingly hard-rocking reworking of “Billie Jean.” This time Jackson is insistent about not putting himself in a position where anyone could say some kid is his son. “This time you won’t seduce me,” Jackson says, the song’s tension rising. The dread in “Dirty Diana” is suffocating; the song essentially recounts Jackson’s nightmare scenario, where a sexually overpowering woman all but rapes him. “Dirty Diana” rolls Jackson’s childhood fear of losing control of his life into his discomfort with mature relationships as an adult. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Jackson’s alienation from humanity hadn’t yet overwhelmed his music at this point; “Dirty Diana” was Bad’s fifth and final No. 1 single.
Now that we’re free to have whatever version of Michael Jackson that we prefer live on in our imaginations, Bad is left hanging in a curious position. Bad includes some of Jackson’s best songs, as well as dispiriting signs of the tragedy on the distant horizon. It’s a record that practically begs to be set aside like a troubling memory. But if Off The Wall and Thriller are easier to wrap your heart around, Bad and its implications for Jackson are just as moving in a different, perhaps richer way. Thriller is the sound of absolute victory, where the hero is carried into the sunset on the shoulders of friends; Bad is what happens the following morning, when the hero must face living the rest of his life in the shadow of all that, with old, unshakeable demons still intact.
Coming up: Pink Floyd’s The Wall