Revisiting Michael Jackson's 'Bad' 25 years later
This week, to celebrate the silver anniversary of Michael Jackson’s now classic “Bad” album, Epic/Legacy released a deluxe 3 CD/1 DVD version of the set Tuesday.
For those old enough to remember, the set was MJ’s seventh studio album and his follow-up to “Thriller.” Tales run rife of Jackson putting up notes with “100 Million” on them all over the studio to remind him of his sales target...as if he weren’t under enough pressure.
[More after the jump...]
“Bad,” which actually came out Aug. 31, 1987, spawned several hits and sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. Even though it became the first album to have five consecutive singles hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was ultimately seen as not measuring up to the impossible standard set by 1982’s “Thriller.”
To mark the 25th anniversary, I revisited the original, which I consider to be Jackson’s last great album, to see how it’s held up. It’s been years since I listened to the whole project from start to finish. Some immediate themes of anger, longing for love, self-improvement and resentment stood out.
As a whole, the album holds up well. If “Bad” weren’t coming off the best-selling and most celebrated album ever, it would seem like a masterpiece. As It is, it feels like a strong album that has songs on it that definitely rival those on “Thriller” but seldom surpass them. In many ways, it feels like a companion to “Thriller”: for example, “Dirty Diana” has always felt like of “Billie Jean Part 2” to me.
Musically—to the enduring genius of Jackson and producer Quincy Jones—it doesn’t sound dated, other than on a few tunes, which sound so timestamped, I felt like I needed to have on big shoulder pads and “Dynasty” hair to listen to them. But for the most part, instead of being enslaved by the technology of the day, Jackson and Jones embraced it and used what worked for them and built upon it. There were few, if none, of the echo-y big drum beats that marked so many ‘80s records. “Bad” continued on with the masterful blending of rock, pop and R&B that dominated “Thriller.” It’s too studied and calculated to have the joy of “Off The Wall” or the determined fearlessness of “Thriller.”
The absolute gem on “Bad” remains “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Bolstered by a relentlessly uptempo but slightly feral beat, Jackson revels in the sheer joy that finding someone has brought him. It’s about carnal pleasure without ever resorting to lewdness. The “ain’t nobody’s business” refrain reflects a bit of the message we get in “Leave Me Alone” later on the album, but without the bitterness. One of his most timeless songs.
My other favorite from “Bad”is “Man In The Mirror.” Some have criticized the song as too schmalzy and filled with self importance, but I’ve always considered it one of Jackson’s most inspirational, meaningful songs in his entire catalog. It’s one of only two song on “Bad” that he didn’t write. Penned by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett, the song is a beautiful reflection on what it means to pray for the ability to make difference and that moment when you realize it is up to you to be the change you want to see in the world. Plus, when he performed it live with a choir, the key change at the end really brought the song home.
If “The Way You Make Me Feel” is the sexy, sultry side of romance, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” featuring the aforementioned Garrett, is Jackson’s vulnerable side. With the click track and finger snaps, it sounds more dated than I remembered, but Jackson’s poignant vocal and the song’s uplift as it builds keep it overall strong.
I could never take “Bad” seriously with its opening line of “Your butt is mine.” Through much of the ‘80s, Jackson seemed to want to portray some crotch-grabbing badass that was in such contrast to his public image that it felt like some major disconnect. Having said that, the track’s insinuating rhythm and Jackson’s introduction of the word “shamon,” (whatever it means) earns it a place in music history. The song’s organ line still resonates, even if the tune feels like a bastard child of “Thriller” and “Beat It.”
Sonically, “Dirty Diana” has its moments —most notably Steve Steven’s guttural guitar solo—but the tale of a bad girl that Jackson can’t escape, even though he knows he should, seems a weaker version of the many, far superior groupie songs out there, and a non-worthy successor to the hard rock of “Beat It.” Having said that, in the late-80s, there were very few black artists who even dared to rock out like Jackson does on this song (it took his sister more than a decade to do so on “Black Cat”). Live, Jackson made it into a much harder rock, nastier song that matched more of the lyrics intent than the recorded version.
The tracks I just mentioned were the first five singles from the album, all of which went to No. 1. Reflecting on the remaining six tracks, “Smooth Criminal” felt trailblazing at the time. Jackson’s whispered, nearly indecipherable spoken-sung lyrics, the repetitiveness of the sinister beat and the lack of a catchy chorus should have made this more interesting than listenable, but it’s one of “Bad’s” most appealing tracks sonically. Truly compelling.
“Another Part of Me” sounds too much like an amalgam of Jackson’s tunes, but it’s far from filler. “Just Good Friends” featuring Stevie Wonder has a great, vintage Jackson vocal, full of his little tics and “hehs.” Unlike much of the album, 25 years later, it sounds very much of its time, but it’s the one track that should have/could have been a big hit from “Bad” that wasn’t...and is the only song of the 11 not released as single (perhaps because Wonder was on a different label). Despite the somewhat downbeat message, the track is exuberant.
No amount of time is going to make “Liberian Girl” anything other than a lesser track that suffers from weak lyrics and melody. If you don’t remember the video, it’s worth checking out since it’s something straight out of a late-‘80s time capsule. (I’ve embedded it below). It stars John Travolta, Paula Abdul, Sherman Hemsley (GEORGE!) Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosanna Arquette, Weird Al, David Copperfield, Lou Phillips, Danny Glover and many more. It also speaks to the tremendous power that Jackson had back then. There simply wasn’t a bigger star. Try to imagine who could corral that amount of wattage for a video today that wasn’t tied in with a charity.
There’s a reason “Speed Demon” wasn’t a single. It’s horrible —despite a fun horn line and a unique vocal performance by Jackson. Nothing would have been lost by dropping the song off the album.
The album closes with “Leave Me Alone,” which, in hindsight, seems like a sad reflection of an artist already seeped in paranoia, who, thankfully, had no idea how bad it was still to get. Even though he pleads “just stop dogging me around,” it’s still in way that is poking fun, as opposed to the desperation that was to come.
My grade for the album as a whole: B+.
Spike Lee has produced “Bad25,” a documentary that premiered that chronicles the making of the album. The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival and will air on ABC on Thanksgiving.
What are your memories or reflections on "Bad?"