The Thriller is gone

By JOYCE MILLMAN  |  June 30, 2009

Indeed, the AMrtin Scorcese-directed 16-minute video for "Bad" (a cross between Scorcese's Mean Streets and the "Beat It" video) offers the unintentionally hilarious spectacle of Jackson, as a ghetto youth home on holiday from the private school he attends on scholarship chillin' with the homeboys, touching his crotch, pulling his sweatshirt's hood up over his head before he joins the old gang in a subway mugging. Written by novelist Richard Price (The Wanderers), the video's plot bears more than a passing resemblance to the story of Edmund Perry, the New York teenager, home between semesters at Exeter, who was shot and killed by police during an alleged mugging.

In the prologue to the song (filmed in black and white on what looks like New York City streets), Scorcese and director of photography Michael Chapman create a hellish atmosphere for a kid suspended between two classes. The problem is Jackson's zero credibility as jes' folks. There's a scene in which he's supposed to ad-lib horseplay with his prep-school pals. He has no idea how to react, and why should he? He never attended high school, and such behavior is alien to him. Then there's the scene where he's required to look tough-yet-conscience-stricken right before the mugging; all he can manage is a doe-eyed, lip-quivering trembliness, sort of like Diana Ross in Mahogany.

Anyway, Bad, like Control, often sounds like belated rebellion against the discipline of a childhood spent on stage and in church. For Michael, rebellion means an undisciplined immersion in the childhood he never had. Like a greedy, unchecked tot, he wants everything he sees; he wants to be his fantasies. He's already become a Disneyland exhibit (the film Captain EO); he plans (like Peter Pan) never to grow old, taking allegedly age-retarding naps in a special pressurized oxygen chamber; he's turned into a zombie, a cat, and thin air in his videos; he's already bought the Beatles, he'd love to own the Elephant Man. Most heartbreaking are his attempts to change his very shape, his skin and bones – his identity. Wiped clean of all characteristics of race or gender by plastic surgery, his face is an eerie, glamorous mask.

From the start of his career, Jackson has been trained to do two things: mimic adult emotions and give the audience what it wants. And he's still a master of both. When this troubled, ethereal manchild gets into a recording studio, out comes a voice that's knowing, sexy, in control. Where do the two Michaels meet? Does he come alive, become certain of his identity, only when he's performing? Or is the vitality he shows in the spotlight merely his greatest performance? As usual with Jackson's work, questions of artifice versus sincerity are blurred on Bad by his kinetic charm.

The joyful, confident first side is a string of readymade radio hits. "Bad" seconds the antimacho sentiments of "Beat It"; it's instantly insinuatin, with Jackson's uncharacteristically rough voice growling against the swaggering, automatic crack of the drum machine and the slap jangle of the "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (or is that "Kiss"?) guitars. Not until the next track, "The Way You Make Me Feel," do we hear Jackson's trademark falsetto "hee-hee" hiccups; they punctuate this breezy stroll (it recalls Madonna's "True Blue) like exultant heel kicks. His sly, slurred vocals and shouts of "Go on, girl!" are as playfully lusty as his pint-sized testifying back on the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" or "ABC," and just as innocent.

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Related: Michael Jackson and his fears, Mommy, what's with Michael?, Reaction Jackson, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , Madonna (Entertainer), Quincy Jones, R&B,  More more >
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