The Number Ones

October 24, 1987

The Number Ones: Michael Jackson’s “Bad”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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One day in 1986, Michael Jackson and Prince sat down at the same table. Jackson had written a new song called “Bad,” and he wanted Prince to sing it with him. The song was a hard, tense, funky dance track, and it was Jackson’s reassertion of his pop-music supremacy. Prince was one of the few people on the planet who could’ve threatened that supremacy. Inviting Prince to sing on the song was a strategic move. If “Bad” had been a Michael/Prince duet, it would’ve been a massive cultural event, and that event would’ve happened entirely on Michael Jackson’s terms. Prince would not sing on “Bad,” but “Bad” was still a cultural event.

Shortly after the meeting, an unnamed source told SPIN that Jackson and Prince were “so competitive with each other that neither would give anything up. They kind of sat there, checking each other out, but said very little. It was a fascinating stalemate between two very powerful dudes.” Quincy Jones, who brokered the meeting, later said that Prince walked in with a big white box labelled “Camille.” On Prince’s own records, Camille was his feminine alter-ego — his voice, sped up to sound higher, singing in the background. (Prince recorded a still-unreleased Camille album in 1986; some of the tracks later showed up on 1987’s Sign O’ The Times.) But “Camille” might’ve also been what Prince was calling Michael Jackson.

The white box was a gift. In a great 2018 GQ interview, Jones said, “The box had all kinds of stuff — some cuff links with Tootsie Rolls on them. Michael was scared to death — he thought there was some voodoo in there.” Jackson threw the box away after Prince left.

Prince did not want to sing on “Bad,” and he might’ve been insulted by the invitation. In a 2016 podcast interview, Susannah Melvoin, Prince’s first fiancé, said that Prince got the demo for “Bad” and immediately went to the studio and recorded his own version of the song, doing it the way he thought it should be done. Prince’s message, according to Melvoin: “No. And by the way, this is what it should be.” In a 1997 interview with Chris Rock, Prince said that his real problem with “Bad” was the opening line: “The first line of that song is ‘your butt is mine.’ Now I said, ‘Who gonna sing that to who? ‘Cause you sure ain’t singing that to me. And I sure ain’t singing that to you.'”

In his GQ interview, Quincy Jones described the Michael/Prince meeting:

Well, we sat at a table that held 24 people, at his house, family table. I said, “Michael, Smelly, you sit over there so he doesn’t feel like we’re ganging up on him.” It started off funny. Michael said, “I never been to Minnenapolis.” [Prince] said, “It’s Minneapolis!” Oh God… man, this is not going too well. Then Janet went by. [Prince] said, “Relax your lips, girl.” And it was not going well, that’s for sure. Then we went upstairs, and he saw the chimpanzee and the snake, he said, “Now, that’s interesting.” And then he says to me, “He doesn’t need me on this — it’s going to be a hit anyway.” Which is true.

The whole story is so weird and so hard to parse out. There’s no way that everyone is telling the truth about everything, and we can’t know what’s real. (For one thing, Michael had definitely been to Minneapolis; Prince saw Jackson and his brothers play a show on the Victory Tour there two years earlier.) But the end result is not in dispute. Prince did not sing on “Bad.” And “Bad” was a hit anyway.

Jackson wrote “Bad” himself in 1986. In his 1988 memoir Moonwalk, Jackson writes that “Bad” is “a song about the street… It’s about this kid from a bad neighborhood who gets to go away to a private school. He comes back to the old neighborhood when he’s on a break from school and the kids from the neighborhood start giving him trouble. He sings, ‘I’m bad, you’re bad, who’s bad who’s the best?’ He’s saying when you’re strong and good, then you’re bad.” That is, of course, the plot of the “Bad” video, and we’ll get to that. But you wouldn’t necessarily get any of that from the song itself.

Instead, “Bad” itself is a marvel of preening, nonsensical tough talk, from “your butt is mine” on. The narrator of “Bad” is being challenged, and he’s pissed off about it: “I’m giving you, on count of three/ Just show your stuff or let it be.” He doesn’t believe this conflict has to happen, but he’s not willing to back down from it. The song exists as a challenge, a provocation: “We can change the world tomorrow/ This could be a better place/ If you don’t like what I’m saying, then won’t you slap my face?” He’s bad, and he’s going to make sure that his adversary knows it, so he says it again and again.

At the time, Jackson was struggling against the perception that he was a tiny porcelain doll of a human being, a strange and fragile alien who existed in the upper realms of celebrity and who had no connection to the rest of the world. Jackson’s Thriller had made him the most successful recording artist on the planet by orders of magnitude, and he kept that spot even though he went five years without releasing an album. “Bad” is a hard, sharp, paranoid track. Considering the overwhelming success of the man who made it, the track is strikingly urgent and breathless. I hear desperation when I hear “Bad.”

