Michael Jackson's 'Bad' turns 25 — and Spike Lee has a film to prove it - Macleans.ca

Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ turns 25 — and Spike Lee has a film to prove it

Colin Horgan explains what made Michael Jackson so endearing


Michael Jackson in a subway car during the filming of the 'Bad' music video (Hulton Archive/Getty)

What does a perfect album sound like? If one were to have taken Michael Jackson at his word in 1988, we would only have had to look upon the album he released one year prior. Bad, he wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, took “so long” to make – it emerged five years after Thriller – because he and producer Quincy Jones decided it “should be as close to perfect as humanly possible.” It came close. Bad rocketed to the top of the charts, eventually went on to sell somewhere between 35 and 40 million copies, spawned five number one Billboard hot 100 singles, and solidified Jackson’s reputation as the King of Pop.

But Bad, the subject of a new documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee, which is set to debut at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 15, also marked something else for Jackson. It was the beginning of a long, slow, and often bizarre personal and professional decline that lasted the better part of the next two decades until his untimely, drug-induced death in 2009 – the unfortunate end of a life spent forever yearning for perfection.

“It was after Bad had run its course that we began to look upon Michael Jackson as something of a tabloid topic,” says Alan Cross, music expert and host of syndicated radio show, the Secret History of Rock.

In the years following Bad’s release, the public perception of Jackson switched from that of a musical wunderkind to massive weirdo. “We heard more about Bubbles, we heard about the Elephant Man bones, we heard about Elizabeth Taylor’s friendship with him. We heard about the hyperbaric chamber that he had at home. All that sort of stuff… seemed to come out after Bad,” Cross remembers. “Once that album had gone through its cycle, he was never able to achieve those heights ever again, nor was he ever able to achieve that level of respect ever again. And it was a slow deterioration after that.”

So, there might be something slightly strange about marking the 25th anniversary of Bad, as Lee’s film sets out to do with rare new footage and commentary from those who worked on the album with Jackson, along with some contemporary stars discussing its influence. That is, it’s a second place finisher on the Jackson record podium, destined forever to take a backseat to the best selling album on the planet, Thriller. Despite Jackson and Jones’s lofty goals, it was not, in the end, perfect. It did not prove to be a catalyst for cultural change. It did not mark a shift in musical history. But it was very a good record.

About a year after Bad was released, Jackson bought the property upon which he would eventually build his home and miniature amusement park that he called the Neverland Ranch. In the years to come, this would be ground zero for some of the weirder and worrying stories about Jackson – including the ones he released to the tabloids on his own. The Ranch was where he would hide out from the world. It was also where, in 1993, he was alleged to have had inappropriate contact with a young boy (it came to nothing, but the episode haunted him). It was where he died.

But Neverland was also “his fantasy brought to life,” Jackson’s longtime friend and former personal assistant wrote in his book My Friend Michael: An Ordinary Friendship with an Extraordinary Man. “He knew exactly how he wanted every element… He was an artist and a perfectionist in everything he did.”

It’s telling to look back now on Jackson’s desire to create a perfect album with Bad, given how it would become a theme. The pursuit of perfection acted as the underlying narrative that propelled his philanthropy and personal life as much as his music, where the vision of perfection would come up again and again, including on his Dangerous album, in songs Black and White and Heal the World. With hindsight, Bad becomes more than a very good also-ran in the discography; it is part one of the soundtrack for a desperate, ultimately unrequited, existential quest.

Because it was, and is, Jackson’s desire for perfection that ultimately made him so endearing to us as well as so tragic. We sympathized with his wish for the childhood we understood had been denied to him, loved his drive for his art, measured our own lives against his tabloid persona, and, in many ways, supported his more altruistic goals. Whatever it was, the question seemed to be that if Michael Jackson couldn’t do it, then who could? We, too, wanted – needed – him to be perfect, again and forever. Clearly, some of us still do.



Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ turns 25 — and Spike Lee has a film to prove it

  1. When I think of Jackson and his life I think of a man who battled back from unimaginable persecution and dismissal from the tabloids (similar to this article) and from a DA with a hard-on to convict him of some crime at some point; to a man who raised three great kids and sold 750,000 concerts tickets in less than four hours (with 600,000 people still online trying to buy tickets) 10 years after he ever set foot on a stage or released a new album. You Mr. Cross and Mr. Horgan can only dream about being as good at what you do as Jackson was at what he did. Also, might do well for you to listen to some of the interviews from musicians themselves (not rock historians) about how Jackson influenced them and continues to do so till this day.

    • Well said sir – Jackson’s legacy speaks for itself.

  2. Tom Watson has said it all..

  3. And my question is just one….please tell where and how the change occurred in the public perception of Jackson. Was it immediately after Thriller’s success, when a black man rose to unprecedented fame and wealth; or perhaps it was when he purchased the Beatles catalogue…or maybe when he decided not to be accessible to an invasive press? I know…it was the monkey and exotic pets; the open spaced home he lived in because he wasn’t able to live comfortably in ours; or the skin change that he was vilified for when he told us about the curse of vitiligo; or his personal appearance choices that had nothing to do with the music…so much more sensational and profitable to dwell on these things wasn’t it? Oh, let’s not forget the two extortions and the soul stealing trial that the press milked and sensationalized, finally driving Jackson from his own country.
    It’s about time the tables are finally righted and who the artist truly was to take front and center. Spike’s doc is a huge step in this direction..and maybe someday we won’t have to read about the strange, weird freak anymore…because that character never really existed.

