(The Root) — There were a lot of cassette tapes that got play on my silver Sony Walkman as the summer of 1987 waned, including LL Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer, U2’s Joshua Tree, Jody Watley’s self-titled debut, Prince’s Sign O the Times and Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show. But by that August, all my musical anticipation was geared toward the release of Michael Jackson’s Bad, which hit record stores the same day he was to debut a prime-time TV special.
Bad, his seventh solo studio album, felt like more than just another new release: To my teenage mind, it seemed like a world-historical event, a cultural experience. Cunningly marketed by Jackson and his record label to penetrate global consciousness and smash sales records, Bad was an album that could hardly fail commercially. But that didn’t make it any less potent an artistic statement.
Bad happens to be the fifth most commercially successful album in history and the first to produce five consecutive No. 1 pop singles. On that score alone, this year’s Bad 25th anniversary celebration and special-edition album release, driven by Sony Music Entertainment, feel appropriate.
Still, many fans see Bad as a lesser effort compared with his other two Quincy Jones-produced collaborations, Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982). An unabashed corporate vehicle, Bad lacks the same breathless abandon as his two previous efforts, and some might find Bad‘s pan-genre, cater-to-all-markets approach too calculated and shrewd. British songwriter Rod Temperton remains a notable personnel omission on Bad; he was the secret ingredient who contributed the title tracks on both Off the Wall and Thriller, as well as gems like “Rock With You,” “Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady in My Life.”
But the problem with comparing Bad with Off the Wall or Thriller is that it’s not possible to separate Bad from the discourses that surrounded it. Bad arrived at a unique time in the development of Jackson’s artistry. 1979’s Off the Wall was a propulsive funk record at the tail end of disco, doubling as a celebration of Jackson’s nervy ascent into adulthood.
1982’s Thriller, in turn, was a juggernaut. It broke sales records to become the most successful album of all time, Jackson single-handedly revolutionized the scale of pop stardom and the terms of racial crossover, and he managed to rescue the entire music industry from its financial doldrums and plunge it headfirst into the MTV era.
Despite Jackson’s track record as a kiddie heartthrob since early 1970, no one could have truly predicted the breakaway success of Off the Wall in ’79; nor could anyone have bet on the unhinged blockbuster success of Thriller in ’82. Jackson’s adult solo records were, in retrospect, the sound of a young star “coming up,” staking his claim to supreme greatness in the pantheon of pop.
Putting His Dukes Up
Bad was a different story: It was a defensive comeback album. (Actually, every record after Bad would be a comeback album for Jackson.) Existential threats to Jackson’s pop throne were coming from all directions. Whitney Houston and Prince had stormed the charts with hit albums in the months prior to Bad‘s release; new arrivals like Terence Trent D’Arby and even rebranded sister Janet cribbed bits from Michael to craft their respective glories.
Critics demonized Jackson for his much-publicized eccentricities — we learned he’d been sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and that he wanted to buy the Elephant Man’s bones — and endless “Is he a sellout?” debates ensued, focused on how and why Jackson’s skin had become lighter, his nose slimmer, his hair wetter and longer and his features more chiseled and feminine. In the interim between Thriller and Bad, Michael Jackson the Pop Star and Culture Hero had, in critics’ eyes, morphed into the derogatory Wacko Jacko.