Thirty years ago, on August 31st, 1987, Michael Jackson released BAD, his follow-up to the pop music phenomenon, Thriller.

Five years ago, as Epic prepared to celebrate the silver anniversary of Michael Jackson’s 1987 masterpiece, numerous writers from media outlets across the globe reexamined the album and re-reviewed it now in the shadow of Jackson’s 2009 death. One such critic wrote for The Atlantic and argued that BAD was, not only not a “good” record but it was actually a “bad” one, mediocre and over-hyped.  The killer line in the article argues that,

for all of Bad’s explosive power, it inevitably disappointed because it didn’t equal or surpassed the magic of Thriller.

My reaction:

I can’t disagree more, in fact I will go so far as to say, despite the iconic status that Thriller has received, it was not only equaled but bettered by its follow-up. BAD is not just a good album, it is Michael Jackson’s best album.

Though BAD is technically the singer’s seventh release, for many it is his third proper album, dating back to Off The Wall. His four solo albums before Off The Wall had been released while Jackson was still fully entrenched with the Jackson Five and was not permitted by his label (Motown) to feature any songs that he had written. Off The Wall may be his fifth album, but a switch in label (from Motown to Epic) and a switch in producer (from Hal Davis to Quincy Jones) made for big enough changes that it may as well have been a career reset.

The biggest change in Jackson’s music on Off The Wall was the addition of songs written by the artist. Only three songs of the ten featured on the album are Jackson-originals, but they are the three of the best songs on the album, a total validation of the singer’s ambition. Easily the standout on the record was “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” the lead-track and debut single. It introduced the world to Michael’s now-ubiquitous falsetto voice and quirky hiccups (all the “eh’s” and “uh’s” that everyone does but won’t admit to doing when singing along in their car). It won Jackson his first Grammy and featured his first music video (with accompanying dance moves that would become as much a part of his appeal as the music itself). The album was such a hit that returning to the Jackson Five felt like returning to high school after graduation. Michael held on with the group until 1984, but for all intents and purposes Off The Wall was his proper solo debut.

Thriller needs no introduction. Driven by the success of Off The Wall and fueled by a creative wellspring that was finally unleashed, Jackson and producer Quincy Jones created a landmark album that remains the best-selling record in history. The record’s nine tracks were wholly different from the Off The Wall cuts, which were mostly the last hurrah of the Disco era. Thriller’s songs still had plenty of disco to go around, but they were tempered by a pure pop sound, and occasionally left behind entirely in favor of a little edge here and there. Jackson had many more than nine songs to work with too, but Quincy Jones knew a lean, mean record was better than a bloated one. Seven of the nine songs were released as singles and all seven reached top-ten status on the Hot100. No one should ever deny the place Thriller holds in the pantheon of music. It’s not a flawless album, but it’s seminal.

BAD is better though.

The album is more confident, as this was the peak of Jackson’s song-writing prowess. He wrote eight of the ten tracks featured on the record (having written four of the nine on Thriller), and wrote as many as twenty additional songs that producer Quincy Jones didn’t use. Jackson originally wanted a massive double album for the Thriller follow-up but was convinced by Jones to, as with Thriller, opt for quality over quantity.

The album is more robust, with Jackson dipping his toes into edgier music, having only teased such a move with Thriller’s “Beat It.” It’s still a “pop” record at its core, but each song is slightly different from the one before. There’s cheesy fun, beautiful ballads, head-banging rockers, pop anthems. Everything from the sound of engines revving to helicopters flying are featured and add up to a record that was more than just a collection of songs you could skip around and listen to at your leisure; it was an experience you had play from beginning to end in one sitting.

Let’s look back on some of BAD’s highlights.

The album begins with a ripper. Unlike the Thriller album, whose title song came at the end of side-one, BAD wastes no time, offering up the song right off the top. It serves as a great introduction to the album. Yes it’s a bit silly and certainly conceited, but if anyone had the right to make the claim the song’s title, it was the hottest artist on the planet at the time. Originally Jackson wanted the song to be a duet with Prince, performed as kind of a verbal-battle between two of the 1980’s biggest artists. Prince was coming off four-straight top-ten albums (two of which reached number-one) and multiple chart-topping singles. Naturally he resisted playing second fiddle to Michael Jackson, and says that when he heard the song he had two thoughts: The first was “this is better as a solo anyway” and the second was “who are you singing to? Cause I know you’re not saying ‘Your butt is mine’ to me!”

Of course the music, with its heavy synth and odd phraseology (the lyrics-sheet says “come on” but everyone sings it as “sha’mon” in the car) is only half of its appeal. The music video is where the magic is; it shows MJ in all his peak-glory. He may not have gotten Prince to lose a song-battle with him, but he did have a future superstar in Wesley Snipes play a gang leader that is defeated by the power of choreography and crotch-grabbing. The story isn’t as cinematic as in Thriller, but it is interesting. Directed by Martin Scorsese, Jackson plays a timid gang-recruit tasked with robbing a poor old man. Instead, he helps the old man escape which prompts Snipes’ character to kick him out of the group, saying “you’re not bad.” The whole opening is in black and white, but when Michael’s “badness” is challenged, it switches to color, and his plain outfit of a hoodie and jeans changes to the all-black and random belt buckles the album’s cover is famous for.  Jackson dances throughout the eighteen minute video, looking like Diana Ross wandered into Thunderdome.

