Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bad at 25: Looking back at how a lost, lonely Michael Jackson found his way

Illustration for article titled Bad at 25: Looking back at how a lost, lonely Michael Jackson found his 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.” — Steven Hyden, We’re No. 1


Is it possible for an octuple-platinum album to be underrated? For decades, Michael Jackson’s Bad has been defined more by what it didn’t do than what it did. Going into Bad, Jackson was the biggest star in the world, coasting on Thriller, the biggest-selling album of all time. But rumors about Jackson’s bizarre personal life were already starting to leak, and some of the pop star’s business decisions—Pepsi endorsements, exorbitantly priced concert tickets, buying the publishing rights to the Lennon/McCartney song catalog out from under the nose of his pal Paul McCartney—made Jackson seem more mercenary than his upbeat, childlike image led fans to believe. As Steven Hyden explained in his “We’re No. 1” column for this site, Bad represented a clear demarcation point for many, between the nimble, creative Michael Jackson and the lead-footed, self-promoting “King Of Pop.”

Now, though, with the 25th anniversary of the release of Bad—celebrated by a new deluxe CD reissue and a DVD of a 1988 Wembley Stadium concert—the push is on to rehabilitate the record’s rep. This is, after all, the fifth-best-selling album of all time by some measures, and one that set a record by generating five consecutive No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. And as Spike Lee’s new documentary Bad 25 notes, the album, its videos, and the subsequent tour all had a huge impact in the African-American community, particularly among budding musicians. Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Cee Lo Green, and ?uestlove are just a few of the artists who testify to Lee about what Bad meant to them. Lee also gets appreciations from the people who worked with Jackson on the album and its peripherals, all of whom rave about the man’s genius, and provide persuasive examples.

Bad 25 is currently on the festival circuit—it played Venice and Toronto earlier this month—and is scheduled to air on ABC in November. It’s a good documentary, but a bit scattered and incomplete. Because Jackson all but shut himself off from the media around the time of Bad, his own perspective is largely missing from Lee’s film. And Bad 25 raises all kinds of provocative questions—about the rumors surrounding Jackson and the degree to which his race affected the press’ reaction to his work—that are swiftly dropped. Perhaps because the documentary was made in conjunction with the Bad anniversary, Lee tends to skip ahead to the next topic rather than digging deeper.

Still, Bad 25 is successful at creating a convincing counter-narrative to the pervasive “…and here’s where Michael Jackson lost his soul” take on Bad. From the point of view of the people who were inside his circle, Jackson post-Thriller was reacting heroically to some difficult circumstances. That album was an unprecedented phenomenon: an international sensation that just kept generating hits and sales, making Jackson so famous that he couldn’t go out in public without a wig and heavy makeup. Yet Jackson didn’t always get his due credit for Thriller. Producer Quincy Jones and his team of songwriters and session men were often cited as Thriller’s real creative forces, even though Jackson wrote and co-produced almost half of the album. And Jackson didn’t tour behind Thriller, choosing instead to make another album with his brothers and tour with them, in 1984. So to some extent, Jackson regarded Bad as his real solo debut. He wrote nine of its 11 songs, and co-produced them all, with Jones. He was heavily involved with the marketing and the videos, and he backed the whole enterprise with his first-ever solo tour, which circled the globe and ran for well over a year.

Frankly, the level of calculation that Jackson brought to Bad still affects the album’s overall quality. In Bad 25, Jackson’s team admits he had wanted to work with Prince, and to duet with Whitney Houston, because he saw them as his competition in the marketplace. (Instead, the big star duet on Bad is with Stevie Wonder, on the pleasant but forgettable “Just Good Friends,” which is notable primarily because Wonder’s magnificent run of albums during the ’70s provide something of a model for Jackson’s pop/rock/R&B crossover in the ’80s.) The sound of Bad seems inorganically of-the-moment, from the heavy use of electronics to the touches of rock, gospel, and worldbeat.

A quarter-century after its release, Bad at times sounds more like a greatest-hits collection than one cohesive vision. For example, it’s odd that “Man In The Mirror” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” emerged from the same album’s recording sessions, given that the former sounds more like the pop of the ’90s, while the latter’s more ’70s-ish. It’s odd also that on its original vinyl and cassette versions, Bad ends with “Smooth Criminal,” which is an energetic song, but hardly a grand finale. Meanwhile, for anyone who was alive and aware of popular culture in the late ’80s, it’s hard to hear Bad’s title track and not think of Pepsi commercials, which robs the song of some sting.

There’s a fair amount of contrivance, too, to the personae Jackson adopts throughout Bad, from street tough to lovesick horndog. This is where the wide awareness of Jackson’s private life works against him. Whether Jackson really slept with the Elephant Man’s bones (or worse), the public knew Jackson wasn’t some badass stud, beating up dudes and bedding ladies by the score. In other words, Jackson wasn’t just wearing disguises when he went on outings; he was playing dress-up with his songs, too. Outside of “Leave Me Alone” (a CD bonus track that can be read as Jackson’s angry response to his critics) and “Dirty Diana” (reportedly based on Jackson’s own experiences with groupies), Bad isn’t exactly confessional.

