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Whatever Happened To “Bad”?

One of Michael Jackson's landmark albums, though always in the shadow of “Thriller”, turns 25. Time to assess its place in pop history

The release of a special 25th Anniversary edition of “Bad” allows us to go deep into one of the biggest landmark albums of the 80s, and the last great musical contribution by Michael Jackson before his artistic and personal downfall.

When I asked Flavio Rodríguez, main man in Spanish R&B, a seasoned DJ and insatiable music lover, among other things, what memories he has of Michael Jackson's “Bad”, the Barcelona singer responded what many of his contemporaries would have said: “it’s my favourite Michael album. I'm from '78, so it's the one that made the biggest impact on me. I remember his concert at the Barça stadium, I was crying with emotion, I had a glove and everything, the premiere of “Smooth Criminal” on [Spanish TV show] “Rockopop”, the “Moonwalker” premiere, and the onomatopoeias on the lyrics sheet...”. I would have said the same, literally (although I might have added the “Bad” video, and how fascinated I was by the flexibility of the skating dancer and the mythical danger of the New York subway), and I think a lot of my fellow coevals would have, too. “Bad” marked a generation, with the same intensity as “Thriller” did the generation before. The passing of time and personal realisation that, musically, it's possibly the most disputable of his first three solo albums, has had no effect on its importance and artistic effectiveness.

It's been 25 years since it was released, but the idea remains the same: “Bad” was the most sensible and intelligent follow-up possible for “Thriller”. And I'm not only talking about its commercial possibilities (five of its ten singles went to number 1 on the charts, and this was in a time when reaching that spot was still an epic battle for labels), but also about the musical and creative vision to go for a logical and rational continuation of that landmark album. Just listen to the two LPs in a row. They're like two drops of water, only different from each other because of the new production techniques that had emerged in the five years between the two, and because of the more diurnal, global tone of the second one. But the parallels are obvious (even the use of the title track as an audio-visual platform to convulse the industry with ground-breaking videos, and, even more curious, a rock guitarist as a guest star!), both in the structure, the distribution of the songs by themes and tempos, and, of course, the production. Quincy Jones simply plagiarised himself, in the best sense of the word, in order to guide an album on which - and this is a notable difference from its predecessor - Michael Jackson was the co-writer of almost every song. Like on “Thriller”, Jones did what he did best at the time: he gave a distinctive pop feel to a danceable and emotionally versatile funk-soul sound.

"They are true hits, anthems that have transcended and survived everything"

On “Bad”, something curious happens: when things work, they work incredibly well; but when they don't, the flaws are painfully obvious. There's no middle ground. For example: “Speed Demon” is, by far, the weakest song on the album, and it's as if Jackson is aware of that, both because of the lyrics and its boring sound. “Liberian Girl” sounds like an attempt at doing something Sade-like, but it's completely out of place and even today, it's hard to understand why it's on the tracklist. “Another Part Of Me” sounds more ingenuous than vibrant today, like something very much from a different era; and “I Just Can´t Stop Loving You” is an indication of the schmaltzy balladeer Michael Jackson was to become later. On the other hand, the good singles are like pop hurricanes: “The Way You Make Me Feel”, “Smooth Criminal”, “Man In The Mirror”, which is the best possible version of the aforementioned balladeer, the title track, “Leave Me Alone” and “Dirty Diana” are spot on. They are true hits, anthems that have transcended and survived everything.

"Jackson's ingenuity and frivolity as a lyricist is especially questionable on this album"

Furthermore, when it comes to the lyrics, even today, the verbal bluntness of “Dirty Diana”, a song accused of being misogynistic at the time (and it was indeed unusual for Michael, the aggression, the defiant tone), the melancholic lucidity of “Leave Me Alone”, a premonitory reflection on the loneliness of a besieged celebrity, and the cockiness of “Bad”, actually not very credible but still perfect in its musical and visual translation, are shocking. On “Man In The Mirror”, that humanist and sentimental side that would dominate his future work and, most of all, his public actions before the downfall, also comes to the surface. Jackson's ingenuity and frivolity as a lyricist is especially questionable on this album, which seems to be a personal revelation of concerns, fears and insecurities. Though musically not as compact and lustrous as “Thriller”, nor as impulsively fresh as “Off The Wall”, lyrics-wise, I find “Bad” his most attractive and interesting album, basically because it tells us more about the artist's personality, and because he dares to step out of what up to that point had been his comfort zone a bit.

But besides its merits as an album, “Bad” is also relevant because it was Michael Jackson's last great album and, in a way, the most pragmatic end possible of a trilogy (which it has never been conceptually, but has in terms of trajectory), enough to put him on top forever. The album was followed by the flawed “Dangerous”, a failed attempt to update his sound and adapt to the 90s currents, and after that, his descent into emotional hell started, which would eventually speed up the King of Pop's decline. Now, 25 years later, and leaving aside the songs, the most notable aspect of the album is its own awareness of being a watershed title; the beginning of the end of something incomparable and unbeatable, of “Thriller”, almost more in all the extra-musical aspects than musically. He acknowledges the problem from the start and he does so with the best possible attitude, with the updated and detailed exploitation of a tried and tested, irrefutable idea that no-one in their right mind would have dared to defy or reconsider. He replicated a formula, but he did it with all the elements magnificently assembled; he meant to ratify and consolidate himself as the biggest pop star of that moment. He nailed it, and with an unbeatable string of singles.

If they wish to revise the album and submerge themselves in its attributes, or to discover or rediscover its defects, the Jacko fan has two ways to go about it. On the one hand, highly recommendable if money is tight, there is the normal reissue which includes a re-mastered version of the original album, and a selection of extra material: demos of songs that didn't make the final cut, with historical value rather than strictly musical, alongside remixes by DJ Nero, Afrojack and DJ Buddha, all of them redundant. On the other, avid fans must buy the deluxe edition, which includes this double CD, a third CD, and a DVD featuring a recording of his concert from the “Bad” tour at Wembley stadium, a great way to see the stage setup of that tour, which, to many, was the first time they felt the mystic power of a great pop-rock concert.

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