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Stray Thoughts: When BAD Was Good

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In junior high I got a little bit obsessed with Michael Jackson. Part of this is because one of my closest friends in school was obsessed with Michael Jackson and he just brought me along for the ride. This ride included moonwalking and sharing bootleg VHS tapes of music videos. It was a whole thing. About which we will say no more. My fandom ended in the mid 90s when credible allegations of child molestation first surfaced. Not because I believed those allegations, but all the coverage left a bad taste in my mouth and I eventually moved on to second-wave grunge. Life is strange.

Somehow Bad crossed my radar recently, probably just hearing the singles in the car. But it stuck in my brain. It was one of my favorite albums when I was 11 or 12. It was one of the first four albums I owned on CD. It was the first album where I started to pay attention to musical arrangements. And then it completely evaporated from my rotation. Looking back, it occupies a weird inflection point of Jackson's career. His older albums still hold up--Thriller is widely regarded as a masterpiece and I will happily stan for Off The Wall in all of its disco glory. Bad is where you can see things starting to go off the rails. Jackson was still wildly popular, but his music was starting to be overshadowed by the cosmetic surgery, the crotch-grabbing, and his increasingly bizarre personal life. He was sitting right at the intersection of massive talent and weirdly wrong-headed decision-making.

To wit, consider the music video for the title track Bad, which is embedded above. It wasn't just a performance or bit of narrative set to the song. It's an 18-minute opus directed by Martin Scorsese that features a then-unknown Wesley Snipes. Shot mostly in black and white, it tells the story of a young man at prep school who goes back home to the mean streets of... wherever... for holiday break. He meets up with his old crew who convince him to join them mugging people in the subway to prove that he's still "bad." At the last second, the protagonist refuses to assault an old man and must confront his friends about their criminal ways. He then puts on an elaborate song-and-dance routine and they part amicably. It's... unusual, to say the least. Nonsensical plot and tone issues notwithstanding, the real problem is that Jackson is achingly miscast as a poor black high schooler making good on a scholarship. He looks like a porcelain doll--of course he can't fight a septuagenarian. And yet it's not even the most over-wrought self-indulgent bit of a filmmaking associated with this album. That dubious honor belongs to Moonwalker.

That said, I was mostly curious to see how the album holds up. Has it aged like fine milk?

Let's start with context. Jackson was in many ways a victim of his own success. His previous album Thriller was a monumental achievement; it is still the best-selling album of all time. The music videos for Beat It, Billie Jean, and Thriller arrived on the then-nascent channel MTV and completely revolutionized the medium. Jackson's performance of Billie Jean for the Motown 25 television special not only blew the doors off the place, it's also the reason you recognize the moonwalk--a dance move that originated in the 30s--and associate it exclusively with Michael Jackson. But Thriller came out in 1982, so by 1987 Jackson was under immense pressure to deliver something spectacular, and his nuclear-explosion level of fame meant that his entire life was lived under a microscope. Reportedly, he wrote and recorded 200 songs trying to put together anything that could rival his previous effort.

And the result is... awfully middling. By and large, it's a perfectly fine bit of adult contemporary pop. Two thirds of the album would feel totally natural coming out of the speakers in your dentist's waiting room. There are a couple of absolute bangers on there, to be sure. Smooth Criminal and Leave Me Alone are excellent. Bad and Dirty Diana are very listenable, if a bit weird, lyrically. Speed Demon is a stand out. It's not good, but it's different and has character. The Way You Make Me Feel is a serviceable dance-pop track that could have just as easily been a Paula Abdul song. But the middle of the album is just milquetoast. Man in the Mirror and I Just Can't Stop Loving You are sappy down-tempo cheese-fests. Liberian Girl is slightly less cheesy, but no less sappy. Just Good Friends is completely forgettable--I literally just listened to the entire album and I couldn't tell you a thing about that song. It's kind of remarkable that so much talent and effort could go into something that ends up sounding so generic.

Sonically it's drawing on a lot of influences. There are the usual Motown staples: funk, soul, and R&B. And there's a bit of hard rock, African, and synth-pop in there too, and maybe just a smidgen of disco. Funnily enough, it only sounds generic now because of how influential it was--Jackson was unmatched by everyone short of Madonna in terms of contributions to the shape of late 80s pop, and he's been so thoroughly copied that it all feels derivative now. Once again a victim of his own success. The songwriting is pretty solid. Jackson certainly knew his way around a pop hook and does some interesting things with breakdowns and instrumentation. I was griping about Speed Demon above, but the sung chord progression driving the post-bridge chorus is quite compelling. Despite how well-trodden these sonic paths feel now, there are some genuinely interesting musical choices in here.

The lyrics are garbage, though. The song Bad was originally intended to be a duet with Prince, but when The Purple One saw the opening lyric "Your butt is mine" he noped right out. Dirty Diana continues in the Billie Jean tradition of being paranoid about a seductive woman trying to break up your current relationship. You can see Jackson starting to branch out into social issues with Another Part of MeMan in the Mirror and a few lines of Bad, but the messaging is pretty hollow. The verses of Man in the Mirror describe seeing poverty and depression, but then the chorus resolves to working on yourself to make the world a better place. Which feels a little tone-deaf, or at the very least it speaks of someone who cares about social justice but doesn't actually understand it at all. By contrast, the songs that work do so in spite of their lyrics. Smooth Criminal is a mostly incomprehensible story about a victim of a random violent crime. And it freaking slaps, right?

In the end, I can only conclude that Bad is... not bad. It's not great. It's good... enough. It's fine--it's perfectly fine. Has some great moments, even. It's an inflection point between the brilliance of Thriller and a bat-shit-ness of Dangerous. You can see the impulses here magnified on that subsequent album. It's even more experimental, even more cloying, and often even more incredibly wrong-headed (Princess Stéphanie of Monaco contributes moans to a song that's supposed to be a celebration of Jackson's masculinity and sexuality: the unintentionally-hilariously-titled In the Closet). Bad is the work of a man trying to capture lightning in a bottle a second time. And even though he mostly fails, he still managed to catch a spark. And that's pretty interesting.

That's what I think anyway,

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