He's back. "Your butt is mine," Michael Jackson declares. In fact, those are the first words of the first song on "Bad," his long-awaited follow-up to "Thriller," the biggest selling album in the history of the universe. A little later in the song, a dance floor workout fueled by razor-sharp beats and an urgent vocal performance, Jackson insists, "The whole world has to answer right now/ Just to tell you once again/ Who's bad."
Jackson himself has no doubt about the answer. The chorus, on which he provides his own background vocals, is nothing more than an expansion on "Because I'm bad, I'm bad, come on/ You know I'm bad, I'm bad, you know it." (In fact, "bad" is repeated 15 times.) Are we getting the idea yet? Michael Jackson is "Bad."
He needs to be.
"Bad" goes on sale today in all three configurations (LP, cassette and CD on the Epic label), and tonight at 8 on Channel 9, CBS will air the premiere of the 16-minute "Bad" video as part of a 30-minute special on Jackson. The video was directed by Martin Scorsese ("The Color of Money," no less), who may invest the story line with substance the way Bob Giraldi did on the "Beat It" video. "Bad" has to do with a ghetto youth -- Jackson, of course -- who comes home from prep school to discover he doesn't quite fit in the neighborhood anymore.
But splashy though its prime-time introduction may be, the album begs to be judged by its music, not by its sales figures. There's no way it can live up to post-"Thriller" expectations engendered by the Michaelmania of four years ago. It would be considerably fairer to compare "Bad" with "Off the Wall," the 1979 album that first teamed Jackson with producer Quincy Jones and confirmed him as a brilliant pop tactician and kinetic performer. Compared with "Off the Wall" (sales: 8 million), "Bad" is a very good record, immaculately produced and with some scintillating vocal performances from Jackson.
But it's with 1982's "Thriller" (sales: 38.5 million) that "Bad" is going to be compared, if only because the record-buying, radio-listening, video-watching public can conjure that one up a lot more easily. "Thriller" was Jackson's response to a perceived snubbing by the record industry -- he was reportedly hurt after being denied any significant Grammys for "Off the Wall" -- and of course "Thriller" proved him right (eight Grammys' worth). But "Thriller" was reinforced by some flashy videos ("Beat It" and "Billie Jean," in particular) and by Jackson's stupendous "moonwalking" performance on Motown's 25th-anniversary television special. "Thriller" had been doing well before; eventually it, and Jackson himself, became inescapable cultural artifact and phenomenon, respectively.
Since Jackson really has nothing to prove musically with "Bad," how does it rate? In terms of production, it gets an A-plus, but there's nothing particularly adventurous outside of some complex layered vocals on "Smooth Criminal," a song whose sonic tension is muted by its thematic incomprehensibility. A suitable explication de texte will undoubtedly be provided by the upcoming video, directed by Colin Chilvers, who won an Oscar for special-effects direction in the movie "Superman."
Still, Quincy Jones and his horde of studio wizards, many of them veterans of the two previous Jackson blockbusters, come through in exemplary fashion, and if on occasion the results are stiff (usually when the pulse is percussion oriented), the sound is, well, "bad."
As for the songs themselves, "Bad" gets a C-plus. Jackson wrote eight of the 10 songs (as well as the extra cut on the CD), and unfortunately none of them matches "Beat It" and "Billie Jean," his two transcendent (and last-minute) contributions to "Thriller." Though he has an instinct for catchy melodies, Jackson is neither a prolific nor a terrific writer, hardly surprising for someone who seems to be genuinely shy and nonverbal (not to mention lost in a fantasy world).
Nor does his writing articulate any particular personal vision, which is fine for the dance floor grooves but which leaves his love songs at best naive, at worst suspect (cynics may wonder whether his sentiments are directed to a human or to one of his pets).
Nonetheless, Jackson's affection for maudlin ballads is evident on the initial single off the album, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," a duet with Siedah Garrett that kicks off with a trembling spoken confession of vulnerability that's not going to do anything for his reputation. (The single was released several weeks ago to help build interest in the album, and it has done well.) And none of the songs evinces the kind of maturity that seemed to be unfolding on "Billie Jean" and "Beat It."
