This article originally appeared in the September 11, 1987 issue of the Boston Phoenix
With the release of Bad (Epic), Michael Jackson ends a recording hiatus of nearly five years. He could have stayed away for 10 years and still not have escaped the shadow of Thriller, the biggest-selling album of all time. Thriller was the album that inflated record-company standards of success and made sales-figure watching a national craze, like hanging out under the golden arches and waiting for the numbers to change—over 38.5 million sold! It was also the album that, in the view of the industry, the media, and the public, confused popularity with perfection once and for all. Yes, Thriller included "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Human Nature," and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." But it also gave the gaggingly coy "The Girl Is Mine," the gaudy extravaganza "Thriller," and unremarkable MOR filler like "Baby Be Mine," "The Lady in My Life," and "P.Y.T."
By now it's difficult to sort out the original cause of Thriller mania. Was it the radio void the songs filled with their irresistible melding of pop, R&B, and rock, or was it his prime-time moonwalk across the stage during NBC's Motown 25 special, in 1983? Or was it the relentless pushing of single after single and the self-perpetuating cycle of an insatiable media push hyping Jackson's every move to an equally insatiable public?
No matter—from 1983 to the end of the Jacksons' Victory tour, in 1984, Thriller was so pervasive in American culture, so uppermost in our popular consciousness, that listening to the album now provokes an overpowering sense of déjà vu and a guilty discomfort that resembles that way, say, a chocolate lover feels after overindulging. Thriller was so tied up in its times that it transcended music to become an Event, a fad. And fads become passé. Does anybody listen to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack—one of the albums Thriller surpassed in its climb toward the Guinness Book of Records—anymore?
What's most surprising, and welcome, about Bad is that it doesn't even try to top Thriller. All those bigger-than-life collaborations (Michael and Barbara Streisand, Michael and Run-D.M.C.) rumored to be on the album – forget 'em. Bad is mostly Jackson. He wrote eight of the 10 songs here (more than he did on Off the Wall or Thriller) and coproduced with Quincy Jones. And the clean, cool synth funk represents an attempt to acknowledge the changes that have occurred in black pop in the three years since fans finally burned out on Thriller.
Bad is, for the most part, a respectable comeback that at times (the title track; "The Way You Make Me Feel") approaches the best of Thriller. It's a modernization of Jackson's sound, even as it sticks to the rock-pop-schlock ingredients of his previous albums. Next to the heavily orchestrated Thriller, Bad sounds spare. Jackson has always reflected other performers, taking his cues from stars like James Brown, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and others; it's the energy and otherworldy magnetism that's his own. On Bad, Jackson's biggest influence is his sister Janet's Control, the hit album she made under the direction of two members of Prince's Minneapolis Mafia, Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam. Many of the songs on Bad, like those on Control, fall into stripped-down, robotic funk grooves. Jackson also echoes the gravelly, whisper-to-a-screech voice Janet adopted for "Nasty," as well as her tough-cookie attitude. Like Janet on Control, Jackson play-acts at being "bad," as if these overprivileged, well-behaved children ever could be.
Indeed, the AMrtin Scorcese-directed 16-minute video for "Bad" (a cross between Scorcese's Mean Streets and the "Beat It" video) offers the unintentionally hilarious spectacle of Jackson, as a ghetto youth home on holiday from the private school he attends on scholarship chillin' with the homeboys, touching his crotch, pulling his sweatshirt's hood up over his head before he joins the old gang in a subway mugging. Written by novelist Richard Price (The Wanderers), the video's plot bears more than a passing resemblance to the story of Edmund Perry, the New York teenager, home between semesters at Exeter, who was shot and killed by police during an alleged mugging.
In the prologue to the song (filmed in black and white on what looks like New York City streets), Scorcese and director of photography Michael Chapman create a hellish atmosphere for a kid suspended between two classes. The problem is Jackson's zero credibility as jes' folks. There's a scene in which he's supposed to ad-lib horseplay with his prep-school pals. He has no idea how to react, and why should he? He never attended high school, and such behavior is alien to him. Then there's the scene where he's required to look tough-yet-conscience-stricken right before the mugging; all he can manage is a doe-eyed, lip-quivering trembliness, sort of like Diana Ross in Mahogany.