Wipe Off The Dust: Michael Jackson Still 'Bad', Still Bold

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Play it again, Daddy!

If you could only see my father's eyes roll. Roll because his usually compliant daughter has asked to play Michael Jackson's Bad for the fifth time that day and he's pretty much filled his weekly quota of shamone!-es and owww!-es. On those days where I made him play disgruntled DJ, he had other treasures in the trove to share---the Elements, the Distant Lover, and Mr. Wonder(ful)---but it was all about the stark synthesized-patent-leather-screams-of-funk-ti-fied-He-Man-girth splashed all over Bad that really piqued my interest then.

At this time, I was four. At four you like what you like and with dewy Puss In Boots eyes, shiny animal shaped barrettes, and hands akimbo---your demands win out every time. Obviously, I'm not four anymore, so dewy eyes and pouted lips are a no-go, but I can play Bad again and again with heart's content all without inflicting shamone! fatigue on anyone, and yes, my Dad is grateful for that.

Still my attachment to this album never waned. Whenever I have the idea to play it, it's like I'm four again, all giddy and hand clapping excited. To this day, Bad holds a more sentimental value than Thriller. Maybe it's because it was the first album I ever really listened to (no Barbie singing Debbie Gibson songs does not count). Maybe it was the time when I was awoken to the enigma that is Michael Jackson during the years where he was just flat-out dominating, eclipsing everyone in his wake. Whatever the case, and aside from sentimentalism, Bad is just a hell of an album. At 25 years of age, it still has quality and panache, and with every drum beat and synth chord, it exerts to the listener the reasons why Michael Jackson is cemented as a legend.

Bad marks the third incarnation of Michael Jackson's adult solo years. The in-between time didn't really predict its impact because cheeky tunes with a Beatle and doing hand-holding kum-bi-ya "world peace" traps just made him look like the Mr. Rodgers of Pop Music. Never the mind that he was strutting with street gangs, dancing with zombies, and morphing into a werewolf, Michael was still a bit um, cuddly. As he got older, Mike had to get tough. Tougher to where he'd too blend in with those gang bangers in his "Beat It" video. The critics were biting and being restless and doubtful to what he could concoct for round number 3.

Bad had a hefty task. It had to march on in after 1982's Thriller, a game-changing deity that got (Black) music out of the funk-disco trenches to where he paddled victoriously into the white water rafting charts that led him to be crowned as the King Of Pop. This uncomfortable position leads to Bad being the most mangled album of his career---everyone was on comparison mode. Michael found himself always chasing the success of Thriller and this chase went on for the rest of his life to where he was always trying to prove the otherwise. This is why Bad sports a so ruff and so tuff demeanor taking on a completely different tone than Thriller. It barks, bites, it wrestles you to the ground, everything just hits harder and harder than before. Most importantly Bad expands on Thriller's ideas. Sure, there are touches of Thriller embedded in Bad's fiber, but he leaps above them making him sound fresh and even more 'thrilling' as ever.

The title track is the proclamation. The warrior cry of  valor and paranoia---the two-sided coin that has been Michael's persona. If you didn't hear the dagger words pierce the thumping basslines and blatty horns, director Martin Scorcese provides the visual for all those who need to see to believe that Michael wasn't taking crap from anyone. Michael is now the boss, in charge of his own crew of dancing street thugs, and knocking Wesley Snipes and his brood of goons into their place proving that even though he was going to some prep school and had read some literature and had assimilated, he was still 'bad', still 'down'. In some ways this could be aligned to criticisms of Michael crossing over on the charts after Thriller. How those critical whips slapped down voicing that he was "selling out" or "losing his Blackness" each time he gained a white fan or broke through the whitewashed fences of MTV. Then again, he was just showing off in a subway, looking foxy in black leather and chains, and just having fun. It's really your call, but still "Bad" cements the tone for the album and trumpets that Michael wasn't about to bow out.

After "Bad" smacks you around, then there is "The Way You Make Me Feel". What a song. It's from the School of Teddy Pendergrass---it demands and it wants, and it's gonna get it---but with the utmost gentlemanly respect mind you. It's soda pop doo-wop that hints at Motown days gone by just with vodka poured in it. It's by far one of my favorite moments on here. Similar in tone is Stevie Wonder popping up on the sing-song "Just Good Friends". Sure it can be seen as one of the many offenses Wonder made in the 80's (thanks High Fidelity), but you forgive it because it's Jackson and his mentor swapping dialect, even though you know it's a stylized, less saccharine re-visit to "The Girl Is Mine".

