An important thing to realize about Michael Jackson’s Bad, a really great album that turns 25 today: Pretty soon after it came out, Warner Bros. spent $22 million making Moonwalker, a full-length film vehicle with a plot that absolutely defies comprehension; it involves Jackson turning into a claymation rabbit and a killer robot and a spaceship. And everyone agreed that this was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, since the movie did, after all, string together a whole bunch of songs from the album. Here’s another important thing: This movie’s release led to a Sega Genesis video game of the same name, one in which you controlled Jackson while he rescued children and fought mobsters with his dance magic. Again: Perfectly reasonable, since the game strung together 16-bit bleep-bloop approximations of Jackson’s songs. This was the hold that Jackson had over the kids of the world in the late 1980’s. I know this because I was one of them.
Bad was the first album I ever bought with my own money, and god knows that there are probably tens of millions around the world who can say the same thing. I might’ve been using tooth fairy money, or maybe it was the first thing I ever saved up allowance money to buy; I can’t remember which. I do remember walking into Woolworth for weeks before I finally had the money to buy the thing, seeing the racks and racks of vinyl copies and cassettes and longbox CD cases, all with that picture of Jackson staring back at me, thumbs hooked in his too-tight black jeans, and just wanting to own that album. Beyond a vague idea that I should maybe start paying attention to pop music, I don’t know why I felt like I needed to own Bad. But when I finally got it, I just played the shit out of it, wore the tape out. My little brother bought his own copy, too, since he didn’t like the idea of me owning it and him not. Every last one of my friends owned a copy. If you were a kid then, that was just what you did. Not liking Michael Jackson would’ve been unthinkable.
Listening to it now, Bad is obviously an excellent pop record, every song painstakingly crafted and workshopped. It’s quite evidently the work of a pop star and an expert producer, both of whom know exactly what they’re doing. But there’s a real ferocity and anger at work in it, too. Jackson’s work had been radiating a heavy sort of paranoia for years; it’s what drove “Billie Jean.” And on “Bad,” he didn’t sing so much as emit a series of wild, feral tics — pushing against the rhythm, finding sharp angles, panting out percussive sounds on his own internal time. Love songs like “Another Part Of Me” sounded like get-the-fuck-away-from-me songs. Even on ballads like “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” the yips and grunts and moans said as much as the actual words. “Dirty Diana” is grimy hair-metal ire not that far removed from Appetite For Destruction. “Speed Demon” is a tricky rhythmic oddity that only sounded like pop because Jackson had a way of making everything sound like pop. And “Smooth Criminal” remains my favorite Jackson song because it’s the purest example of his jittery synth-funk ferocity.
Jackson wore that leather jacket on the cover and hired Martin Scorsese to direct the video for the title track because he wanted to come across tough, to catch up the the rap music and Prince records that were just starting to threaten his pop primacy. But instead of sounding tough, he sounded more weird and fragile and angry than ever — more like a kid who knew he had no control over his life and who was pissed about it. Jackson’s complete lack of healthy childhood was, of course, an enormous factor in his life taking the weird turns it did. But it might’ve also made him so irresistible to kids like me in the first place. To the extent that being a kid sort of sucks, Jackson and his voice just made sense. “Leave Me Alone” was a bonus track that wasn’t included on my copy of the album, but its sentiment hangs over the entire album. This was the planet’s dominant pop star making an album about how pissed off and restless he was with his life and his dominant-pop-star status, and making it as such perfect pop music that nine of its 10 tracks ended up as singles anyway. It’s a pretty amazing thing.
Let’s watch some videos below.