'Bad' Is Back and It's Just as Good

Rob Verhorst/Redferns
Rob Verhorst/Redferns

(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.

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."


In 1987 the deeper meaning of some of those songs eluded me (no one seemed to know who Annie was in the chorus of "Smooth Criminal" or why wouldn't she be OK) and I don't remember ever being convinced back then that Jackson was truly "bad" or the thug he claimed to be in his art. But we were all willing to play along because of the supreme brilliance of his song and dance, because of the outsize reach of his cinematic imagination and because he'd managed to somehow synthesize the seamy underbelly of tabloid culture and spit it back out to us as arresting musical entertainment.

It's a shame the same fodder that kept Jackson a tabloid fixture gave critics ample reasons not to focus on the music. The reason Bad remains a classic album today is the pre-eminent quality of the music itself. Mixing gutbucket funk, phenomenal hook appeal and high-level musicianship, Bad's 11 songs remain a marvel. They're detail-obsessed; impeccably performed, produced and engineered; and full of winning idiosyncrasy.


There's Jimmy Smith's jazzy Hammond solo on "Bad." There's the trademark Jackson vocal ticks and the introduction of his "shamon" affectation. There's the tenderness of the Afrocentric quiet-storm ballad "Liberian Girl." There's the jazzy Temptations-like shuffle rhythm of toe-tapper "The Way You Make Me Feel."

And the album's centerpiece, the inspirational power anthem "Man in the Mirror," is a brilliant distillation of Oprah-influenced 1980s pop psychology and self-transformation ideals. Jackson was the album's co-producer and the songwriter on nine of the 11 tracks, and his genius — especially his ability to move between various emotions and moods and to fuse R&B, funk, soul, rock and musical theater, among other genres — is on full display.


Bad is spectacular entertainment, conceptualized for your TV or the concert stage — the music is, in many ways, inseparable from the videos and live-concert performances — as much as it was designed in 1987 for your turntable or Walkman. In the end, Bad did the trick of extending Jackson's superstardom and further mythologizing him. No matter what your thoughts on the album might be, even after his death, Michael Jackson has managed to leave us here, 25 years after the fact, still talking about his art. Now, that is truly bad.

Jason King is associate professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and the author of Michael Jackson Treasures. Follow him on his website.