Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ 30 Years Later: The Birth of Arena Pop and Multimedia Megastardom
How does one follow the biggest album of all time?
That was the conundrum that Michael Jackson faced in the mid-1980s. His 1982 album Thriller was a blockbuster—maybe the first album that truly deserved that distinction. It was a cultural and commercial force, spawning seven singles that reached the top 10 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and eventually selling 33 million copies in the U.S.
But it was almost five years before Michael Jackson's follow-up to Thriller arrived—and a lot had happened, both in Jackson's own career and across the general pop music landscape. Off the Wall and Thriller were recorded while disco and post-disco R&B still loomed large, alongside the kind of sophisticated sounds that Thriller producer Quincy Jones had been crafting for other artists like Patti Austin and George Benson. But by 1986, hair metal and dance pop had taken over the airwaves, with artists like Bon Jovi and The Jets becoming fixtures on MTV and selling out arenas worldwide. Much of that music had been directly influenced by the impact of Thriller, and conversely, Jackson had been absorbing it all. For this album, there would be no Rod Temperton songwriting contributions (Jackson penned nine of Bad's eleven tracks himself) and Jackson would take a much more assertive role as co-producer alongside Jones.
Thriller's phenomenal success was due in part to an extended chart life. That album was released in late 1982, but singles from Thriller were prominent fixtures on Billboard well into late 1984. Jackson followed it with the "We Are the World" project and the ill-fated Victory album and tour with The Jacksons. 1984s Victory was the first and only album to feature all six Jackson brothers (the first album from The Jacksons to feature brother Jermaine, who'd departed the family act back in 1975 upon their exit from Motown) and Michael had begrudgingly agreed to take part in that project. Poor organization of the following tour and mishandling of finances made that tour a source of frustration for all involved. Also, Michael's status as a singular superstar had changed since the early 1980s, and it drove a wedge between the brothers. Michael announced during a show at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles that this would be his last performance with The Jacksons.
Its important to recognize that prior to Bad, Michael Jackson had never gone on a solo tour. Off the Wall was immediately followed by The Jacksons' Triumph album in 1980, which was accompanied by a tour that prominently featured songs from both albums. Thriller was supported by The Victory Tour, which was billed as a Jacksons tour but didn't include any songs from their album. As such, The Victory Tour became a de facto tour for Thriller. But all of the controversies between the brothers made it clear that The Jacksons couldn't continue as they had been. Michael Jackson wasn't going to be encumbered by anyone else's interests anymore. Michael Jackson was a solo superstar and it was time everyone recognized that.
So with Bad, Michael Jackson finally focused solely on Michael Jackson. Now, there were no more responsibilities to The Jacksons to interrupt his remarkable ascent to megastardom. And it was obvious that Michael was relishing the moment. Re-teaming with Quincy Jones, he entered the studio in 1986 with typical focus, but with more confidence in his own creativity than ever before. And his ambitions knew no bounds. He originally planned to release a triple disc set--and aimed for sales of 100 million. He would subsequently scale things back--but the results were no less herculean.
Thriller was Jackson's deliberate attempt to make the biggest album of all time, but Bad was the first album he released as the biggest artist in the world. It's his first creative statement as the King of Pop, and its gaudiness is reflective of a sound that seems designed for stadiums. In 2012, Questlove referred to the album as "arena pop" and it's an appropriate description for what Jackson and Jones crafted on their third outing together.
The title track echoed Jackson's earlier hit "Beat It" in terms of aggression and attitude, and was famously intended to be a duet between Michael and fellow superstar, Prince. Prince declined Jackson's invitation to sing on the track, which features a distinctive bassline and Jackson's most obvious tough guy posing. The Martin Scorsese-directed video became a fixture on MTV, and featured a then-unknown Wesley Snipes. The song's skittering rhythm and confrontational lyrics announced a new, tougher version of Jackson.
The famous video was inspired by a news story Jackson read. "This kid who went to school upstate, in the country whatever, who is from the ghetto--he tried to make something of his life and he would leave his old friends behind," Jackson explained to Jet magazine in 1987. "When he came back...on spring break or Thanksgiving break, his friends became so envious, jealous of him they killed him. But in the film I don’t die, of course, so it’s a true story that we had taken from Time or Newsweek magazine. Me as a black kid, it’s a sad story."
One of Michael Jackson's triumphs as a songwriter, "The Way You Make Me Feel" is an effervescent slice of 80s pop. The rolling synth groove and flirty lyrics made it one of Bad's most immediate and appealing songs, and once again, the music video became one of the more inescapable of Jackson's career. MTV was transformed by the emergence of Michael Jackson in 1982 and 1983, and now he was the network's most definitive artist and a standard-bearer for pop stars in the visual medium. "The Way You Make Me Feel" was aired on MTV constantly.
With its atmospheric production, "Liberian Girl" would be another hit single released from the album in 1989. Written as far back as 1983, it was considered for Victory before being shelved for two years, with Jackson resurrecting it for his solo album. Quincy Jones gives it the kind of warm soundscape that gives the song more weight than the slight melody, and its unique sound sets it apart from the rest of booming production on Bad.
Despite the wealth of riches on the album, two of Bad's tracks feel like undeniable filler—a word that hardly applied to Off the Wall and Thriller. "Speed Demon" has expectedly stellar production, but the lyrics and melody are decidedly throwaway compared to the best songs on the album. The Stevie Wonder-assisted "Just Good Friends" is the worst song here, and possibly the worst song Jackson recorded in the 1980s. Despite the pairing of two legendary artists and longtime friends, it's a record that always sounds forced and uninspired against the rest of Bad.
