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Music: The Badder They Come

6 minute read
Jay Cocks

There is just no getting away from Bad. Even before its official release date on Aug. 31, there were plentiful rumors and heavyweight expectations about Michael Jackson’s first solo record in five years. Among other things, the new album had to meet and match his 1982 Thriller, which sold an unprecedented 38.5 million copies around the world and made him into a pop-culture phenomenon, part dancing phantom and part homeboy Kewpie. Bad’s first single, a bonbon called I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, was a perfect love ballad for parlous times: sexy but hygienic, passionate but never lustful. Radio programmers grumbled at Epic’s choice of a low-profile make-out tune for the album’s first single. None of this got in the way of the song, however: it is now No. 2 on the Billboard chart.

Bad, which contains nine other tunes besides I Just Can’t Stop Loving You (or ten, counting a bonus tune on the CD), further compounds the confusion. Like some fine-tuned racing car, it kicks up a lot of its own dust. The album’s first video, a stinging 16-minute dramatic vamp on the title tune directed by Martin Scorsese, premiered in prime time on CBS last week and grabbed a 30 share. Set in a New York City subway station, it was in part inspired by the life of Edmund Perry, a gifted black graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy whose violent death revealed a troubled double existence. Folks who found the Bad video too tough may be soothed by next year’s Smooth Criminal. This multimillion-dollar minifilm has slam-bang special effects supervised by Colin Chilvers, who worked on the first three Superman films.

During all this blitz, Jackson was in heavy rehearsal for what is expected to be a yearlong concert tour, beginning in Tokyo on Sept. 12; it is his first show since his 1984 tour with his brothers. A triumph seems assured: the box office was cleaned out in 7 1/2 hours, and $45 seats were soon on the black market for $775. After years of antic hibernation, Michael Jackson, now 29, is again ready for the world. Is the world ready for Michael Jackson? It has no choice.

Not initially, anyhow. The record business is primed for another monster hit. The great pop-culture dream machine needs the kind of lube job only an icon like Jackson can deliver. With advance orders of 2 million, there will be a lot of Bad around, and it is useless to resist.

What is there to be heard is a state-of-the-art dance record. Jackson’s lyrics combine sometimes glancing felicity (“Your talk is cheap/ You’re not a man/ You’re throwin’ stones/ To hide your hands”) with scat-style facility. There is a great singer at work here, doing vocal stunts on tracks like Dirty Diana or Speed Demon that are as nimble and fanciful as any of his dance steps. Man in the Mirror, a ballad of confession and resolution, is more than just a vocal turn. It is a remarkable dramatic performance — intense, direct and unadorned, one of the best things Jackson has ever done.

But Jackson the singer can get bushwhacked by Jackson the persona, who is a ; dangerous highwayman. The Man in the Mirror most people will see is not the conscience-racked singer (“I’m starting with the man in the mirror/ I’m asking him to change his ways . . ./ If you wanna make the world a better place/ Take a look at yourself, and then make a change”) but the Captain EO of theme-park fantasies or the peekaboo celebrity, recumbent in his isolation tank or cornered by paparazzi flashes, wearing his Elephant Man surgical mask and upping his bid for the remains of John Merrick.

Around Thriller’s time, Jackson’s weirdness was startling, peripheral, piquant. On Bad, lavishly produced by Quincy Jones and Jackson, it has become consuming. Thriller’s songs were not strange in themselves. It was the presentation — all those baroque, biting videos — that gave them their eerie afterglow. Bad goes a whole step further. Now it’s the songs that are crazy. Separately, they are innocuous enough, sentimental or feisty or scary as the mood demands. But together they form a pattern of jagged lines and long shadows that is troubling.

The material follows Thriller’s golden trail. There is a Billie Jean equivalent (Dirty Diana) about a trashy romance. There are the ballads, deep as wall-to-wall pile, and there is the violent showpiece Smooth Criminal. The title track is Beat It redux, a spectacularly snazzy hang-tough tune that warns against macho excess. What the Thriller cut played for laughs, however, Smooth Criminal takes straight: an evocation of bloody assault, possible rape and likely murder. At any time, it would sound like a creepy song. At the end of the album, it has the effect of casting out all the optimism and willful idealism of Bad and Man in the Mirror and shrouding the record in a spooky, spiritual darkness. The piece is powerful, all right, but not perhaps in the way Jackson intended. It overpowers the joy of the playful competitiveness in his duet with peerless Stevie Wonder (Just Good Friends). It leavens the cosmic sentimentality of Another Part of Me well enough — if E.T. had come to earth as a crooner, this would have been his My Way — but does so with bile and fear.

Perhaps that was Jackson’s goal, but the title of the last cut (available only on CD) indicates that he will not be taking questions on the subject. Leave Me Alone suggests he is turning away from everything, back again to the desperate comforts of his own impermeable world of fantasy. It is not a fond farewell. “It’s the choice that we make/ And this choice you will take/ Who’s laughin’ baby.” The credits for Smooth Criminal read in part “Michael Jackson’s heartbeat recording by Dr. Eric Chevlen digitally processed on the Synclavier.” The sound of Jackson’s heart may have found its way onto Bad, but what’s inside it is unrevealed. Only one thing is certain: there is no peace there.

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