Michael Jackson is a man. Agreed, he is a young man, emotional age about thirteen, with a young man’s interest in cars, girls, scary movies and gossip. But adolescent stardom, Jehovah’s Witnesses wackiness and unadulterated genius have kept this faux-porcelain elephant man more childlike than any oxygen-tank sleeping device ever could.
Bad is the work of a gifted singer-songwriter with his own skewed aesthetic agenda and the technical prowess to pursue it. Let the paid Encinologists comb through the small print for clues to understanding Jackson’s complicated world. Does “God, I need you” in the carnal duet “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” constitute blasphemy in the wake of his departure from the Witnesses? Is the liner note to “Mother & Joseph Jackson” a tea leaf of familial discord or a casual term of address? Does anyone really care?
Nor should it matter to anyone but the beneficiaries of its anticipated sales whether Bad moves 4 or 12 or 50 million units. Comparisons with Thriller are unimportant, except this one: even without a milestone recording like “Billie Jean,” Bad is a better record. The filler — “Speed Demon,” “Dirty Diana,” arguably “Liberian Girl” — is Michael’s filler, which makes it richer, sexier, better than Thriller‘s forgettables: “Baby Be Mine,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” “Lady in My Life.”
Leaving the muddy banks of conjecture — as to sales, as to facial surgery, as to religion, as to, Is he getting it, and if so, from whom or what? — we can soar into the heart of a nifty piece of work. Bad offers two songs, its title cut and “Man in the Mirror,” that stand among the half dozen best things Jackson has done. A third, “The Way You Make Me Feel,” is nearly as good. The only mediocrity is “Just Good Friends” (one of two songs not written by M.J.), a Stevie Wonder pairing that starts well but devolves into a chin-bobbing cheerfulness that is unforced but also, sadly, unearned.
Churls may bemoan “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” Jackson’s duet with the often indistinguishable Siedah Garrett, as a second unworthy entry. Without descending to musical McCarthyism and questioning the honor of anyone who can fault a record with both finger snaps and timpani, it need only be asked, Who, having heard the song at least twice, can fail to remember that chorus?
Bad is not only product but also a cohesive anthology of its maker’s perceptions. Where “Lady in My Life” was as believable as Abba’s phonetic re-recording of its hits in Spanish, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” quivers with the kind of desire that makes men walk bent at the waist. “Liberian Girl” glistens with gratitude for the existence of a loved one.
Once again, Jackson has written songs as dreams, and once again he has the unselfconsciousness to present them without interpretation. “Speed Demon,” the car song, is a fun little power tale, in which Jackson’s superego gives his id a ticket; “Smooth Criminal” may be the result of retiring too soon after a Brian de Palma picture. It’s gory, but almost in the popcorn-chomping manner of “Thriller.” As in his best songs, Jackson’s free-form language keeps us aware that we are on the edge of several realities: the film, the dream it inspires, the waking world it illuminates.
If these songs — even “Smooth Criminal,” with its incessant “Annie, are you okay?” — seem less threatening than previous dream songs, like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” it’s because Jackson’s perspective has changed. He is no longer the victim, the vegetable they want to eat up, but a concerned observer or a participant with power. For example, “Dirty Diana,” the wisp of a song about a sexual predator, does not aim for the darkness of “Billie Jean”; instead, Jackson sounds equally intrigued by and apprehensive of a sexual challenge, but he feels free to accept or resist it. As on many of the sketchier songs, producer Quincy Jones marshals his most flamboyant strokes — crowd noise, Steve Stevens guitar and John Barnes string arrangement — to make a substantial recording out of an insubstantial melody.
“Bad” needs no defense. Jackson revives the “Hit the Road, Jack” progression and proves (with a lyric beginning with “Your butt is mine” and ending with the answered question “Who’s bad?”) that he can outfunk anybody any time. When Jackson declares that “the whole world has to answer right now,” he is not boasting but making a statement of fact regarding his extraordinary stardom. If anything, he is scorning the self-coronation of lesser funk royals and inviting his fickle public to spurn him if it dare. Not since the “Is it good, ya?” of Godfather Brown has a more rhetorical question been posed in funk.
Michael Jackson deserves the rewards due to those who tell their truth, who admit complexity when simplifications are at hand and who can funk in the valley of the gods. On “Man in the Mirror,” a song he did not write, Jackson goes a step further and offers a straightforward homily of personal commitment: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror/I’m asking him to change his ways/And no message could have been clearer/If you wanna make the world a better place/Take a look at yourself and then make a change.”
Snipers have dismissed this as a solipsistic, Eighties view of political engagement, but no one since Dylan has written an anthem of community action that has moved so many as Michael’s (and Lionel’s) “We Are the World.” And no such grandiose plans can succeed without the first, private steps that Jackson describes here.
The best way to view Bad is not as the sequel to Thriller. Rather, imagine an album made up of “Style of Life,” “Blues Away,” “Bless His Soul,” “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” “That’s What You Get (for Being Polite),” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Can You Feel It,” from the Jacksons’ LPs, and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Working Day and Night,” “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” from Michael’s solo records. View that phenomenal album’s worth of music as the opening statement of Michael Jackson the autonomous artist. View Bad as its first fascinating successor.