It would be a gross understatement to say that Michael Jackson had big shoes to fill following the cultural explosion that was Thriller. In 1987, after nearly five years without releasing any new material, the world was salivating with anticipation to see what the King of Pop had up his sleeve for a follow up. Concluding the trilogy of albums produced by Quincy Jones, Bad lived up to the hype, and Michael Jackson had another massive hit on his hands.
A deeply personal record, Bad showed Jackson writing almost all of the songs himself, dipping into more mature themes, ranging from social justice issues to his obsession with the public’s perception of him. Luckily, the fans latched onto it. Only two songs from the album weren’t released as singles (“Speed Demon” and “Just Good Friends”) and Bad gave rise to five #1 hits, an accomplishment that has yet to be topped. Much of the album’s success can be attributed to Jackson stepping into the stylistic choices he would become known for, such as using himself as a percussion instrument, with vocal hiccups trying to capture the song that’s playing inside his head.
On this album, Michael Jackson felt that he had something to prove, and for millions of fans, he did. “Bad” saw an edgy, aggressive style, addressing racial politics in a way Jackson had yet to do with his music. Concerned with his image, particularly within the black community, he felt the need to showcase his masculinity and prove that he hadn’t forgotten his roots. Even though Jackson was living the cushy life of a music idol, he was still plagued by the struggles of marginalized groups, and “Bad” spoke directly to his desire for equity.
From the beginning, Michael Jackson’s songs had constantly dealt with thematic universalities without really getting into specifics. “The Way You Make Me Feel” is a prime example, as a straightforward love song that is general enough that nearly every listener could relate to it. With a punchy bassline and sharp synthesizers taking center stage, this catchy pop ballad has a fair amount of texture to it. No matter how you feel about the song, you will likely later find yourself humming its tune.
“Speed Demon” is a rather ambition track, reminding listeners what set Michael Jackson apart from his contemporaries: his sheer eccentricity. The driving drums and funky rhythm section featured on the track served as the embodiment of the leather-clad, tough persona that Jackson had adopted during this era. The instrumentation takes a page from the tone of the lyrics, capturing the exhilaration of racing down the freeway.
With “Liberian Girl,” the album rapidly shifts gears. Showcasing Jackson’s abilities as a storyteller, the song focuses on setting a mood, relying on African beats and tribal drums to transport listeners to another continent. The song even opens with a Swahili chant (although the primary language of Liberia is English, and Swahili is not spoken in that part of Africa) that roughly translated means “I love you too, I want you too, my love.” It is an overwhelmingly positive message from a man who only wanted to bring a few more smiles into the world.
“Just Good Friends” allowed Michael Jackson to collaborate with one of his heroes. His soulful harmonies with Stevie Wonder speak of a shared experience – in this case, a mutual romantic interest. One of the weaker tunes on the album, its energetic melodies are only a further testament to Jackson’s gift as an artist. Even on his filler tracks, he is able to push the boundaries of what is expected. “Just Good Friends” is one of only two songs on the album that wasn’t penned by Jackson himself, and he never seems to slip into it the right groove to make something extraordinary.
Led by an excellent guitar groove, “Another Part of Me” lends itself to being played live. According to myth, this song was almost cut from the finished version on the album, that is until Michael Jackson’s manager Frank DiLeo was spotted dancing along to it. Over the infectious groove, we are treated to some of Jackson’s high-pitched vocal improvisation. “Another Part of Me” has a driving spiritual core, demanding that the world come together as one.
Even for an album this saturated with self-doubt, “Man in the Mirror” is a colossally introspective number. Until the day he died, Michael Jackson was constantly evolving, never afraid to “take a look at [himself] and make a change.” By zeroing in on his flaws and correcting them, Jackson envisions a chain reaction that will spread throughout humanity. It is an extremely bold move for one of the most famous people on the planet to admit to their faults, and yet Jackson didn’t shy away from the less than savory aspects of his persona.
From its title alone, it’s easily to mistake “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” for a basic declaration of passion. While that is the skeleton of the song, it is also another vehicle for self-reflection for Jackson. With all eyes on him, many people sought to dissect his motivations, but he felt that he was constantly being misjudged: “A lot of people misunderstand me / That’s because they don’t know me at all.” Michael Jackson never liked to be placed in a box unless it was one he designed by himself.
One of the great Michael Jackson rock songs, “Dirty Diana” stands alongside “Billie Jean” as a genre-bending roller coaster that tackles his entanglements with female fans. It’s a fairly simple song, but it makes the most of its small spaces. Jackson’s voice cracks and squeals as he bares his soul, and it creates one of the most vulnerable moments on the album. As a cherry on top, Steve Stevens delivers a gut-wrenching guitar performance throughout the track.
A song so solid that even Alien Ant Farm couldn’t ruin it, “Smooth Criminal” takes its audience on a ride through a harsh whirlwind of violent abuse. The track’s steady, pulsating rhythm reduces Michael Jackson to breathless exasperation. Told through a cinematic lens, the song also features foley efforts that range from glass shattering to a cat scurrying across the keys of a piano. It hints at the grand scope of the performer’s vision.
Riddled with experimentation and suffering from fewer outside influences, Bad contains some of Michael Jackson’s most endearing material. The album is often overshadowed by Thriller, but it is just as consistently steeped in undeniable artistry. While it is tempting to view the record as a sequel to its predecessor, it would be criminally reductive to do so. Rather, it is transition period for a music legend who is reaching his creative peak.