As a dance track, “Bad” is as hard and unrelenting as “Billie Jean” had been years earlier. The bassline struts and rolls. An urgent electronic drumbeat clicks all over the track, sounding like rain. The orchestra-hit synth-stabs sound like Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The guitar squelches sound like Nile Rodgers. The peals of organ sound like house music. The backup vocals — Michael Jackson’s own voice, multitracked — sound like kids making fun of you on the playground.

Late in the track, there’s a sweaty, jittery organ solo from Jimmy Smith, the soul-jazz keyboardist who’d helped popularize the Hammond B3 organ. The 1987 SPIN cover story on Michael Jackson doesn’t have any quotes from Jackson, but it does have a fly-on-the-wall anecdote about Smith playing that solo. Jackson had Smith in the studio, playing solos again and again. At some point, he noticed that Smith was grunting while playing, and he wanted to get Smith mic’ed up. He wanted those grunts on the record.

The grunting on “Bad” is important. I don’t actually hear Smith doing that on the solo, but I hear a whole lot of Jackson making wordless noises elsewhere. On Thriller, Jackson, once a beautifully fluid vocalist, had started hardening and sharpening his voice, pushing it against the track. On “Bad,” Jackson hits that style even harder, and it gives him a wild-eyed edge.

There’s genuine guttural funk to the way Jackson sings “Bad.” There’s James Brown in it. I love all the little gasps and yips and hoots through the song. I love how Jackson uses his own breathing as a percussive instrument, like a boxer hitting the heavy bag. As the song reaches its climax, Jackson stays in the pocket even as his voice dances. When he hits the final vamp, Jackson becomes a car alarm: “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” It’s magical.

Jackson is clearly attempting an image overhaul on “Bad.” He’s trying to stop being the nice young man who’d been enthusiastically embraced by people like Ronald Reagan. He’s trying to recapture some sense of danger, some primal power. At the same time, he’s not trying to push away the vast audience he’d amassed. He’s setting himself a near-impossible task. Amazingly, he pulls it off. “Bad” sounds convincingly tough, and it still sounds like Michael Jackson. It’s intense and driving and itchy and mean.

A year before “Bad,” Michael’s baby sister Janet had gone to Minneapolis and recorded Control, her own blockbuster album, with ex-Prince associates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Control doesn’t really swagger-jack Prince, but it’s got more Prince than Michael in it. Michael himself might’ve wanted Prince to sing on “Bad,” but “Bad” doesn’t sound anything like Prince. It sounds like Thriller-era Michael Jackson, retooled for an era where rap and house and new jack swing were all ascendant. I don’t think “Bad” is one of Jackson’s transcendent singles. I don’t even think it’s the best song on the Bad album. But I can’t imagine a better way for Michael Jackson to reintroduce himself to the world in 1987.

“Bad” was not the first single from the Bad album, but its release marked the album’s grand arrival. Jackson had already released the slinky adult-contempo slow jam “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” and that song became the first of the album’s many #1 hits. But “Bad” was the real return. The Bad album came out on August 31, 1987. That night, CBS aired a TV special called Michael Jackson: The Magic Returns. At the end of the special, the full 18-minute short-film music video for “Bad” debuted. It was a spectacle.

“Bad” was probably the most cinematically ambitious music video that had ever been attempted to that point. Bruce Springsteen had brought in Brian De Palma and John Sayles to direct videos, but Jackson did him one better, hiring cinema god Martin Scorsese. Scorsese had just directed Paul Newman to an Oscar in The Color Of Money, and he was still a year away from blowing all his public goodwill on The Last Temptation Of Christ. (This is not me denigrating The Last Temptation Of Christ. This is me saying that Michael Jackson never would’ve hired Scorsese to direct a video after Temptation.)

A year earlier, Jackson had starred in Captain EO, a 3D sci-fi short film that became a Disney World attraction. Francis Ford Coppola directed that one. It’s absolutely nuts that Michael Jackson worked with Scorsese and Coppola, the two greatest gangster-film auteurs of all time, in the same year-long stretch. Both Coppola and Scorsese were hired to work for Michael Jackson, not the other way around. That’s how big a deal Michael Jackson was.

Richard Price, the great crime novelist who’d written The Color Of Money for Scorsese, also wrote the “Bad” video. Price’s story for the video may have been inspired by the story of Edmund Perry, a 17-year-old boy from Harlem who’d been shot to death by a plainclothes cop in 1985. Perry had just graduated from the fancy prep school Phillips Exeter, and he was about to go to Stanford on scholarship. The cop who shot Perry claimed that Perry and his brother had attempted to mug him, and that cop never faced any penalties for the shooting. (The NYPD eventually settled the Perry family’s lawsuit for $75,000.)

