Defending Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’: A Labor of Love
Of all the hot takes I’ve seen on Twitter, nothing prepared me for this one. I didn’t think someone could contradict themselves this much in less than 280 characters. Then again, the Internet remains undefeated.
How is one of the most decorated and beloved albums “pop perfection” yet “easily his weakest?”
Consider my rebuttal a plea for sanity, or better yet, common sense: Bad is Michael Jackson’s magnum opus. The album’s legacy—on wax, on film, and onstage—was a labor of love.
CROWN OR DROWN
No other album in music history had to live up to the global phenomenon that is Thriller:
- Over 66 million copies sold worldwide… and counting.
- Seven GRAMMY Awards in one night.
- Seven Billboard Top 10 singles, two of which were #1.
- Three short films that bring to mind dancing zombies, red zipper jackets, and glowing pavement tiles.
- Two Library of Congress inductions as an album and a short film.
- One boyhood dream of making the biggest album ever come true.
Put yourself in Michael Jackson’s black penny loafers. Do you retire and become a bankable oldies act? Or do you take an extraordinary leap of faith and show the world that you can do more?
Most musicians would have squinted when the big spotlight arrived and coasted on their back catalog. Not MJ, though. He wanted Bad to be his best work yet and sell 100 million copies. “I love not only reaching a mark I’ve set for myself but exceeding it,” he explained in his 1988 memoir, Moonwalk. “Doing more than I thought I could, that’s a great feeling.”
Many people came to see the spectacle. More came to see him fail, and most left blown away.
KING OF CHARTS
I wish I could say Bad’s résumé needs no review, but clearly, it does.
- The first and only album by a male artist with five back-to-back #1 pop singles. (Jackson received Billboard’s first Spotlight Award for this record-breaking success.)
- The first album to reach #1 in 25 different countries. (It debuted at #1 in America; stayed there for six weeks straight and remained in the Top Five on the Billboard 200 chart for 38 weeks.)
- Bad sold more than 2 million copies in its first week alone and outsold the rest of the Top 40 combined.
- It earned a Diamond certification in February 2017 from the Recording Industry Association of America.
- Worldwide sales are above 35 million, making it a Top 15 best-seller in music history.
Bad wasn’t the commercial juggernaut that Thriller was—no album by any artist has come close. Still, album sales and chart positions don’t tell the whole story. The fact that he stepped into a lion’s den of expectations and soared to new heights speaks volumes.
THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
It’s no surprise that Michael Jackson’s triumphant return to music put his opponents on edge, earning him the fitting nickname “The King of Pop.” The surprise is how many people ignore Bad’s creative and technical leap forward.
I hear this often: “Michael was a ‘song-and-dance man.’ He had the best producers and session musicians behind him.” Stop it! (Prince had Wendy & Lisa. Stevie Wonder had Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. The Beatles had Sir George Martin. Does that make their music less enjoyable? Of course not.)
Whether it’s one person or a team, great art is meant to entertain and inspire. Bad is the clear vision of an artist working with others to make something profound, personal, and unique.
- On an album loaded with pure pop classics, some underestimate “Speed Demon’s” high-powered engine. But this ear-scorching funk roadster embraces its dark horse status, swerving past them in slow motion, middle fingers up. (“Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop me / Ain’t no stop-and-go / I’m speedin’ on the midway / I gotta really burn this road.”) Fun fact: Jackson wrote the song after getting a speeding ticket on his way to the studio. Quincy Jones challenged him to turn that experience into music, and Mike returned with a banger. “‘Speed Demon’ is amazing,” Q raved. “I mean, Michael’s imagination is awesome. You know, it really is. He’s very unique, man… He stays out of the box, and I love that.”
