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.