    • I’d say it was when it came to light that he was behaving inappropriately with boys. When they found books full of naked boy pictures in his home (locked in a filing cabinet in his bedroom) it sealed the deal for most people. And rightly so – who wants to support someone who acted like a pedophile? Only the die hard fans that are left.

      • Not getting into this back and forth again. If you have any desire to learn the truth, one source is a first hand witness who was there for 25 years…Frank Cascio. His book My Friend Michael will fill you in. If you don’t, fine. I don’t care.

        • I’ve read that load of excuses, bloat and self-aggrandisement – don’t tell me you were impressed by it? He even lied about having been there when the Chandler settlement was being thrashed out, you don’t believe him, surely.

          • Met him; spoke for hours; know lots more than you do. Believe what you want…doesn’t matter one whit…the legacy will live far beyond you and I.
            Apparently, the artist’s power still draws detractors and supporters like it always did.

  4. The article
    is pathetic.
    We want to know more about the movie, not the sensationalism and lies of you, journalists. And the name of the song is Black OR White, loser.

  5. What a disappointing article. Sadly, Mr. Colin Horgan has chosen to dribble out oldline biases rather than fresh perspective on Mr. Jackson—in the process committing numerous factual errors. Perhaps he is afraid of writing something more original, feeling it is safer to reiterate the old standby media prejudices that, tragically, chased Mr. Jackson into an early grave.

    One of the more astounding things about Mr. Jackson is that he never went into the kind of decline the media tried to hound him into—and tried to convince the world he suffered. The reaction to his death alone—worldwide grief, and it’s astonishing aftermath—should be enough to show any moderately aware person that he was very far from over.

    What media failed to understand was that, contrary to their misleading coverage, he continued to be admired and loved by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. According to Michael Jackson scholar, Joseph Vogel, (Man in the Music: the Creative life and Work of Michael Jackson), Mr. Jackson’s Dangerous album (released four years after Bad, in 1991) sold over 40 million copies.

    In anyone’s book, this could hardly be called a professional decline.

    By contrast, the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, their biggest seller album ever, sold only 32 million copies. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. has, to date, sold only 30 million copies. The inestimable Rolling Stones have never come even close to selling as many copies of a single album.

    According to Wikipedia “Dangerous, much like Bad and Thriller, cemented Jackson’s place in music history as one of the leaders of contemporary pop music. Dangerous peaked at number one in nine countries and won several Grammy nominations. In addition to commercial success, the album also received critical acclaim from contemporary critics. The Dangerous album included one of Mr. Jackson’s most successful anthems “Black or White”. It has been listed as the most successful album recorded under the new jack swing genre of all time.”

    As if further proof is needed refuting the “myth” of Mr. Jackson’s decline in popularity, there is also the Super Bowl XXVII Halftime Show in 1993. “Because of Jackson’s star power, the Fox network declined to broadcast counter-programming against the halftime show as they had the previous year. Fox would never broadcast counter-programming again against the Super Bowl. It was the first Super Bowl where the audience figures actually increased during the half-time show. The selection of Jackson for the halftime show was in response to sagging interest in recent performances, notably in the two years immediately prior. Because of the huge success of Mr. Jackson’s performance the NFL and network officials decided it was necessary to sign top acts for the halftime in future years to boost future viewership and interest.”

    As for Alan Cross’s assessment that Mr. Jackson, after Bad, “was never able to achieve those heights ever again”…that is belied by the fact that even you, Mr. Horgan, are obliged to cover him again. What’s true is that Michael’s was “a life spent forever yearning for perfection.” And thank God for that. If he hadn’t given his all to his art, the world would be a far poorer place.

  6. Colin Horgan wrote: It was the beginning of a long, slow, and often bizarre personal and professional decline that lasted the better part of the next two decades until his untimely, drug-induced death in 2009 – the unfortunate end of a life spent forever yearning for perfection.

    It was the beginning of a long, slow and deliberate effort by the media to create a caricature that would pander to the reading public’s most base instincts and bring eyeballs to the page and clicks to a site. A concerted campaign to bring down a powerful and influential artist for nothing more than money. A cruel and malicious destruction of a sensitive and caring artist for no good reason other than jealousy and the groupthink of jeernalists like Colin Horgan.

    There…fixed that for ya.

  7. I thought this was meant to be a review of Lee’s BAD25 documentary, not a rake over of tabloid tales about it’s leading man. Sadly you seem to be reveling in the weird and wacky stories, rather than dismissing them as an irrelevance to the movie, which is a portrait of Jackson the artist and his professional commitment to making BAD the phenomenal success it was. Jackson was not the broken odd-ball demanding our pity you seem to think, but a talented human being who had to endure unimaginable personal abuse from a media bent on his destruction. It wasn’t the quest for perfection which damaged his well-being, but the incessant bullying, ridicule and lack of respect at the hands of the press and its patrons.

