Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
In 1987, Michael Jackson was the biggest star on the planet. His last album, the game-changing measuring stick for musical excellence otherwise known as Thriller, had demolished every sales record in the book, yielded a record eight Grammys and spawned seven Top 10 hits. What could he possibly do next? The answer: aim higher. Acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee recently revealed that the King Of Pop used to write the tally “100 million” on little pieces of paper and then paste them on walls and mirrors while recording Bad. The anecdote is a testament to the superstar’s unwavering self-belief and vision — but also a poignant reminder of the suffocating pressure the then 29-year-old must have been under. Michael was so far ahead of the game at that stage that anything less than rewriting history would have been considered a personal failure.
As it turns out, MJ never quite reached that 100 million sales target. It boggles the mind, however, that he almost made it halfway. Since its August 31, 1987 release date, Bad has sold an estimated 30-to-45 million copies worldwide – enough to land it in fifth place on the all-time bestsellers list. And the staggering statistics don’t end there.
Michael’s seventh studio album was the first to produce five consecutive number one hits — a record that Katy Perry would tie 23 years later. Altogether, Bad spawned nine singles and music videos. In fact, the only song not released in some form was the pop pioneer’s duet with Stevie Wonder, “Just Good Friends”. The success of the LP also prompted MJ to launch his first solo world tour, which, almost inevitably, entered the history books as the highest grossing of all time.
Given the album’s dizzying sales figures and cultural impact, it’s baffling that Bad is often viewed as an inferior work to Michael Jackson’s other Quincy Jones-produced discs. While Off The Wall and Thriller are near-perfect pop albums, Bad is arguably more ambitious. The superstar wrote nine of the 11 tracks, and his fingerprints are all over the lyrics. Themes of rebellion, paranoia and self-reflection are prevalent, while the accompanying videos unflinchingly mock the media scrutiny he was under.
Quincy’s production was also more daring this time around, with splashes of hard rock, flawlessly composed — if somewhat mechanical — R&B beats and sweepingly-arranged power ballads. It was the same formula as the pair’s two previous collaborations, only performed with the kind of excess synonymous with the late ’80s. That might have resulted in some of the tracks sounding unnecessarily dated (see “Speed Demon” and “Liberian Girl”) but, on the whole, Bad stands the test of time remarkably well.
Michael Jackson — “Bad”
“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was the world’s first taste of Michael Jackson’s long-awaited follow-up to Thriller, and it was, and remains, a curiously understated lead single. The silky smooth duet with a then (and still) relatively unknown soul singer called Siedah Garrett was an instant success, reaching #1 on the Hot 100 in its 7th week on the chart — a very speedy ascent at that time. But a video was never released, and the King Of Pop started promoting “Bad” (the song) the same week the “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” topped the Hot 100. Interestingly, Michael first tried to get heavyweights like Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin to sing on the track. Which, given its enduring popularity, was their loss.
The catchphrase “Who’s bad?” entered the collective consciousness when MJ released the album’s title track and second single on September 7, 1987. In many ways, “Bad” picked up where “Thriller” left off. Like the world’s favorite Halloween anthem, the electric jam had an ominous feel that stood out from other songs on the album and also boasted an almost 20-minute mini-movie doubling as a video clip. However, unlike “Thriller”, there was nothing tongue-in-cheek about the Martin Scorcese-directed visual, and “Bad” was more than a perfectly-executed novelty. Jackson later described the song in his autobiography as being inspired by a murdered college student, which was the first indication that the most loved man in music was in an unexpectedly dark place.
Michael Jackson — “The Way You Make Me Feel”
Greatest hits staples “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Man In The Mirror” came next and both deserve their status as two of the defining pop hits of the late ’80s. The latter, in particular, was a source of solace to fans in the wake of Michael’s tragic death in 2009. Its message of self-improvement, love and kindness was much more aligned with the entertainer’s overarching legacy
than the scandals that plagued him in later years. Both songs reached number one on the Hot 100, and Mike set a chart record that would stand for more than 20 years when the uncharacteristically racy hard-rock anthem “Dirty Diana” hit the top spot in July 1988. He became the first artist to score five consecutive number one singles from one album. And, for the record, the song is not about Diana Ross (even though she used it to warm up audiences at live performances for years) or Princess Di. Instead, the shady lady was based on a faceless groupie.
Michael Jackson — “Man In The Mirror”
From that point on the singles experienced diminishing returns, at least domestically. The well-meaning but mediocre “Another Part Of Me” stalled at #11, but the quirky “Smooth Criminal” reached the Top 10 despite its dark subject matter. The song is so relentlessly catchy that it’s easy to forget Mike is singing about an assailant that breaks into a woman’s apartment and kills her.
Not exactly standard Top 40 fodder. Brilliant choreography and impressive special-effects make the video one of the pop icon’s finest and the track has lived on in pop culture due to a long list of appearances on movie soundtracks and a popular cover by Alien Ant Farm in 2001.
Michael Jackson — “Smooth Criminal”
Despite having been in the charts for over two years, Michael still found the time to release two further international singles. “Leave Me Alone”, which was originally relegated to CD bonus track status upon release, holds up phenomenally well. The defiant, borderline paranoid anthem is a brilliantly crafted pop/rock gem that taps into the terrifyingly isolated life the celebrated musician must have been living. The video, which is partly animated, is a surreal masterpiece that holds up as well as anything in the superstar’s catalog of hits. The same cannot be said of “Liberian Girl”, which is memorable only for the star-studded cast in the video clip (MJ roped in the services of Olivia Newton-John, Steven Spielberg, John Travolta, Whoopi Goldberg, Paula Abdul and, erm, Brigitte Nielsen), or “Speed Demon”, which is literally just about driving fast.
Michael Jackson — “Leave Me Alone”
Back in the day there was a running joke that asked why Michael called the album Bad. The answer “because he couldn’t fit [insert negative adjective here] on the cover” sounds even more ridiculous now than it did back then. While Bad isn’t as cohesive as Off The Wall and doesn’t quite reach the same dizzying heights as Thriller or 1991’s sorely underrated Dangerous, it contains more solid pop classics than most greatest hits compilations — and it deserves enormous credit for helping shape the sound and visual aspect of the music game for the decades that followed.