How Michael Jackson Made 'Bad'

The story of how the landmark album, which just turned 25 and will soon be re-released in a three-disc set, was forged by the "Wacko Jacko" backlash against the pop star

michael jackson 615 bad.jpg
MJJ / Sam Emerson

At the height of his fame, Michael Jackson disappeared.

In 1984, he seemed to be everywhere: on MTV and in Pepsi commercials, at the Grammys and the White House, on Rolling Stone and Time magazine, and all across the United States on the Victory Tour. The next year, however, besides a brief appearance in "We Are the World," he was nowhere to be seen. "The year 1985," wrote Gerri Hirshey for Rolling Stone, "has been a black hole for Michael watchers, who witnessed the most spectacular disappearing act since Halley's comet headed for the far side of the solar system in 1910." It was a strategic move from a performer who understood the power of anticipation and mystique. 1986 was much the same. Jackson was said to be a recluse "in hiding" and made few public appearances.

In his absence came a flood of fantastical stories about shrines, hyperbaric chambers, and Elephant Man's bones. Most of these were harmless (and actually amused Jackson), but there was a darker side to the media backlash. Jackson had become the most powerful African American in the history of the entertainment industry. Not only had he built an empire through his own record-shattering albums, videos and performances, he had resurrected the fortunes of CBS/Epic Records, surged life into MTV, and set the bar for live entertainment. He also smartly retained full ownership of his master recordings and with the help of his attorney, John Branca, actively acquired publishing rights, including songs by Sly and the Family Stone, Ray Charles, and of course, the crown jewel of popular music: the ATV/Beatles catalog.

It is no coincidence that this was the precise moment when the tide began to shift. From industry heavyweights and media alike, there was now suspicion, resentment, and jealousy. It was clear Jackson was not merely a naive man-child (as he was often presented), or a song-and-dance man who knew and accepted his place as a static, submissive "entertainer." He was outwitting some of the most powerful figures in the industry. He was growing artistically and financially. And he was beginning to learn how to wield his considerable power and cultural influence for more social and political ends.

"He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables," wrote James Baldwin in 1985, "for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair..."

The backlash, then, was not merely about Jackson's perceived eccentricities. It was also about power, money, and more subtle forms of institutional and cultural dominance. In the decades preceding Jackson, as James Brown put it, black recording artists were all-too-often "in the show, but not in show business." Now Jackson was a financial force to be reckoned with. His status, however, also turned him into an enormous target.

Beginning in 1985, the media became increasingly vicious toward the artist. "They desire our blood, not our pain," Jackson wrote in a note in 1987. Tabloids soon began disparaging him with the nickname "Wacko Jacko" (a term Jackson despised). It was a term first applied to the pop star by the British tabloid, The Sun, in 1985, but its etymology goes back further. "Jacko Macacco" was the name of a famous monkey used in monkey-baiting matches at the Westminster Pit in London in the early 1820s. Subsequently, the term "Jacco" or "Jacco Macacco" was Cockney slang to refer to monkeys in general. The term persisted into the 20th century as "Jacko Monkeys" became popular children's toys in Great Britain in the 1950s. They remained common in British households into the 1980s (and can still be found on Ebay today).

The term "Jacko," then, didn't arise out of a vacuum, and certainly wasn't meant as a term of endearment. In the ensuing years, it would be used by the tabloid and mainstream media alike with a contempt that left no doubt about its intent. Even for those with no knowledge of its racist roots and connotations, it was obviously used to "otherize," humiliate and demean its target. Like Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal" scene in Invisible Man, it was a process by which to reduce Michael Jackson the human being and artist, to "Jacko" the minstrelized spectacle for avaricious amusement. (It is significant to note that, while the term was used widely by the white media, it was rarely, if ever used by black journalists.)

This was the ominous undercurrent beginning to swirl around Jackson and it had an impact on both his own psyche and that of the public (particularly in the U.S.). The tension between control and liberation or escape percolates throughout the Bad album and its accompanying music videos.

In the short film for "Leave Me Alone," for example, Jackson keenly conveys the carnivalesque reality of his life as an objectified entertainer. Inspired in part by Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a larger-than-life Jackson is literally trapped in an amusement park attraction as dogs in corporate suits pound pegs in the ground to keep him in place. Later in the video he sings out of newspapers, dollar bills, and within reenactments of tabloid stories. It is a shrewdly self-aware (and socially aware) examination of entrapment, exploitation, and double consciousness in the postmodern age.

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Part of Jackson's "disappearance," then, also had to do with the realities of his life. He could no longer walk freely anywhere in the world without being mobbed, scrutinized, and dissected.

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Joseph Vogel is the author of Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson. His work has appeared in Slate, The Huffington Post, and PopMatters. He holds a Ph.D. in american literature and culture from the University of Rochester. 

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