But that doesn’t make it impersonal. There are messages encoded with Bad, some of them fairly obscure (such as the “shamone” in “Bad,” which was apparently an homage to Mavis Staples, who would interject that non-word in live performances) and some more overt (such as the entirety of the ballad “Liberian Girl,” which was a nod to Africa, and a way of showing that Jackson could create an exotic sonic environment just as evocative as one of Wonder’s or Paul Simon’s). Even the “your butt is mine” posturing in “Bad” itself had meaning, as Jackson sought to respond to the aggression of hip-hop in his own inimitable way.


Make no mistake: Jackson was weird. He looked weird, and he acted weird. Maybe his behavior can be explained—though not excused—by his growing up in the spotlight, in a family dynamic that has been described as abusive. But whatever did or didn’t happen behind the gates of his Neverland Ranch, it’s all but impossible to sort out now, and not really fair to try to adjudicate any of it in an essay about one album’s legacy.

What is relevant to a discussion of Bad is that by 1987, Jackson was one of the most talented people in show business, and yet, in many ways, still a misfit. His particular song-and-dance skill set didn’t carry as much clout in an age where big-screen musicals were rare, and Jackson’s sense of style was so burned into the public consciousness that it would’ve been difficult for him to appear in a movie or on television as anything other than himself. So Jackson became the impresario of a new branch of the entertainment business: The Michael Jackson Industry. He made his own “short films”—he wouldn’t let them be called “videos”—and used them to show off what he could do as a hoofer and an onscreen personality. He starred in the 3-D science-fiction attraction “Captain EO” for Disney theme parks, trading on his own fantastical image. Even when he played a tough guy in his own films, the characters were graceful, colorful, and heavily MJ-ified.

Some of the most valuable parts of Bad 25 are the ones that show Jackson on the set with “Bad” director Martin Scorsese—or with other people he worked with on his mini-movies—listening to suggestions, but also coming up with his own ideas, often on the spur of the moment. As carefully crafted as the “Bad” film is, there’s a moment toward the end where Jackson completely improvises a little scatting rap, call-and-response style, with his backup dancers, who had no idea what he was going to sing, or for how long they’d have to keep up with him.


It’s helpful that the Bad reissue is being accompanied by the Live At Wembley July 16, 1988 DVD. (Some packages include the disc; it can also be bought separately.) The songs on Bad have become such radio staples that it’s tough to hear them with fresh ears, and even two decades removed from the original hype, there’s still some lingering sourness about how the mass media became a promotional tool for Jackson, giving him big chunks of free airtime for what amounted to commercials for himself. What hasn’t been so exhausted is footage of Jackson onstage. The Bad tour wasn’t just Jackson’s first as a solo artist; it was his only extensive North American solo tour. And Live At Wembley is only the second full-length Jackson concert to be released on DVD in the U.S.

So it’s something of a revelation to see Jackson here at his peak, spinning and “hooooo!”-ing his way through a nearly two-hour set, minus the 15-minute band jam in the middle. This is the tour that had Sheryl Crow as a background singer, and she shows up on the DVD as the big-haired object of Jackson’s affection during “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and then again as his duet partner for “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” which Jackson stops abruptly and dramatically so he can segue into “She’s Out Of My Life.” Even with the full-stage choreography and the strategically selected and paced set list, Jackson in concert is still prone to spontaneous eruptions of passion, especially in the encore, “Man In The Mirror,” where he leaps about like an enraptured rabbit.


Much of the reason why Bad’s reputation isn’t as high as Thriller’s or Off The Wall’s is that Jackson set such a high bar for himself. His goal was to more than double the sales of Thriller, which was far too ambitious—though five consecutive No. 1 singles and worldwide sales above 30 million is hardly a failure, no matter how much time and money Bad took to make. It didn’t help that the Grammys passed Jackson by. In 1988, Bad was up for Album Of The Year against albums by the same artists Jackson had pegged as his rivals: Prince (Sign O’ The Times) and Whitney Houston (Whitney). But they all lost to U2’s The Joshua Tree, a record whose idea of “rock” was far different from Jackson’s “let’s hire Steve Stevens for the day” approach. Then in 1989, Album Of The Year went to George Michael’s Faith, with its Jackson-inspired eclecticism and chart-savvy. For the remainder of his career, until his death in 2009, anything that Jackson did was treated as big news, but his days of being pop music’s best and brightest were behind him. His 1991 album, Dangerous, sold almost as much as Bad, but produced fewer hit singles in the U.S., and seemed almost anachronistic in the year of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Weep not for Bad, though. Off The Wall and Thriller are still the better albums, and still have higher highs, but Bad has a deeper bench than many may remember. Even beyond the big smashes, the minor hits like “Another Part Of Me” and “Speed Demon” are well-crafted and catchy, and the album’s “short films” are Jackson’s best, mixing whimsy, grit, and Old Hollywood glamour. Even more than his personal amusement park and pleasure palace, Bad represents Jackson creating a space for himself, apart from the rest of the world, where he could be the star he wanted to be, on his own terms. It’s strained at times, and even pushy, but in solidifying Thriller’s gains and redefining what a pop idol could be, Bad is a triumph.