We passed a milestone recently: the 25th anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson’s Bad. It was the first album to contain five #1 singles (and would be the only one for a generation, until Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream). According to Wikipedia, the album sold between 30 and 45 million copies worldwide, and is the fifth-largest selling album of all time. Not bad for the impossible task of following Thriller.
(I was working elevator-music radio 25 years ago, but Jackson’s fame was such that even we played the album’s first single, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” We played it for only a few weeks, if I’m recalling correctly. What I don’t recall is whether it got much audience response. Our listeners were quite willing to call up and complain about songs they didn’t like—generally anything that didn’t conform to the Swelling Strings Orchestra image of the station we were working hard to get past. But the song was always a tentative fit on our station, so we couldn’t have stuck with it much beyond the initial flash of interest in everything Michael that fall.)
Of the five singles to hit #1 from Bad, only a couple are heard much on the radio now, and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” isn’t one of them. “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Man in the Mirror” come up on my radio shows occasionally, and every time I hear them I wonder: how come this stuff sounds so dated and the songs from Thriller don’t?
I don’t have a good answer for that question. To Jackson’s credit, he didn’t try to make Thriller II. Bad is supposed to be the next thing, on its own. Maybe Bad sounds like it does because Thriller changed the world and Bad merely lived in the new world that Thriller had changed.
Maybe it’s that Michael Jackson had run out of superlative performances by 1987. Off the Wall and Thriller contain enough classic performances to stock two or three careers. If parts of Bad sound labored, it’s nothing compared to the songs he would release in the early 90s, when he was insisting on being called the King of Pop even as everybody knew he wasn’t, and he hadn’t been for a while.
Maybe it’s because the world Thriller made is the world in which Michael Jackson got all weird. We can’t hear Bad and the albums that followed without thinking about the nose jobs, the skin-lightening, Neverland Ranch, and the child-abuse charges. The latter make “Man in the Mirror,” in which he thinks about the fate of homeless children on the street, positively skeevy to listen to: “If you wanna make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself then make a change.” Which he was clearly incapable of doing, even after the abuse charges began to fly.
When Jackson died suddenly back in 2009, it was a shock, but not a surprise. It was always difficult to imagine him growing old—the image of a man moving into his 60s and still performing “Billie Jean” seems ludicrous in a way Mick Jagger performing “Satisfaction” in his 60s does not. The best evidence for this is heard in some of the songs on Bad. Michael was a leading light of R&B just four years previously, but that title was passing to hip-hop and rap artists by the late 80s. Michael wasn’t yet 30 when the album was released, but he was already falling behind the times. What he had done on Thriller wasn’t quite so cool anymore.