How do you follow a phenomenon? That was the dilemma created for Michael Jackson by the record-breaking, earthshaking success of Thriller in the early ‘80s. After 40 million in worldwide sales, two solid years of radio domination, and the transformation of the music video from novelty, to art form, to cultural touchtone, Jackson suddenly found himself all alone atop the highest mountain, occupying that rarified air where all that was left to compete against was himself, time and expectations. The safe route, the route most mere mortals would have taken, would be go small, quickly following Thriller with a back to basics exercise in minimalism, focusing on the impeccable vocals and song construction that laid the foundation upon which the Jackson empire was built. But, mere mortals don’t make phenomena, and the safe route rarely leads to the stratosphere. So, five years after taking over the world, Michael Jackson set out to take over the universe with the big, bold, bombastic Bad, now commemorated on its 25th anniversary with an expansive deluxe edition befitting of the grandiosity of Jackson’s original vision.
While Thriller floated atop ethereal melodies, the backbone of Bad is hard, muscular grooves. It’s as if Jackson knew the odds he was up against, and came out swinging. While the overt tough guy posturing of the title track feels even more contrived now than it did in ’87, the unrelenting aggression on a whole gives the album an urgency that grabs you by the throat. “The Way You Make Me Feel” replaces the sweet woo pitched on Thriller’s “P.Y.T.” with sneering machismo, hinting that this Mike might just be bad enough to knock up Billy Jean, for real. “Dirty Diana” remains a triumph of song structure, moving seamlessly from ominous to explosive, with Jackson turning in one of the most dramatic vocal performances of his career. And the cinematic “Smooth Criminal” builds Jackson’s trademark vocal tics into a staccato rhythm section all their own. The track has aged surprisingly well, even without the aid of the neo-noir music video that rivaled the staging and scale of the iconic “Thriller” clip.
Yet, for all of its larger than life aspirations, Bad’s most timeless moments are generated by Jackson’s humanity. The power of “Man in the Mirror” has only grown stronger with time and hindsight. The anthem of personal accountability now stands near the top of Jackson’s towering catalogue, among both his most personal and universal offerings. Likewise, the righteous defiance of “Leave Me Alone,” somewhat overlooked as a CD bonus track upon the album’s initial release, carries additional resonance given Jackson’s struggles with the bright lights of fame in subsequent years.
Bad 25 doesn’t just offer a retrospective of the album as it was, but also a window into what could have been, with the second disc devoted entirely to outtakes and leftovers. Ironically enough, many of the highlights favor the very minimalist approach ultimately eschewed by Jackson and his longtime producer Quincy Jones. “Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round” feels almost like a lost Jacksons B-Side from the ‘70s, with its doo-wop style chorus atop a funky Afro-Cuban groove reminding listeners that Jones was responsible for a notable jazz record or two. “I’m So Blue” is a timeless ballad, on which Jackson’s understated, but emotive vocals are augmented beautifully by Stevie Wonder’s plaintive harmonica. Best of all is “Streetwalker,” a six-minute funk workout that represents the synergy of Jackson’s writing and Jones’ arrangements at its finest.
Jackson was at his most spellbinding on stage, so it is only fitting that a live CD and DVD of Jackson live at Wembley in 1988 would round out the collection. The live sets bubble and pulsate with the infectious energy and unbridled joy that allowed Jackson to transcend genre, language, and the constraints of what had once been believed possible for a pop star.
Bad is not the musical masterpiece that Thriller and Off the Wall were. Yet, by the end of this epic re-issue, it’s hard not to feel like Bad did exactly what it was intended to. Jackson wasn’t shooting for great here: he had already achieved that. In 1987, he was shooting for grand. And, with the album spawning a long form video (“Moonwalker”), multiple video games and even it’s own attraction at Disney’s Epcot Center, he clearly hit his mark. Bad wasn’t just a collection of songs, it was a springboard, launching Jackson’s reign not only as the king of pop music, but the king of pop culture. In 1987, Michael Jackson took on himself, time and expectations and won. How do you follow a phenomenon? By becoming the phenomenon.