In the “Bad” video, cops don’t shoot anyone. Instead, the kids back home are the problem. Jackson imagines himself as a kid like Perry, a prep-school student back in town to see his old friends. One of those friends is Wesley Snipes, who at the time hadn’t been in much besides the Goldie Hawn sports comedy Wildcats and an episode of Miami Vice. Snipes is great in the video, charismatic and commanding and menacing. In this tiny acting job, you can see the beginnings of what he’d bring to New Jack City a few years later. (In that 1997 interview with Snipes’ fellow New Jack City star Chris Rock, Prince says that he was supposed to play the Wesley Snipes part. I truly cannot imagine this, though I’m having fun trying.)

In the “Bad” video, Snipes and his buddies, incensed and maybe jealous about Jackson’s expsure to this monied world, pressure Michael to rob an old man in a subway station. Michael refuses, and when it looks like they’re about to attack him, the black-and-white film snaps into color, and the dancing starts. The synth-stabs hit, and a bunch of dancers dressed up like ’80s toughs jump out. It’s clear we’re in dream-sequence territory here. Jackson’s character imagines himself as a powerful street superhero, and he conjures a whole army behind him. He’s going to stand up for himself, and he’s going to do it by dancing.

The dancers don’t actually look remotely tough; they look like the versions of gang members that you’d see in cartoonish ’80s movies like The Last Dragon or Adventures In Babysitting. But man, they can dance. Jackson served as one of three choreographers for the video, and he and his collaborators conjure explosive stress, building on the “Cool” scene from West Side Story. (West Side Story remains the ur-text of Michael Jackson videos.)

Just like the Jets in West Side Story, Jackson and his crew touretically scream and whoop their way through their big dance number. That whole sequence goes down at Brooklyn’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn station, a place where I used to change trains all the time. The whole dance sequence is full of great little bits: The Bruce Lee mouth-wipes, the thing where they all scoot across the floor together, the guy moonwalking in roller skates, the bit where Jackson rips open a metal grate so that the breeze can blow his hair back.

The final tracking shot that ends the song — one guy flipping through the station while Jackson and his dancing battalion advance toward the camera — is just great filmmaking. I feel my brain chemistry change whenever I see it. Maybe Wesley Snipes’ character sees this whole scenario playing out in Jackson’s eyes. When the dancing ends, Snipes merely gives Jackson a pound and walks off, and everything goes back to black-and-white. The problem has been solved through the power of imaginary dance.

If you’re going to declare your hegemony over the pop landscape, an 18-minute Martin Scorsese-directed music video that premieres on CBS in prime time is a pretty good way to do it. The “Bad” single came out a week after the album, and it was #1 within two months. When “Bad” made its ascent to the top of the Hot 100, it actually leapfrogged Prince, whose “U Got The Look” had been at #2 the week before. (“U Got The Look” is a 10.) “Bad” only stayed at #1 for a surprisingly short period of time, even though nothing kept the top spot for long in 1987. But Jackson was nowhere near through. We’ll see him in this column again soon.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here is “Weird Al” Yankovic’s genuinely astonishing video for his “Bad” parody “Fat”:

(“Fat” peaked at #99. “Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s MC Lyte’s hard 1991 track “Big Bad Sister,” which has producer Mark The 45 King scratching “Bad” on the hook:

(As a lead artist, MC Lyte’s highest-charting single is her 1996 Xscape collab “Keep On, Keepin’ On,” which peaked at #10. It’s a 7. As a guest, Lyte’s highest-charting single is the 1994 Janet Jackson track “You Want This,” which peaked at #8. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tricky rasping all over the “Bad” bassline on “Brand New, You’re Retro,” a track from his classic 1995 debut Maxinquaye:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Trina quotes “Bad” all through her 2000 debut single “Da Baddest Bitch.” Here’s the video, where she burns down Warren Sapp’s house:

(As lead artist, Trina’s highest-charting single is the 2005 Kelly Rowland collab “Here We Go,” which peaked at #17. As a guest, her highest-charting single is the absolutely perfect 2001 Missy Elliott single “One Minute Man,” which peaked at #15.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Billie Eilish, accompanied by her brother Finneas O’Connell, singing a breathy acoustic cover of “Bad” in a 2018 live-in-studio session for the Australian radio network Triple J:

(Billie Eilish will eventually appear in this column with a different song about being bad.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Madonna’s frisky dance-pop banger “Causing A Commotion” peaked at #2 behind “Bad.” It’s an 8.

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