Not surprisingly, Jackson's articulation and connectedness derive from performance rather than from raw material. Reading his songs on the lyric sheet is numbing, but start up the music and they jump right out of the grooves (or whatever) and transcend their ineptness. It is great fun, however, to see the transcribed interpretations of some of Jackson's familiar vocal extremes, like "Aaow!" "Acha-ooh!" "Hee Hee!" "Chicka-chika-ah!" and "Doot-do-do-doo." Alternate spellings are probably acceptable.
Will the title song, "Bad," be the next single? Probably, after tonight's television special. If "Bad's" music seems a little mechanical, the vocals don't, and Jackson is most assured as he reasserts his position in the pop hierarchy after a prolonged absence.
On "Bad" and "The Way You Make Me Feel," Jackson sings the way he dances, toe-tipping and ecstatic, particularly toward the end of "Feel," when he lets loose with some melismatic expansions on the line "Ain't nobody's business but mine." The song regurgitates infatuation cliche's ("You really turn me on," for example), but liberates them through Jackson's exuberant delivery, and there's something irritatingly catchy about his background vocals (they sound like space-age Andrews Sisters ... the Android Sisters?).
Beyond its roiling rhythms, "Speed Demon" seems underdeveloped, despite a funny Bee Gees-like chorus at one point and an ending via James Brown-style funkin' brass. The breezy ballad "Liberian Girl" is lyrically slight, but Jackson's supple melody and the lush simplicity of Jones' production (a wash of kalimba and harp) give it a gauzy dreamlike quality. There are a couple of Swahili lines whispered by Letta Mbullu; if the whole song had been sung in that language, it might have created its own lovely mystique.
"Just Good Friends" teams Jackson with his old Motown buddy Stevie Wonder on a tune that seems a thematic variation on such lesser models as "Working Day and Night" and "The Girl Is Mine." It was written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, who have done better work for Tina Turner, and neither Jackson nor Wonder seems particularly inspired by this generic dance number.
"Another Part of Me" is from "Captain EO," Jackson's 3-D film, and maybe it plays better at the various Disney facilities. Despite a funky guitar bottom, it seems one-dimensional and out of context, though a few weeks ago it could have provided the perfect theme song for the Harmonic Convergence ("The planets are lining up/ We're bringing brighter days/ They're all in line/ Waiting for you/ Can't you see?/ You're just another part of me").
"Man in the Mirror" is the other non-Jackson song. Songwriters Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard have constructed an inspirational, gospel-tinged song that somehow rises above its inherent banality. The idea that change in self brings change in others is hardly new, and Jackson's initial delivery is so full of naked emotion, hiccups and squeals that you worry he won't get through the first verse.
But by the time he gets to the point -- "I'm starting with the man in the mirror/ I'm asking him to change his ways/ And no message could have been any clearer/ If you wanna make the world a better place/ Take a look at yourself and then make a change" -- Jackson is take-charge, gung-ho and convincing. And when Garrett, the Winans family and the Andrae Crouch Choir kick in with their own committed voices, it's as if "Man in the Mirror" is transformed from black and white to color. Could this be an off-the-wall hit?
Garrett also duets with Jackson on the saccharine "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," which seems to have become a hit due to anticipation, not execution. After that quivering hearts-aflutter spoken intro, Jackson and Garrett start trading off on some mundane lyrics, building to a balladic climax. What's most interesting is the voice in the mirror: Garrett's vocals almost mimic Jackson's (though cast in a little lower range) and at times they are as indistinguishable from each other as the song is undistinguished.
"Dirty Diana," a hard-edged ditty about groupies, is done in by a dumb chorus and a guitar solo that confirms that Steve Stevens is no Eddie Van Halen. Both it and "Smooth Criminal," which concludes the record and tape versions of "Bad," suggest a certain sinister quality a` la "Billie Jean" and menace a` la "Beat It," but the overwrought tension that makes "Smooth Criminal" interesting vocally works against it musically. "Leave Me Alone" is the extra CD cut, and it has the angry edge that is lacking in much of "Bad."
All in all, "Bad" is a good record that's not going to do anything to harm Michael Jackson's reputation, just as it's unlikely to rekindle the absolute insanity of Michaelmania. It's improbable that "Bad's" sales will match "Thriller's," but that may just be a blessing in disguise, moving Jackson back to the realm of the normal (expectations and all). If there is a naivete' in some of his lyrics, there's nothing childlike in Jackson's music, which on "Bad," at least, seems to have overcome its perpetrator's mystique.
On the other hand, there's the album cover.