The killer "Speed Demon" is far from filler for me as it takes on the feel of road racing complete with gear shifting effects and bubbling synths. The high octane joyride that is "Another Part Of Me" blasts in and fits in neatly with all the other rugged tunes. From the 1986 Captain EO project, the song details global equality with a religious undertone in its ilk.

Balladry by Michael has always been sort of hit-n-miss for me. Sometimes he can get too schmaltzy for his own good to where he's beating you over the head with his message either making you feel guilt or surrender (see "Gone Too Soon", "Heal The World", and freaking "Earth Song"). Remember he's the stalwart now on Bad, so he refrains from all the smaltz potpourri and serves a platter of straight forward ballads that are heartfelt, but don't over stay their welcome.

Quincy Jones' latest protege at the time, Siedah Garrett, holds her own next to Michael on the heartfelt "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and the sparks really do fly. The meditative love letter "Liberian Girl" has always been misinterpreted by me as at one point I thought Michael had met a librarian and found love between the bookshelves at his local library. Then I became further confused when I saw the music video, because what does Whoopi Goldberg, Dan Aykroyd, and Jasmine Guy have to do with this library lady that Michael wants to get lovey-dovey with? Wonderful song, but Michael, please, stop confusing me.

The main event ballad is "Man In The Mirror". Penned by Garrett, with backing by The Wianans clan and the Andrae Crouch Choir, this ballad isn't the typical, by-the-numbers inspirational cut. Sure it is all about making change within self and just screams "cheesy adult contemporary bait" but how can you fault it when Michael sings it with such conviction, such power? He really roots himself in this song, he literally lives it, and as it builds into a searing climax, you become a believer too.

Things get meaty towards the end with the double ram-bam of "Dirty Diana" and "Smooth Criminal" plowing in as a public service announcement that Bad isn't done being grimy yet. "Dirty Diana" practically bulldozes in. There is really no other way to describe it as it abruptly changes the tone after the lush chords of "I Just Can't Stop..." cease. If  "Billie Jean" was about a pesky crazed fan that could easily be swatted off, "Dirty Diana" was the fatal attraction fan that actually got under Michael's skin in the biblical sense, and the hold was even stronger. At the time it was the smuttiest Michael had gotten and with his growls he brings a raw animalistic quality to it. Michael had always excelled at melting hard rock substances in with melodic soulful croons, and this is a prime example of his fluidity to do so.

"Smooth Criminal" spotlights how vivid a storyteller Michael could get as with the urgent and thumping drum machines and synths he recounts, of all things, a murderous crime. Out of any other singer's mouth the "Annie, are you okay?" refrain would sound ridiculous, but from Michael it was wild and ingenious. He was ever the 'smooth criminal' as his dance moves proved it for it's legendary accompanying movie visual where the 'gangsta lean' was personified with eye-popping results.

Not officially released on the intital album, but on later pressings is "Leave Me Alone" which falls in line with a lot of rants Michael had about fame. Though the song deals with a clingy lover, the message is pretty clear---Michael values his space and wants the tabloids to stop spreading lies about him --- so please get off his lawn.

Everything is so kinetic, so urgent and hungry on Bad that it's probably the more tangible reason why I reach for it more than I do. I'm not one to just brush off Off The Wall, Thriller, and the New Jack masterpiece of 1991's Dangerous, but Bad embodied and embellished on the icon Michael Jackson came to be, it graduated him. Almost every single song present was either a hit or a notable cut and was written by Michael Jackson himself. Even though Quincy Jones was in charge of crafting this album production wise, it was easier to see that Michael, who was co-producing, was steering the wheel this time making this set much more personal at every turn.

Now Bad is celebrating 25 years on shelves with a beefed up remastered collection that features two extra bonus discs, one of which includes unreleased cuts that didn't make Bad's cut the first time out like "Don't Be Messin' Around" and "Song Groove (aka Abortion Papers)". While intriguing to hear and understand the directions Michael was taking to craft this album, the extra trimmings cannot compare to the original 11 song tracklist. Nor can they even compare to the experience of seeing a chained and leathered Michael Jackson twisting and shouting his way through some badass boldness during the prime of his life.

...and still I play it again, and again...

1 comment:

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