Yes it’s silly, watching Jackson dance and sway like a ballerina while proclaiming his “badness” for all to hear, but there is one truly remarkable moment near the end of the video. At the 14:00 mark, the music cuts out and Michael switches to acapella. There aren’t ten pop stars in the world today who could belt out the notes he does as effortless as he does, and there aren’t three brave enough even to try it without a musical accompaniment to lean on or auto-tune to hide behind.

Thriller had “P.Y.T.” which was the lowest-charting single of the album (only reaching number-ten, like that’s any kind of a disappointment!), a true pop-love song and probably the most traditional recording on the album. “The Way You Make Me Feel” is likewise a pop-love song, and other than “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” it’s the most regular song on an album that does one unusual thing or another on almost every track. It’s almost unfair how radio-friendly it was, with it’s bouncy bass line and line/echo-line chorus (both the lead and the background vocals are Jackson’s). It’s also one of the singer’s most infectiously happy songs.

The music video is much more conventional than BAD or Thriller. It’s just Michael Jackson relentlessly pursuing Tatiana Thumbtzen around a rain-soaked back-alley. It’s almost creepy, but darn it the aforementioned infectious happiness keeps it wholesome.  The moment of the video is at about the 2:40 mark, when a random bystander observes Michael’s moves and music and just casually gives him a boss thumbs up. I don’t know why, but it makes me laugh every time.

“Speed Demon” is not the greatest song in the world; it’s a little one-dimensional and never really goes anywhere after the first minute. But it deserves a mention if for no reason other than the music video, featured in Jackson’s Moonwalker film.

I’m just going to post the official summary for the music video of “Speed Demon” and leave it at that:

Michael disguises himself as a motorcycle-racing rabbit to avoid a throng of fans and paparazzi appearing in the form of California Raisin-like claymation characters.

I mean, if I told you the music video for “Speed Demon” featured MJ zipping down highways on a motorcycle and water on a jetski, you’d shrug and wonder what the big deal was. The big deal of course is that he’s a claymation bunny rabbit. It’s beyond written description.

Speaking of Moonwalker, the anthology film came out in 1988 as a loosely-stitched together series of videos, much of the music for which came directly from the BAD album. One song that was featured that almost made the cut was “Leave Me Alone.” It’s a far better song than “Speed Demon” and in fact would later be added to the compact disc release of the album (and all subsequent releases too). It was the singer’s first expression of his frustration with paparazzi and the lack of privacy he felt in the wake of Thriller’s earth-shattering success.

The music video featured in Moonwalker reflects that, with an animated walk through all of the quirks, hobbies, odd interests and random eccentric passions of the singer. The video was shot in three days but took nine months to animate. In years to come, Jackson’s various songs about invasion of privacy and bloodthirsty tabloid writers would turn darker and more bitter. Here the song is a desperate warning; eventually it would become an angry lament.

“Liberian Girl” was written as far back as 1983, and was rejected for the Jackson Five album, Victory. Jackson reworked the song for BAD and turned it into a simple love song. It’s Thriller’s “The Lady in My Life” only more exotic in the arrangement. It’s also unusual for the subject matter; how many songs are sung about a girl from the tiny west-African nation of Liberia? And why Liberia? Did he just like the name? He never once rhymes anything with the word, but it does have a nice sound to it; the “‘berian” portion of the word makes a nice little tuplet.

After the music videos for Thriller basically defined the medium, Jackson went bigger and crazier with all of the follow-ups. “Liberian Girl” featured basically every celebrity Jackson was friends with—a delightful who’s who of 1980’s stars—all gathered on a soundstage to shoot the music video for Liberian Girl (how meta). Nothing gets accomplished, however, because the star is nowhere to be found. The actual song is kept in the background, which was certainly unconventional, and it’s not till the very end that Michael himself is revealed as the director (despite Steven Spielberg being on set).

Neither “Just Good Friends” nor “Another Part of Me” received music video treatment, although the former did have some great footage of Jackson and Stevie Wonder recording the song together in the studio, and the latter had a quasi-video release years later, taken from one of Jackson’s live shows. It captures the stage presence of the superstar and shows why he was the first man since Elvis Presley to claim the mantle of “king.”

Off The Wall demonstrated a “child singer” ready to prove he’s all grown up and ready to make his own mark. Thriller showed what that singer could do with wind at his back. Both albums are sensational, but neither has a track quite like “Man in the Mirror.” This is not the song you sing when you’re just establishing yourself as a serious talent. This isn’t even the song you release when everyone turns their attention to you and wants to see if the followup improves on the breakout. No, this is the song you record after you’ve broken out and after you’ve proven you were no fluke. This is the song you give to the world after you are confident all eyes are on you as the leader. Michael Jackson was the pop superstar in 1987, and “Man in the Mirror” is his way of using his starpower to, as he says, “make the world a better place.” This would not have worked on Off the Wall. It would have been too grandiose for that album. It would not have worked on Thriller; that whole record was too laser-focused. The song needed an album with some breathing room. After Thriller, Michael had the cachet to explore bigger and bolder ideas in his music.

