The Thriller is gone

By JOYCE MILLMAN  |  June 30, 2009

Despite silly racing-car effects and go-nowhere hot-rodder lyrics, "Speed Demon" takes Jackson further into modern R&B with its metallic-funk groove and with his vocals, which blend human beatbox tricks and a Princely dirty-boy falsetto. The lithe, creamy "Liberian Girl" may be his least schlocky ballad ever. Sprinkled with a keening synthesized flute and a wispy female Swahili chant, "Liberian Girl" is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder Third World love songs like "Another Star" and "Stranger on the Shore of Love": it's a natural lead-in to the chugging Jackson-Wonder duet "Just Good Friends." If this Terry Britten-Graham Lyle composition (they wrote "What's Love Got To Do with It") is squarely MOR, at least the teaming of Jackson and Wonder elicits frisky performances from both singers. (Now we know for sure who the weak link was in all those flabby Jackson-McCartney, McCartney-Wonder duets).

The best Jackson can muster on side two, however, is the bright, vacuous opener "Another Part of Me" (some kind of Harmonic Convergence celestial babble). From then on, it's Bad to worse. "Man in the Mirror" (written by Quincy Jones protégé Siedah Garret and Glen Ballard) is a slick "We Are the World"-type gospel production that veers into unintended absurdity every time Jackson sings the chorus, "If you want to make the world a better place/Take a look at yourself, and make that change." (Tell us where to begin, Michael – eyes? nose? chin?) Then there's "I Just Can't Stop Lovin' You," the schmaltzy duet with Garret that opens with Jackson's fascinatingly defensive pillow talk: "A lot of people misunderstand me/That's because they don't know me at all&ldots;" This duet is supposed to silence criticism that, on record, Jackson is an isolated, asexual creature. And it does; with Garret's voice a mirror image, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" assures us that, on record, Jackson is a narcissistic, masturbatory creature.

On the album's last two songs, "Dirty Diana" and "Smooth Criminal," Jackson digs deep into his strange psyche and comes up with two of the most revealing songs he's ever recorded. And what they reveal are frighteningly immature and violent fantasies that even his clean-cut image can't redeem. In the screeching, thudding "Dirty Diana" (Jackson's "Darling Nikki"), he unleashes an ugly vision of a predatory groupie digging her claws into poor innocent Michael, who sobs "No, no" yet can't bring himself to pry loose from her grasp. Here, as in "Billie Jean," Jackson portrays himself as a passive victim where sex is concerned, the helpless participant in a "dirty" act.

The closing track, the waggling "Smooth Criminal," is even more troubling. Reportedly, this was Jackson's attempt to duplicate the scares he enjoys when watching his well-publicized collection of horror movies. Employing the sound of a racing heartbeat (Jackson's own) and heavy breathing (manager Frank DiLeo's), "Smooth Criminal" is an aural slasher flick about a woman who's been beaten – and as the lyrics seem to suggest, murdered – by an intruder: "He came into your apartment/He left bloodstains on the carpet/Then you ran into the bedroom/You were struck down/It was your doom."

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Related: Michael Jackson and his fears, Mommy, what's with Michael?, Reaction Jackson, More more >
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