  8. I don’t think Horgan really knows what he’s talking about here, or perhaps just has no original or insightful ideas to offer (in which case please consider not opining in writing) given the regurgitation factor. Thriller was not the pinnacle, nor was Bad. Jackson kept getting better and better while defying being put in a box or settling for one successful style. It will be some time before those who think Thriller was everything understand the first thing about him or his art.

    As for BAD marking the border of where Jackson’s media coverage went all wrong, here’s a credible account as to why that might be:


    • Thanks for that link; that’s one well-researched and interesting article — oh and it respects the man as an artist and innovator. It says in the article: “Study the greats,” he [MJ] wrote in one note to himself, “and become greater.”

      Hopefully Colin Horgan will follow your link and take MJ’s advice.

  9. Though I think I think Mr. Horgan is trying to praise the Bad 25 documentary by Spike Lee, it was disguised in the regurgitation of the tabloid media junk that Michael Jackson had to contend with for over half his life. I ask the same questions as layne4 does below.

    Although Thriller was a huge success, Michael Jackson had never toured as a solo artist, only with his brothers including the phenomenal “Victory” tour. Subsequent to the release of the Bad album, Jackson went on to do three world tours that were attended by 12 million people between 1988 and 1997. His last “HIStory” tour in 1997 was attended by 4.2 million people with only U2’s concert tour as a rival for attendance. His albums “Dangerous” (over 30 million) and HIStory (over 20 million) also sold incredibly well. Even 2001’s “Invincible” has sold 13 million which stacks up well to contemporary albums of the time. This doesn’t seem to be a decline.

    The media’s shameful treatment of Jackson and the actions of a vindictive and power hungry District attorney are the real tragedy of Michael Jackson’s life. It sickens me that America allowed its greatest artist to be treated that way. Alan Cross must have fed at the tabloid media trough too since he seems to believe the story about the hyperbaric chamber which Jackson went on record as saying was untrue. And, I really don’t understand why Jackson’s friendship with Elizabeth Taylor would be considered “weird.”

    The media has failed to understand that Michael Jackson has millions of fans worldwide who could have been an economic powerhouse for them. Instead, the media spent 25 years squandering the opportunity to gain insight into Jackson, the artist, and his creative process. I am just happy that finally that Spike Lee is doing just that. Thank you, Spike.

    Colin Horgan can’t even get the cause of Jackson’s death right. For the record, Conrad Murray, an irresponsible and incompetent doctor who was treating Jackson for insomnia, gave Jackson a drug to help him sleep and then walked away and didn’t monitor him properly. Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson and is now serving time in jail.

    As for Colin Horgan and Alan Cross, go pound sand.

  10. Can’t you press see it does not matter what you say about Michael Jackson,we know it is a pile of garbage. He was an angel on earth, and the greatest artist ever. And we will love him forever. Thank-you Spike for a positive documentary for a man who gave us so much and only wanted love in return.

  11. Michael Jackson is the GREATEST ENTERTAINER OF ALL TIME. Period.

    Watch George Carlin’s Michael Jackson “buries them all”:

    • “Michael Jackson missed his calling. If
      he had become a Catholic priest, he could’ve spent thirty or forty years
      blowing all the little boys he wanted, and no one would have said a word.” – George Carlin

  12. Producer and “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson’s take on Michael Jackson:
    “No one comes close to what he did”

  13. the media spead hate about him for years. Some media personalities like diane dimond, and others like the DA Sneddon, made it their life purpose to destroy michael jackson.

  14. Colin Horgan concludes his review:
    “We, too, wanted – needed – him to be perfect, again and forever. Clearly, some of us still do.”

    Judging by these comments, it’s clear that “true fans” will demand that Michael Jackson be superhuman for them into eternity. Woe betide any writer who tries to ask—for even one moment—why we continually elevate icons like MJ only to knock them down.

  15. Typically pathetic journalists’ dribble of the last 15-20 years! Shame on you, Horgan and Cross! It says EVERYTHING I need to know when you crossed out the line that Mr Jackson died at Neverland when he SO obviously didn’t – IF you can’t even get THAT right, Horgan; go research your FACTS before you even begin to start on MJ again THEN come back and write a decent article that gives him the respect, and not fake pity that he deserves!!

  16. I don’t see how a man who went on to sell more records of his ‘dangerous’ album than his previous ‘bad’ album could be seen as having a career that declined. How many artists can be falsely accused of one of the most heinous crimes and go on to sell nearly 1 million tickets in 1 city before their death? This is a pathetic article that tells me nothing about the actual Movie!

    Michael Jackson is the single most influential artist since the Beatles! Most of the RnB, Hiphop and pop artists since the Thriller era have been influenced by this man! Even the likes of Coldplay and Greenday have lauded MJ as an inspiration. Obviously you missed that part when assessing his ‘declining’ career.

  17. what a stupid article