- A calm, coastal breeze runs through “Liberian Girl” as Jackson’s love letter to black beauty proves that he never left the rhythm and blues that birthed him. (“Liberian girl… More precious than any pearl / Your love so complete / Liberian girl… You kiss me then, ooh, the world / You do this to me.”) “‘Liberian Girl’ is one of my absolute favorites of all the music that I’ve done with Michael,” engineer Bruce Swedien expressed. “Who could think of a thing like that, except Michael Jackson? It’s astounding; the imagery and everything else in it. It’s just an amazing musical and sonic fantasy.”
Bad rightfully won the “Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical” honor at the 1988 GRAMMY Awards. Unlike many pop stars who hire outside writers to pen their hits, Jackson wrote nine of the album’s 11 songs and co-produced the entire project. Taken together, Bad is a musical Halloween with the production value of an Oscar-worthy motion picture. Each track shows us an artist at play in his creative toy box, throwing on different styles and personas.
Another element of Bad that monumentally elevated the music was the short films. We remember the zippers and buckles in “Bad,” the 45-degree gangster lean in “Smooth Criminal,” and the carnival ride of pop paranoia in “Leave Me Alone.” But it’s the subtle details in those short films that set his work apart from his peers.
- Yes, “Bad” struts its West Side Story street ballet in a Brooklyn subway. And near the 14-minute mark, it becomes clear that “Bad” is a story about freedom. To embrace who we are and let go of what society told us to be.
- Yes, “Smooth Criminal” is an Old Hollywood fusion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Fred Astaire’s The Band Wagon. But did you know Hermes Pan was one of several celebrities invited on the set? He worked with Astaire on many films, and he assured Michael that Fred would be enormously proud of the tribute. (Shortly before Astaire passed away from pneumonia in June 1987, he said, “I didn’t want to leave this world before meeting my successor. Thank you, Michael.”)
- Yes, “Leave Me Alone” fires a supremely funky middle finger at the tabloids. But it’s also fascinating how you can watch it on mute and not miss a beat. The price of fame shows a life-sized MJ crushing the media circus around him. In some cases, he toyed with the media, and other times, he felt like a victim. Either way, he was a modern-day Charlie Chaplin.
Thankfully, Jackson’s goal to “study the greats and become greater” never got lost in translation. He earned the MTV Video Vanguard Award in 1988 for changing how we hear and see music forever.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
The globe-trotting Bad Tour, MJ’s first without his brothers, made him the greatest showman since P.T. Barnum.
One day in rehearsals, he heard a wrong note. “[Michael] said, ‘Let’s go from the top,’” recalls assistant music director Kevin Dorsey. “I thought he meant the top of the song — he meant the top of the show!” Couple that with the murderers’ row of musicians around him, and you have an endless arsenal of hits. Even with the world-class talent around him, boy, did the King of Pop impress!
- When he performs “Another Part of Me” onstage, he’s connecting to something out of this world. When the groove stirs him, he whoops and hollers. He claps. He unleashes a flurry of taps on the floor as if his feet are on fire.
- When he spins to his knees on the ax-shredding rocker “Dirty Diana,” he not only falls into the nightmarish abyss of celebrity fandom. He brings the rock-and-roll genre back to its Black American Music roots.
- The epic finale “Man in the Mirror” is as close to a religious experience as pop culture can deliver. Over 4.4 million people felt their hearts break, only to have them pieced back together, stronger than before. (“I’m starting with the man in the mirror / And I’m asking him to change his ways / And no message could have been any clearer / If you wanna make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself and make a change.”)
As a 30-year-old, Jackson honed his brilliant skills to perfection. He barely rested for two calendar years when he could have taken a night or two but never did. That’s something I can’t hate on, and you shouldn’t either.
We’re almost 35 years removed from the moment we saw a musical genius achieve the unthinkable. But ignorant opinions are what’s wrong with social media. Those with the least amount of information seem to get the most attention.
It’s one thing to have God-given talent; it’s another to have a constant yearning to be the best you can be. Michael Jackson had both, and he delivered every last drop on Bad.
Go ahead and rank that.