A Vain Queen says: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in the land is fairest of all?” The mirror replies, “you my queen, are fairest of all.” Later the queen asks the mirror again: “Queen, you are full fair, ’tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you,” replies the mirror. Snow White – The Brothers Grimm
I was ‘Brain Dead’ as I rotated the Bad CD for the billionth time. The ‘tabloid media’ was sucking the vittles from my circuit board bone dry and I couldn’t separate the man from his music. As I watched Moon yesterday, a clever modern day 2001 A Space Odyssey, creative sparks shot like hot bullets of lead out of my skull. Was my skull on fire? Perhaps.
I envisioned Michael Jackson before his mirror, in whatever mansion he occupied at the time, asking important questions about himself, about where his life was heading *(1987). “Am I still the ‘King of Pop,’ mister magic mirror?” “Yes, your royal highness, but that kid Prince, with his smash hit Purple Rain, is making incredible ripples on the scene.”
Bad was released on August 31st, 1987 on Epic/CBS Records and was a complete departure from Thriller, which had notched up forty million sales by that time. For one thing Michael had a completely new look, a harder edge, and darker threads with dangling metal adornments. Was he hibernating in some obscure catacombs away from the ruthless paparazzi?
For one thing, his hair was wilder now, untamed and bushy and his face sneered more as he strutted the hard wood floors. He panted and hissed more in the way that he sang; he was looking like one of the bad guys now from the Batman TV series with Adam West. The Joker? The Penguin? Or Bookworm? Was he some sort of urban shadow now, a Stan Lee Marvel shadow with a rougher image, or was he more of a Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront?
His world had changed drastically in the five years since Thriller was issued. He was now the most popular person on the face of the earth. That kind of celebrity status surely was a big burden on his shoulders. But with Bad he met the challenge, fared quite nicely, wrote most of the songs on the record, and had four #1 singles for the U.S. Billboard Charts. Going forward from here, I will comment on most of the songs on Bad and try to make some sense of all this in terms of his whole career.
Yowsers! I was just the 22,484,478th viewer of the Bad video on YouTube. Great dance routine, those youngsters really cut the rug. The song was originally intended for Prince to share the spotlight, but he bowed out. I do believe, however, that the music holds up just fine without the video around even. Just crank it up on your notebook or old fashioned stereo and let it really kick you in the butt!
Quincy Jones did a fantastic job producing it; the bass and beat are perfectly synched, that’s the boot on your trousers. And what will really blast you off your chair is Jimmy Smith featured on the Hammond B3 midi organ solo. The meaning of Bad, by way of this ‘street lingo’ talk, actually means ‘virtuous.’ Also, I’m interpreting it as a statement of triumph, of Michael achieving a stately throne status, and on his own terms.
“We can change the world tomorrow, this could be a better place, if you don’t like what I’m sayin’, then won’t you slap my face.” But here he improves things with a new gumption, a new bravado, a new abandon; longer curly locks appear now, as do black leather duds, and steel buckles, chains, and biker bauble lookin’ things. Maybe, by 1987 he is beginning to take on some of the ‘Vain Queen’ trappings? Or perhaps it’s just a publicity stunt to change his image, as Quincy Jones has suggested. Another theory that I just thought of, is sometimes art or theater can bleed over into ‘real life.’ We become in life what we imitate.
The Way You Make Me Feel has a strong video to accompany it, with MJ stutter-stepping around a lovely lady, who he is pursuing with a passion. It’s a fast walker in a 4/4 time, with a drum machine hitting on the 2 and 4. This is smooth pop that uses a call and response pattern, with the response vocals all sounding like MJ. “The way you make me feel, you really turn me on, you knock me off of my feet, my lonely days are gone.” It went to number one, is good solid pop, but nothing too extraordinary.
Speed Demon is another one of MJ’s alter egos, amongst many, apparently. It’s his Id that steps on the gas; the racing is a metaphor for the fast track of fame, perhaps. The percussion is busy and simulates race cars zooming down the track. Nice racing sound effects also. The theme coordinates the general Bad one, that is interjected throughout the project, where primitive instincts overpower good judgment, and impulse and immediate gratification rule the day. Hum, where have I heard this one before? On Jane Valez, I believe.
Liberian Girl, another marvelous number on Bad, is dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor. This is a fantasy about an African girl. “Liberian girl, you know that you came and you changed my world, just like in the movies, with two lovers in a scene, and she says, ‘do you love me?'” The brilliance is the harmonies and choir of voices; all of them, I believe, are MJ.
The video has everyone in the world there from that period: Amy Irving, Don King, Lou Diamond Phillips, John Travolta, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Paula Abdul, Rosanna Arquette, and Dan Aykroyd, just to name a few. Michael appears at the end of the video behind a movie camera, he has been taping their impromptu activities all along.
Just Good Friends has been deemed mediocre by some critics, but it holds up for me. Written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, it has a very strong drum machine beat throughout with lots of synthesizer sounds, and teams Michael Jackson in a duet with his old Motown friend, Stevie Wonder. These old buddies are squabbling over a lady, it seems. They both sing the verse: “Baby loves me, though she never shows she cares.” Girl is two timin’, playing the two superstars for fools.
