Way back in December, 2009, when this blog had all of sixteen hits a day (lol) I wrote a little review of the Bad album. Now that Bad 25 fever has hit-and I have considerably more than sixteen hits a day!-it seemed like a good time to dip into those ancient archives and bring this piece up to date with some new insights, reflections, and various other tweaks.
It was a 5-year stretch between Thriller and Bad. The question on everyone’s mind in 1987 was, How on earth can Michael Jackson top Thriller? Thriller had been a worldwide phenomenon, selling over 110 million copies, and with a spawn of Top 10 singles that kept it on the charts well into 1984, almost two years after its release. Well, anyway, I could go on and on about all of that, but there’s no point in rehashing history. I assume if you’re reading this, you’re a fan and you already know the rote. So let’s cut to the chase.
Bad arrived in 1987, and the immediate (perhaps unfair) challenge it had to live up to was: Could it beat Thriller, or at least hold its own? Whether Bad is viewed as a success or failure depends. At the time, it was considered somewhat of a failure because, frankly, when your previous album has sold over 110 million copies, anything less is going to be seen as a failure. Bad sold over 30 million copies. By record industry standards, that is 30x platinum, a figure most artists only dream about.
But still, this was Michael Jackson. And Thriller had just moved 110 million units.
And as stunning as it is to realize this, looking back in hindsight on the album that gave us such timeless classics as Man in the Mirror, The Way You Make Me Feel and Smooth Criminal, the album was all but snubbed at the Grammy’s, receiving only one award for the video Leave Me Alone. To this day, the only logic I can figure is that the Grammy committee must have felt, after honoring Michael with eight awards for Thriller, that they had reached the saturation point with MJ. It was also the beginning of the era that would see the music industry eventually turn on him, as he simply became (by some standards) too rich, too powerful and too over-exposed.
Yet the look on his face that night when the winners were announced told the tale. He was crushed. He had poured his heart and soul into making an album that was as near perfect as it gets. He knew it, we knew it, and the Grammy committee, if they were honest with themselves, knew it as well. Perhaps it is the ultimate irony that his classic performance of Man in the Mirror that night, which has gone down as one of the greatest Grammy Award performances of all time and one of his most spiritually uplifting performances of his career was also the best “f- you” to the establishment ever.
And if there was only one artist in history who could get away with pulling off powerfully uplifting and inspirational performance while at the same time flipping the finger to the academy, it was Michael Jackson!
Time has told the real tale. To this day, Bad remains Michael’s second-biggest selling album of all time. It produced more #1 singles than Thriller. It gave us some of his most iconic videos. It even spawned a feature-length motion picture, Moonwalker, which played out many of the album’s central concepts. Personally, it’s my own second favorite MJ album, after Dangerous. Reasons why:
1. The album reflected MJ’s growing maturity as a songwriter and as an artist in full control. He penned nine of the album’s 11 tracks, and the overall production and creative concepts show that Quincy Jones was allowing him even more freedom than on Thriller. Although I think his artistry would reach full fruition on Dangerous, it is very much in evidence here, and still tinged with enough youthful exuberance and innocence to enable him to get away with it (as opposed to later, when he would often be bashed for self-indulgence).
2. It was the dawning of the more adult, sexually aggressive MJ. When I wrote my review of Dangerous, I tagged it as “MJ’s Sexiest Album” but acknowledged that we had been given glimpses before, most notably on Bad. Although I don’t think Bad is AS sexually charged as Dangerous, it’s very clear that he was moving in that direction. Of course, as any female fan will tell you, he never had to try too hard to be sexy. But it all depends on if you prefer the youthful, shy/innocent sexiness of Off the Wall/Thriller, or the more aggressive, adult sexuality of Bad/Dangerous.
Actually, I think of it more this way: If Dangerous was Michael coming into his own as a sexual adult, then Bad is the adorable, fumbling, awkward adolescent, caught somewhere in between. And that can have its charms as well. Even the whole bondage theme, which he played up in the Bad and Speed Demon videos, is so charmingly over-the-top that you don’t know whether to take him home and rape him, or just give him a peck on the cheek and send him on his way, with a gentle, “Now, now…come back when you’re a little older and maybe we’ll discuss this.”
Oh shoot…who’m I kidding? MJ in black leather and studs is the hottest thing since sliced buttered bread. But I’m digressing. Er, uh…back on track. And I”m not even going to go there with the stupid critic who trashed The Way You Make Me Feel because MJ actually goes after the girl. “In this video, he goes from being above the thugs, to simply becoming one of them” or whatever such nonsense she wrote. The truth is, that video was pure cat-and-mouse fun, a concept that apparently went over her pea brained, scholarly mentality.
However. I’ll turn scholarly myself for just a sec here because something worth noting about Bad’s most sexually charged tracks, The Way You Make Me Feel and Dirty Diana, is that they both continue the themes that would remain constant running threads throughout his adult solo career-sex as cautionary tale, and lust in general as a “forbidden sin.” I touched upon both of these in my earlier review of Dangerous. The sex-as-cautionary-tale really has its beginnings with Billie Jean. On Bad, it takes the form of Dirty Diana, the ultimate succubus groupie. Some have thought that perhaps Dirty Diana was Michael’s answer to Prince’s Darling Nikki. But Diana is a whole darker, and more dangerous persona. Nikki would simply “masturbate to magazines” and give you “a real good time.” Diana would steal your soul; she’d pick up the phone and tell your wife, “He’s with me tonight.” She would destroy your life.
