Five years is a long, long time in the music industry. Today, it’s not completely unusual for artists and bands to go five years or more between album cycles with all the promotion and extensive worldwide touring that corresponds to most major label releases. In the 1980s, however, five years was long enough to be completely forgotten about and risk the loss of fans, no longer willing to wait for you, the artist, to finish your latest “masterpiece”. Michael Jackson was not your typical artist.
The worldwide phenomenon that was Thriller, afforded Jackson an atypical release cycle. It didn’t hurt that the 1982 released album spawned hits until the earliest months of 1984. It also didn’t hurt that Jackson’s profile remained high thanks to an ‘84 reunion album & the Victory tour with his brothers, the Jacksons. Michael Jackson was also heavily involved in one of the biggest hits of 1985, the We Are the World project that assisted in raising money to feed Africa’s malnourished children. So, when 1986 came and went without an album release from one of, if not THE biggest pop star in the world (Prince and Madonna would also vie for that title throughout the 80s), it might not have felt like quite as long of a period of disappearance as it would have if Jackson would have completely retreated into his Neverland ranch immediately after releasing the “Thriller” video in late 1983.
When Jackson & his producer, Quincy Jones, finished the highly anticipated Bad in 1987 after over a year and a half of work, the expectations might have been nearly debilitating for the immensely talented perfectionist. Even if it ultimately wasn’t for Jackson, many less talented and confident artists wouldn’t know how to follow-up a genre and career defining success such as Thriller. The resultant album, Bad, is heavy on drum machine sounds, rock guitars, and thumping, throbbing basslines tailor made for dance floors and radio. Essentially the album’s overall sound is an updated version of the post disco music that was found on Thriller. MJ and QJ created a winning formula for a more modern “late 80s” sound and short of including actual rap interludes, Bad would borrow quite a bit from the skeletal 808-drum machine sounds that were permeating hip-hip in 1986 and 1987.
Jackson also doubled down on the vocal tics and hiccups that would ultimately become his signature sound. These vocal tics can be found sparingly on Thriller but on Bad they are front and center, no more obvious than on the title track. Jackson punctuates practically every line of this song with a distinct vocal tic. Whether it’s a “ch’ah” or a “shamon” or a high pitched “uh.” I can’t accurately describe these sounds using written words, but anyone familiar with Jackson’s post 1987 output knows exactly what I’m talking about. Jackson also had developed a bit of a reputation in the post-Thriller years for some strange behavior, some true, some likely fictitious. Releasing an album titled Bad was likely a savvy ploy to make Jackson look more masculine and dangerous (which would be the title of Jackson’s next release). The title track’s music video, the first video released in support of the album, was a mini movie directed by filmmaker Martin Scorsese, intended to paint Jackson as an anti-violence tough guy, not unlike his “Beat It” video persona. While cool at the time, it was an easy target for anyone eager to lampoon Jackson and his image. Weird Al Yankovic’s “Fat” parodies “Bad” so perfectly & hilariously that in my house at least, “Fat” is the more watched video of the two. Jackson’s black outfit with all the unnecessary buckles and straps, the graffiti artists in roller skates, the synchronized dancing, the seemingly out of place yells and screams from Jackson, and the unfortunate opening line, “your butt is mine” all led to an oddly presented hit single that would have gotten it’s bad-ass whooped by Ice Cube, Chuck D, Rakim, KRS-One, or any other hip-hop heavy weight of the time.
In spite of these sometimes-comical attempts at being “bad”, Jackson’s credibility was still extremely high due to his appeal to the female half of the population. Songs like the lead single, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Dirty Diana,” “The Way You Make Me Feel” and his latest heal-the-world ballad, “Man in the Mirror,” were all massive hits that appealed heavily to women. Yes, men, and in my case at the time of its release, adolescents, were still enamored with Jackson even if he was no longer able to moon-walk on water in some of our minds like he was able to in 1983. This was before the 1990s brought on more sinister allegations than just dating a chimpanzee or trying to buy the Elephant Man’s bones. At the time, Jackson was simply seen as an eccentric. Many pop artists from the 1980s were so it didn’t seem that out of place.
