Yet Jackson winningly used his art to fight back. The sneering opening line of Bad‘s title track begins, “Your butt is mine.” Bonus album track “Leave Me Alone” is a seething retort to haters dressed up as a pulsating funk groove.
Even with his boxing gloves on, it was still hard to feel bad for “poor” Michael. In the five years that had passed between Thriller and Bad, he’d become an Epcot attraction starring in Francis Ford Coppola’s Captain E.O.; he’d headlined alongside his brothers in the box-office-shattering Victory tour; he’d co-written the charity single “We Are the World,” and it had become the fastest selling song of all time; he’d secured a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Pepsi; and in a sharky move, he’d bought the Beatles’ publishing catalog right from under Paul McCartney’s nose.
So in terms of critical reception, Bad was a victim of its time, set up to be hated even before its release. If you’re one of those people who are always inclined to root for the underdog rather than the defending champion, you’d probably have a hard time accommodating Bad in your musical library of album masterpieces.
Bad also had to earn its status as “state of the art” entertainment. Into the second term of Reagan’s America, pop music had become more musically aggressive and sonically risky. House music and hair metal had seeped into the water supply. Hip-hop artists like Run-DMC had begun reinventing the terms of crossover; the street, not gentlemanly Motown-inspired R&B, was becoming the new authenticator in black pop.
To his credit, Jackson decided to compete in this changing marketplace on his own terms. First he perfected a vocal sneer, and his singing became more percussive. He amped up his swagger, trading in his customary “military jackets with epaulets” look for the custom black buckles and boots that grace Bad‘s cover.
Then, he narratively ironized his own authenticity issues by commissioning Martin Scorsese to helm the video for the title track. Jackson plays a young student who leaves the inner city for prep school, only to return and confront the homies he left behind who accuse him of becoming a sellout, and all of that occurs before the black-and-white video improbably morphs into a gaudy West Side Story-like dance extravaganza in a Brooklyn subway platform.
As a song and a video, “Bad” remains no less campy than “Thriller.” Its self-conscious use of street slang and its cabaret machismo were easy targets to mock; parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic took up that charge readily. But on Bad, Jackson also updated his sound to suit the new, aggressive times. With its lean synthesizers and gated rhythm section, Bad is noticeably darker than his previous two efforts, and it’s full of cryptic and paranoiac lyrics. There’s the brittle, snaky “Speed Demon”; hard-rock “Beat It” follow-up “Dirty Diana,” about a groupie stalker; and sinister, opaque funk workout “Smooth Criminal.”