Bad comes at a time when perceived eccentricities were stacking up for MJ, and when tabloids were beginning to spew venom and do anything they can to tarnish his image. A list of these oddities, reduced to its lowest terms, were: skin that was losing black pigment fast, the pivotal Pepsi accident, the quirky purchase of Northern Songs, the acquisition of Bubbles, his trusted pet monkey, the attempt to purchase the bones of Elephant Man, and the sleeping in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber. They were tagging him “Wacko Jacko” too by then. Let the cruelty begin. Although the purchase of Neverland Ranch was still resting in the crystal ball.
Quincy Jones says about Siedah Garrett, “That Sunday she came in the house, she was like Mona Lisa, she had a sacred and I could see, divine feeling in her eyes.” Siedah had just written Man In The Mirror. This is the anthem song of the album, the one with the deepest message too. “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways.” I guess you can see the irony of this, in light of all of the news of MJ’s chronic problem with prescription drugs. I think it just makes it come off all the more profound. Still one of the greatest songs ever, despite what went down behind closed doors!
I Just Can’t Stop Loving You is a slow, dreamy ballad, written by Michael himself, that puts you in a tender place. I thought it was Diana Ross singing, when listening the other day. Actually, it’s Siedah Garrett doing a duet with MJ; tears will well up in your eyes on this one. Quincy Jones surely plays a big role here with his clever arrangements, and all those electronic keyboards that they used in those days. Spiritual love, and corporeal love blend nicely here. “I hear your voice now, you are my choice now, the love you bring. Heaven’s in my heart, at your call I hear harps, and angels sing.”
Dirty Diane is my favorite song on “Bad;” it’s a statement about a groupie who seduces Michael into straying from his wife. “She likes the boys in the band, she knows when they come to town. Every musician’s fan after the curtain goes down. She waits at the backstage doors, for those who have prestige, who promise fortune and fame, a life that’s so carefree.”
I surmise that MJ knew as much about groupies, and maybe something more, than any other pop star. This is the most dramatic song on Bad, and the hardest rockin’. Billy Idol’s guitarist, Steve Stevens, burns here. Did I hear him chanting DIRT-I-A NAS-TA and was that a game arcade crackle at the end?
Smooth Criminal is a weird one, but is in keeping with the ‘dark side’ theme of this record. A very heinous crime has taken place, and yet he keeps asking “Annie are OK?” She is an obvious victim of a horrid crime, so why would she be okay anyway? SC does have a very cool bass line and a surging synthetic drum beat, just like much of this.
I sense that a brutal murder went down. Michael enunciates the words in a hyper creepy, nervous jabberwocky; he spews out words like he’s spitting oatmeal. This is indeed a dark duck. True-Crime Disco Dance Dervish Do-Wop. Film Noir sort of thing. Never heard anything like it before. Very dark.
Streetwalker, a very catchy urban shuffle, and was not included on the original 1987 release, but is a bonus track on the 2001 Special Edition. It begins with finger snapping (probably a drum machine) and humming, then a punchy soul bass projects in the mix, with tough talking vocals ala James Brown.
On the third verse rhythm guitar and horns are added, and a killer groove completes the track. A very cool blues harmonica takes the middle lead. My best guess as to why Streetwalker was cut from the official release, is that it was too tough, too urban for Michael’s prevailing image. Really, it is one of the best songs that comes from the ‘Bad Period.’
Fly Away is another one that was cut from the initial release, why, I don’t have a clue. It’s a slow, dreamy pop song with the Peter Pan motif, that MJ was seemingly obsessed with. “Together we will fly away, I gave you my heart. Baby, don’t make me, Baby don’t make me, Fly away, I’m gonna stay.”
I watched with horror as the ‘Cable Chatty Cathys’ showed Michael Jackson’s blazing hair in living (dying) color. Maybe this was the moment of truth, a traumatic and tragic event that turned his world upside down. I believe that, by the time of Bad, Michael is a very different person. I am sure that it was a publicity stunt to change his image, to make him appear more streetwise, more menacing, less of a gumdrop. But had he changed inside also? Had the burns altered his personality, and maybe made him Badder?
The Bad period of MJ’s music was still intact, still superb in its creation, but did he see a new person, a much changed person, when he looked in the mirror? Had the scalp burns from the Pepsi accident and all the fame he had gained, the kind of fame that even Elvis could not wrap his mind around, make him into the Vain Queen of the Snow White story?
Bad speaks to us on several levels, levels that might not necessarily intersect with one another: what is up is down, and what is bad, is really good, this is always possible, but not probable. How could this be? The laws of gravity don’t matter in a private universe of the greatest Pop Idol that ever moonwalked the earth. When you exist in an unreal world, the rules are your own, not the rules of us ordinary people. And these twin worlds may not be MJ’s, they, in fact, might be our own or even that of the tabloid media (paparazzi’s in the package deal)!
*Thanks to Wikipedia and The Rolling Stone for valuable information about Bad.