The original album released on vinyl and cassette was ten tight tracks of 80s R&B/Pop/Rock fusion. Out of these ten tracks, eight would end up being released as singles. Only “Speed Demon” and his duet with Stevie Wonder, “Just Good Friends” were not released. Five of those eight singles (“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “Dirty Diana”) went to number one on the US Billboard Pop Charts. To put that in perspective, only two singles (“Billie Jean” and “Beat It”) went to #1 from Thriller. Additionally, “Smooth Criminal” was a top 10 hit (and a major hit for the alternative rock band, Alien Ant Farm, about 10 years later) and “Another Part of Me” reached the top 20 in the US. The ninth and final single from the album, “Liberian Girl,” was only released as a single in Europe and Australia. Nascent CD technology allowed for additional tracks to be added and Jackson included what would end up being yet another single from the album (except for the US and Canada), “Leave Me Alone,” as a bonus track only available on CD release. This song was notable for its attack on media and the music video poked fun at the sordid tabloid stories that had been circulating about Jackson in the post-Thriller years.
Bad is one of those albums that for some, could never live up to the expectations of Thriller. For others, Bad is a masterpiece in its own right. The album is filled with hit singles and includes some of Jackson’s most iconic songs. “Man in the Mirror” moves past “We Are the World” level cheesiness to become a truly moving and introspective look at how each one of us, as individuals, can make change for those around us in need. “The Way You Make Me Feel” is one of the best dance tracks of the late 80s. “Smooth Criminal” is probably the best seventh singles released from a single album of all time. Not only did Michael Jackson live up to the heavy expectations, but he also made an album that required his next record to be lived up to as well, making Thriller simply just one of a handful of classics.
Memory Bank Withdrawal
Michael Jackson’s Thriller was my first musical obsession at the age of 8. All of the singles from that record were favorites of mine and I’d get a rush of excitement whenever I’d hear a Thriller song on the radio. By 1987, my obsession with Michael Jackson had waned. I was now 12 and my musical tastes were starting to change to hard rock (e.g., Poison, Metallica, Guns n’ Roses) and hip-hop (e.g., Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Ice-T) and the sort of saccharine pop that Jackson represented to me was losing its grip on my sensibilities. The first single released, the duet with singer Siedah Garrett, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” wasn’t my cup of tea. Even then I thought it was an odd choice as first single from a long-awaited album. There wasn’t enough of a “wow” factor associated with the song and it was too formulaic in my mind. Plus, there was NO MUSIC VIDEO!!! The King of Pop and MTV leads off his new album release cycle with a ballad and no music video? Odd. The song has since grown on me as I (and it) have aged but I still think “Bad” would have made a better lead single.
It took several years after its release for me to finally listen to the entire Bad album. With eight out of eleven songs on the album receiving combined radio and MTV play, there seemed to be little need for me to pick up the album proper. Now, I consider Bad to be one of the best (and most nostalgic filled) albums of the decade and a clear highlight in Jackson’s career. I thought “Dirty Diana” was a nice throwback to “Beat It” in terms of melding Jackson’s unique vocals over hard rock guitar based instrumental. I considered “The Way You Make Me Feel” as one of the best pure pop songs Jackson had ever written & “Smooth Criminal” extended the life of the album well into 1989 with its machine gun beat and lyrical approach. So even though I wasn’t a total and complete Bad convert in the late 80s, I certainly remember watching and enjoying the videos whenever they came on MTV, and I would record the singles off the radio onto blank cassette tapes whenever I heard one hit the Top 40 for the first time.
Listening to Bad again in 2018, the nostalgia for my middle school years comes through with each track. Since the singles for the album were released over the course of nearly two years, from the summer of 1987 through the winter of 1989, the album was a huge part of two full school years for me, 7th and 8th grade. Thanks Michael, for showing me how to be “bad” at an age when I had no idea what that even really meant.
My order of preference of Bad tracks from most favorite to least favorite with personal ratings next to them.
- The Way You Make Me Feel 5/5
- Smooth Criminal 5/5
- Man in the Mirror 5/5
- Bad 5/5
- Leave Me Alone 4.5/5
- Dirty Diana 4/5
- Another Part of Me 4/5
- I Just Can’t Stop Loving You 4/5
- Just Good Friends 3.5/5
- Liberian Girl 3/5
- Speed Demon 3/5
Overall Score: 4.5/5