In 1986, Jackson starred in Captain EO, a Francis Ford Coppola-directed sci-fi project that was produced by George Lucas and shown at Disney theme parks. The title track for that film was "Another Part of Me," a slice of futuristic midtempo funk with an unmistakable groove that sounds as close to Minneapolis as anything MJ had done up to that point. Remixed for the Bad album, it would be released as the project's sixth single in 1988.
"Man In the Mirror" would become one of Michael Jackson's most enduring and transcendent anthems. Written by singer-songwriter Seidah Garrett and famed songwriter/producer Glen Ballard, Jackson added gospel stars the Winans and Andrae Crouch, whose choir graces "...Mirror" with its uplifting final chorus. Released at the tail end of the tumultuous 1980s, with the Iran-Contra scandal and stock market crashes in the public consciousness, "Man In the Mirror" captured a belief in one's own ability to change, and to change the world. The single hit No. 1 in 1988, staying atop the charts for two weeks that spring.
The album's first single, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," is another example of Jackson's penchant for sentimental balladry of the adult contemporary variety. Featuring Garrett, the light melody and easy chemistry between the vocalists elevates it above earlier Jackson tracks that treaded in similar territory, and later Jackson tracks that tended to go maudlin where "...Loving You" stays sweet.
Jackson had made previous attempts at poppy hard rock songs, most notably the aforementioned "Beat It" on Thriller. He'd also released the lukewarm Mick Jagger duet "State of Shock" on Victory. But both of those felt like genre exercises compared to "Dirty Diana," a throbbing, atmospheric hard rock track about seduction personified in one of Jackson's favorite subjects: a duplicitous groupie. Rumors persisted that the song was about Jackson's longtime friend and mentor Diana Ross, something Jackson and Jones both denied. Ross, however, loved the song, as did Princess Diana.
The final song on vinyl pressings of Bad became one of Jackson's most popular. "Smooth Criminal" is the darkest song on the album, referencing abuse and assault, over an infectious rhythm that makes up for the song's inconsequential melody. The groove persists throughout, and Jackson's trademark edge is in full force. It's an indicator that Jackson was going for a more aggressive sound than on his previous albums, and it successfully captures his nervous aggression.
Jackson had always addressed the trappings of fame--mostly via paranoid lyrics about women out to ensnare and exploit--but on "Leave Me Alone," he delivered his first direct assault on tabloid media. By 1987, Jackson's name was constantly plastered across gossip rags, as rumors regarding his plastic surgeries, romantic life, sleeping habits and purchases (it was rumored that he'd been trying to buy The Elephant Man's bones) painted him as a childlike eccentric in the wake of Thriller's unprecedented success. On Bad's final track he took aim at the noise. Despite it being a successful international single, "Leave Me Alone" was only a bonus track on CD versions of Bad.
Upon release on August 31, 1987, Bad absorbed virtually all media. The album was rolled out with a special on CBS, a look at the making of the title track's video, and the monumental event that was The Bad Tour. Jackson's first solo tour was sponsored by Pepsi and was 123 concerts over 16 months. Jackson performed for an estimated 4.4 million fans across 15 countries, and the tour grossed a total of $125 million--the largest grossing tour in history at the time.
In the fall of 1988, while still knee-deep in promotion for the Bad album and tour, Jackson released the ambitious mini-movie Moonwalker. Featuring a retrospective of Jackson's career, a featurette called "Badder," several music videos, and a long-form narrative that starred Jackson as the protector of three children against a nefarious drug-pushing mastermind named Frankie "Mr. Big" LiDeo (played by future Oscar winner Joe Pesci), the film was released theatrically in certain countries, and was televised and released on home video in the United States. The video for "Leave Me Alone" was included in the feature; a kaleidoscopic short film that featured Jackson in a bizarre amusement park, complete with a bevy of surreal visual references to tabloid rumors about his eccentricities. The "Leave Me Alone" video would take home the 1990 Grammy for Breakthrough Animated Video.
The album would go on to sell more than 10 million copies in the U.S. and more than 30 million worldwide, with five singles topping the Billboard 100. In Bad, Michael Jackson forged a blueprint for what superstardom means in the post-MTV age of hypermedia. The Beatles were the biggest act of the 1960s, but that was a time before cable TV existed and when popular music wasn't being scrutinized constantly by media solely dedicated to doing exactly that. Michael Jackson had to navigate being the biggest artist in the kind of fishbowl the world had never seen up to that point, and Bad was his first reaction to it. Also, the promotion and tour served notice as to how a megastar can seize the zeitgeist on multiple fronts—an approach from which luminaries from Madonna to Beyoncé to Kanye West seemed to have taken notes.
Twenty years before Kanye West's announcement of his own "stadium status" ambitions, Michael Jackson created an album that elevated pop music of the time to arena-level pomposity and majesty. This was Michael at his absolute peak, unrestrained by his brothers or any ideas of "crossing over," and before the tabloid rumors and eventually legal problems made him more of a controversial star than he had been throughout the 1980s.
So how does one follow the biggest album of all time?
You don't. You move forward. Which is what Michael Jackson did with Bad. Whether or not it's a "better" album than Off the Wall or Thriller is endlessly debatable. But what can't be denied is that it is a grand statement of purpose; born of unprecedented fame and incalculable scrutiny.
Watch Michael Jackson's Video for "Bad":
Watch Michael Jackson's Video for "The Way You Make Me Feel":
Watch Michael Jackson's Video for "Leave Me Alone":
Watch Michael Jackson's Video for "Man In the Mirror:"
Watch Michael Jackson's Video for "Dirty Diana:"