Looking back on the music video today it’s easy to see it with cynical eyes. It’s almost hopelessly naive, but set aside the overly simplistic message and it’s easy to appreciate the beauty of the five minute montage. Michael Jackson only appears in a single one-second shot near the end of the video, out of focus and almost lost in a sea of people. The rest of the visuals are given to shots of homelessness, violence, racial injustice, war and more. Director Donald Wilson was not a big name the way Martin Scorsese or John Landis were, but he had experience in editing and put it to good use, compiling 200 hours of raw, heart-wrenching footage and whittling it down to an acceptable music video length. Jackson reportedly wept when he saw a near-final cut. It’s certainly the emotional centerpiece of the eclectic album.

“Dirty Diana” is often reduced to being called the “Beat It” of the BAD album. The two songs are not sister-tracks, however. While “Beat It” was praised in 1982 as a “pop/rock” marriage, moving seamlessly from softer pop sounds to harder rock sounds, it really is more “pop” than “rock” (Slash solo not withstanding). “Dirty Diana” is not a pop/rock song, it’s a pure rock song. It’s the yang to the yin of “Beat It.” Structurally they are similar, but instead of mimicking, they mirror: “Beat It” begins like a rock song for the opening riff and verse, but then turns into a pop song for the chorus. “Dirty Diana” starts off like a pop song and then turns into a rock song. Both songs accomplish the same purpose on both albums, however: They show the listeners that Michael Jackson was not a singer of one kind of song; he came up amongst a very specific music style, but when he was able to break away and do his own thing, he expanded the boundaries of what is considered “pop” music.

The music video is merely a souped-up recording of Jackson performing the song live, with wind machines, dizzying camera movements, and Jackson dancing on stage while Steve Stevens shreds away. There is one oddity to the video: as much as it is clearly filmed at a concert, there isn’t a single clear shot of the audience. You hear them roaring with approval, and you can see flashes of them in the background but you never actually see them the way most all concert videos use the audience (close up shots of people bouncing, singing along, etc). Considering the song is about a stalker who seduces a rock star, it’s a great directorial choice: The only audience member that matters is the one who isn’t at the concert. When Jackson finishes the song and rushes off the stage, he opens his limo door only to find a pair of crossed legs sitting in his seat; his Dirty Diana is waiting for him.

“Smooth Criminal” is the album-closing number and puts a bow on a nearly-flawless record. It was an older mentality among record producers that you put your best songs at the beginning of each side and you put your weakest material at the end. But it’s just as important to end on a high note as it is begin with one. Thriller ends with a beautiful but sleepy “The Lady In My Life” which does nothing to summarize the pop revolution established with “Billy Jean” or “Beat It.” It’s too similar to the tracks from Off The Wall. Ending the record with “Billy Jean” might have been more thematically appropriate. The BAD album, however, perfectly sticks the landing. A record as varied as the singer’s eccentric interests needs a big, audio-spectacle, show closer of a song. “Smooth Criminal” is it, as it compels you to dance along with the singer’s most memorable guitar riff since “Beat It,” (and it arguably bests it).

The song is about a woman named Annie who gets attacked in her apartment by a criminal smooth enough to…break in through the window. The lyrics are simple; looking at them written down is not going to convey why the song is so magical. It’s the way Jackson sings the song, alternating between his natural lower register and his insanely high falsetto. It’s the great drumming of John Robinson. It’s the perfectly-placed “ow’s” that punctuate the rhythm. And it’s the iconic music video, taken from the Moonwalker film, with Jackson’s white zoot suit and fedora, featuring “The Lean” (at 7:00 in the video), the dance move everyone tried to do but only succeeded in falling on their faces time and again (don’t feel bad; it requires special shoes and a special floor). The song was the longest and most central segment of Moonwalker and with good reason. It’s Jackson at his best.

Just like with Thriller, seven tracks from album were released as singles and just like with Thriller, they all left an impression. Unlike Thriller, however, all five of BAD’s first wave of singles reached number-one (a feat that has yet to be duplicated). The final two releases, which came a year later, were top-ten charters. Did the album surpass Thriller in sales, as Jackson hoped? No. It has sold “only” 35 million records (about half of Thriller’s total). Is the record as iconic as Thriller, or as universally thought of as “the” Michael Jackson album? No. Thriller is still the defacto record, as the Library of Congress proved when it selected it for historical preservation.

In many ways Thriller is the singer’s “greatest” achievement. It proved he was not just a force to be reckoned with in music, but was the driving force of the era.  But for all its greatness, BAD is simply the better record. It offers less filler, less disco-flavors, and less synth, while giving us more music, more variety, more runtime, more Jackson-penned songs. It is The King of Pop’s best album. Period.

Happy thirtieth.


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