The video itself was modeled very much on the typical, big-hair metal band videos of the day, replete with wind machine effects, guitarists in platform boots, and a strutting MJ who rips his shirt and strikes perfect Jon Bon Jovi-style poses. My initial impression of the video was that this was MJ trying to fit in with all the typical rock videos of the day, and if you look at it that way, it’s a bit disappointing because it puts him on the level of an artist simply following a trend, rather than innovating them. But in light of the song’s lyrics and context, I started to think of it also as an intentional PARODY of those videos, with their cheesy effects, hyped sexuality and masochistic images. Add to that the undeniable fact that he was a black guy (and in 1988, for the most part, still looked like one) and the video takes on an even darker edge, sending home the message that this is a black man taking over in a white man’s genre-and getting the girl, to boot. It doesn’t seem like much today. But in the 80′s that was still a very powerful (and for some, disturbing) message.
3. It marked the beginning of Michael as a humanitarian and philanthropist. Of all his “message” songs, Man in the Mirror remains one of the most succesful and iconic. It’s catchier than We Are The World, more melodic than Earth Song, and (for many) less annoying than Heal the World. Its simple message that change has to start with the reflection in the mirror (be that man or woman) is one that still has universal appeal. And, we know now from recent revelations made by Siedah Garrett at the Chicago Symposium in 2010, that Michael actually had a bigger creative hand in the song than many thought. In fact, he refused the song at first because he thought the bridge was too weak, and only agreed to record it after he and Ms. Garrett had collaborated streneously on the song’s bridge.
4. It has Speed Demon, which has to be one of the most unusual MJ songs and videos ever. To be honest, I used to not like this song, and I would always think, “They took Streetwalker off the album, but left this?” Then, one day I was driving along the highway with Bad playing, and Speed Demon came on. The song is so catchy and fun, I couldn’t even remember why I ever disliked it. That has to be one of the greatest bass riffs ever. And the video, where he’s dancing in the desert with the claymation rabbit, is Michael at his adorable best (okay, that’s the fangirl in me, but can’t help it).
5. It contains the most exotic love ballad ever, Liberian Girl. Except I still can’t understand to this day how one can be so head over heels in love with a girl who only knows how to say one stinking phrase, over and over! Hey, Michael, “Naku Penda Pia-Naku Taka Pia-Mpenziwe” might sound sexy and breathy in your ear at night, but what about come morning when you want to know what’s for breakfast? What are you going to discuss over oatmeal, or the morning paper? I mean, after awhile, you’re bound to get bored with a girl who only knows how to speak one phrase! Seriously, was this Michael’s answer to the feminist movement, perhaps? Just get you an exotic babe who doesn’t speak a word of English; one that’s programmed to say nothing but “I love you/I want you” over and over. Every man who ever said Michael didn’t know how to be “one of the boys” should really give a serious listen to this song, because if this isn’t every red-blooded man’s ultimate sexist fantasy, I don’t know what is!
6. From a historical perspective, it marks the beginning of his war with the media. Although as a song, Leave Me Alone seems to be simply about a relationship gone bad, the video took the song to a whole ‘nother level, as a scathing attack on the tabloids. And though it’s a theme he would return to time and again, Leave Me Alone stands as probably the best of his “media protests.”
7. It was the album that singlehandedly gave birth to the MJ vocabulary. Shamone (along with its many variations-cha’mon, cha’moan, etc) and “Annie, are you ok” all entered the public lexicon, thanks to Bad. (Although it took me many years to figure out he wasn’t asking, “Annie, are you walking?”). Also, it is the album that, according to at least one recent fan discussion I’ve had, contains the most MJ vocal tics. He might have hiccuped a few times on Off The Wall; he might have given us a few hee-hee’s on Thriller. But Bad is where we would really see MJ “tic-tinitis” at its most fullblown epidemic! In fact, we can pretty much credit Bad for the entire establishment of MJ “tic-tinitis” as its own, separate science and discipline of study.
When all’s said and done, it may not have sold as many copies as Thriller. But Thriller was always going to be an impossible act to follow. Once the album is taken from beneath Thriller’s shadow and viewed in its own right, it becomes easy to see–not only was Bad as good of a follow-up as MJ could have possibly made, given the tremendous pressure he was under at the time to top himself commercially and critically, but it’s also a classic that deserves recognition in its own right. It may always be #2 in sales, but for many fans, it is #1 in our hearts. Like “The Little Engine That Could” it just kept chugging up that hill, churning out hit after hit. And in the course of that two year climb, became an album that defined the late 1980’s as much as Thriller had defined the earlier half of the decade.
Once all of the promotonal hoopla over Bad 25 has settled, there is one thing of lasting importance that I really hope will come out of it. I hope it will stand as an opportunity to reevaluate a classic album that really should never have had to stand in another album’s shadow. Thriller had its own quarter century celebration four years ago.
But now, summer of 2012, is Bad’s turn to shine. And here’s where I might ordinarily be tempted to add something clever about coming out of those bondage chains…but nah, on second thought, leave ’em on.
We wouldn’t want to spoil all the fun, now would we?