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'Bad': Michael Jackson's New LP Isn't

The album cover to Michael Jackson's 1987 album <em>Bad</em>.
The album cover to Michael Jackson's 1987 album Bad.

This review by Ken Tucker originally aired on Fresh Air on September 3, 1987.

In what is possibly the biggest anti-climax in the history of popular music, Michael Jackson released a new album earlier this week. It's the follow up to Thriller, the 1982 album that sold 38 gajillion copies and made Jackson America's most easily recognized eccentric. It's Michael Jackson's attempt to overcome the curse of being a superstar in an era that eats up superstars, and then spits them out. The album is called Bad, and it's good.

The title track from Bad is typical of the rough, upbeat music that dominates the album. This is the best thing about Bad. Jackson has denied his soppy, sentimental side.

In lots of ways I think, Michael Jackson is much like another superstar recently in the news, Elvis Presley, who ten years after his death, still seems an impossible combination of ferocious rock and roll and hideous junk. Just as Presley's smartest fans never wanted to admit that their hero liked Dean Martin as much as he did gospel music, so do many of Michael Jackson's admirers wish he'd stop being influenced by pals such as Liza Minnelli.

It's clear from Bad, after the drubbing he's taken in the press as a flighty oddball, Jackson wants to prove that he's living in the real world. That's what leads to songs like "Dirty Diana," which is essentially a safe sex, pro-monogamy pitch couched in sensuous rock and roll.

"Dirty Diana" employs the guitar playing of Steve Stevens, for the same reason that Eddie Van Halen was used on Thriller's "Beat It:" to give the music a hard rock edge, to goose it onto rock radio stations that resist playing black artists.

But I think this new song shows and evolution in this strategy. Where Van Halen's solo was plopped into the middle of "Beat It," Steve Steven's guitar is integrated into the body of "Dirty Diana." As a result the composition is a more unified piece of work.

There's almost no chance that Bad will sell as many records as Thriller did, or that Michael Jackson will once again dominate the media the way he did four or five years ago. That sort of mass pop phenomenon just doesn't happen twice in one performer's career. But on Bad, Michael Jackson acquits himself better than many of us thought he ever would. His public persona maybe be built around the fact that he's a weirdo, but the music on this album confirms once again that he's a talented weirdo.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.