How Michael Jackson Made 'Bad'

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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.

A British tabloid deemed him "Wacko Jacko" in 1985, but the nickname's etymology goes back further: "Jacco" or "Jacco Macacco" was Cockney slang for "monkey."

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.

His retreat was in his art. From 1985 to 1987, away from the public eye, he was writing and recording prolifically. The Bad sessions would ultimately generate more than 60 songs in various states of completion. At one point he considered releasing it as a triple-disc album.

It's become legend that Jackson wrote "100 million" on his bathroom mirror, the number of albums he expected 'Bad' to sell: more than double the number of what 'Thriller' had done.

Jackson called his home studio at Hayvenhurst "the Laboratory." This is where the magic was created with a small group of musicians and engineers, including Matt Forger, John Barnes, Chris Currell, and Bill Bottrell (often referred to as the "B-Team"). It has now become the stuff of legend that Jackson wrote "100 million" on his bathroom mirror, the number of albums he expected Bad to sell. The figure was more than double the number of what Thriller had sold to that point. Such was the scope of Jackson's ambition.

However, it wasn't just commercial success he was after. Jackson wanted to innovate. He told collaborators he wanted to create sounds the ear had never heard. Exciting new synthesizers were coming on the scene at the time, including the Fairlight CMI and the Synclavier PSMT. "It really opened up another realm of creativity," recalls recording engineer Matt Forger. "The Fairlight had this light pen that could draw a waveform on the screen and allow you to modify the shape of it. The Synclavier was just an extension of that. Very often we would end up combining two synthesizer elements together to create a unique character. You could do that within the Synclavier, but you also had the ability in a very fine increment to adjust the attack of each sound character. And by doing that you could really tailor the sound. We were doing a lot of sampling and creating new sound characters and then creating a combination of sample sounds mixed with FM synthesis."

Jackson was fascinated with these new technologies and constantly on the lookout for fresh sounds. The opening sound character for "Dirty Diana," for example, was created by Denny Jaeger, a Synclavier expert and designer from the Bay Area. When Jackson heard about Jaeger and his library of new sound characters and soundscapes, he reached out and enlisted him for Bad. Jaeger's sounds ultimately appeared on both "Dirty Diana" and "Smooth Criminal." "Michael was always searching for something new," Forger says. "How much stuff could we invent ourselves or research and find? There was a whole lot of that going on. That was what the Laboratory was about."

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What makes the Bad album so timeless, however, is the way Jackson was able to compliment this technological innovation with more organic, soulful qualities. In "The Way You Make Me Feel," for example, the relentless steel-shuffling motion of the beat is juxtaposed with all kinds of natural, improvisational qualities that give the song its charm: the vocal ad libs, the finger snapping, the blues harmonies, the percussive grunts and gasps, the exclamations. Recording engineer Bruce Swedien speaks of how he left all of Jackson's vocal habits in as part of the "overall sonic picture." He didn't want to make the song "antiseptically clean" because it would lose its visceral effect.

In so many ways, Bad was Jackson's coming-of-age as an artist. Quincy Jones challenged him at the outset to write all the material and Jackson responded, writing nine of the 11 tracks that made the album and dozens more that were left off. "Study the greats," he wrote in one note to himself, "and become greater." He spoke of the "anatomy" of music, of dissecting its parts. He was also reading a great deal, including the work of Joseph Campbell. He wanted to understand what symbolism, myths, and motifs resonated over time and why.

By the time he brought demos to Westlake Studio to work on with Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien (the A-Team), most of the key elements of the songs were in place. Now it was a matter of details: small-brush coloring, polishing, augmenting, and to Jackson's chagrin, paring down. Assistant engineer Russ Ragsdale estimates that more than 800 multi-track tapes were made to create Bad, an extraordinary number. Synth stacks filled the tracking room, where Jackson often worked with synth programer John Barnes. Vocals were rerecorded until Jackson felt satisfied. Jackson, Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien continued to tweak and debate decisions until the final minute before the deadline.

Just as much attention went into the short films. In his notes following the Bad video, Jackson indicated that he still wasn't completely satisfied with the choreography. The moves had to be so internalized that there was no thinking whatsoever. He had to dissolve into the steps and the music until it became pure feeling.

Many people still don't realize the input Jackson had on every detail of his work, from choreography to lighting to costumes to story. While rehearsing for the short film for "Smooth Criminal," Jackson eloquently explained to director Colin Chivers and choreographer Vincent Paterson the tension and release he hoped to achieve in the bridge. "That's why we build it to a mountain and we bring it back down," he instructed. "Then at the top [mouths sounds effect] with the high strings. Something to just ride the emotion that we didn't put into it [mouths sound effect]. Just a horn or something, you know... To ride the feeling of it... I want the music to represent the way we feel... It's gotta dictate our emotion, our moods. We're expressing the way everybody feels. It's rebellion. You know what I mean? We're letting out what we always wanted to say to the world. Passion and anger and fire!"

Twenty-five years later, the results speak for themselves. Videos like "Bad" and "Smooth Criminal" are among the finest the medium has to offer. Songs like "Man in the Mirror," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Dirty Diana," and "Another Part of Me" remain staples in Jackson's vast catalog. Hearing the remastered album, included in the three-CD Bad25 set out September 18, is a reminder of its singular personality and pleasure. Listen to the propulsive bass lines, the layers of rhythm, the vocal experimentation, the cinematic narratives, the signature exclamations and invented vocabulary, the sheer vitality and joy. This is pop at its most dynamic, and it stands, along with the best work of Prince, as one of the best albums of the 1980s.

Bad is a portrait of the artist in peak form—bold, creative and confident. Now as then, "the whole world has to answer."

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Joseph Vogel is a freelance journalist and the author of five books, including Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson and The Obama Movement. He lives in New York, where is an instructor and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester.

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