The Peter Pan of song and dance

NICHOLAS JENNINGS September 14 1987

The Peter Pan of song and dance

NICHOLAS JENNINGS September 14 1987

The Peter Pan of song and dance


The face is neither white nor black, male nor female, childlike nor mature. It is undeniably beautiful —but it is also simply unnatural. Yet that very quality, artifice, may be the source of its haunting power. The face, the reconstructed face of state-of-the-art show business, belongs to Michael Jackson.

And since the release last week of his new album and video, both titled Bad, the face has carried the message around the globe: Michael is back— and ready to defend his title as the star of the 1980s.

Bad—in the idiom of the black ghetto, a term of approval—is Jackson’s long-awaited follow-up to Thriller, his 1982 album which sold 38.5 million copies worldwide. The dazzling Thriller rock video, released a year later, set the artistic standard for the form. The new album, two years in production, and accompanying video, represent nothing less than an artist’s attempt to reassert his status, silence his critics and disenchanted fans—and come to terms with his own confusing identity.

In the 18-minute video, directed by Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, The Color of Money),

Jackson plays the only black student at an expensive, all-white prep school. When term ends, the boys return to their homes, the Jackson character to an inner-city ghetto and the mocking, mistrustful black kids he grew up with. To prove that he is still bad, Jackson joins his old gang. He witnesses a drug deal and abets an attempted mugging in an underground garage. Then, in a sudden about-face, Jackson helps the intended victim to escape—only to confront his astonished friends. A breathtaking dance sequence follows, in which Jackson reasserts his mastery of ghetto arts—dancing, rap talk, soul singing— at the same time defining his personal moral ground.

A lot is at risk with Bad: millions of dollars invested by CBS records and by Jackson’s corporate sponsors, as well as by the manufacturers of spin-off products ranging from plush kids’ toys to adult perfumes. At stake, too, is the reputation built by his last triumphant tour and album. Thriller, winner of eight Grammy Awards, was the bestselling album of all time.

But that success generated a vicious backlash that drove Jackson into seclusion in his Los Angeles mansion. Mean-

while, rumors about his repeated rounds of plastic surgery and his childlike eccentricities threatened to turn pop’s biggest celebrity into its biggest joke. He was known to keep a private zoo. He wore his trademark jewelled glove not only on stage but in private life. He hid behind inept disguises: he wore surgical masks to film openings and fake moustaches on shopping trips for Walt Disney memorabilia. He flirted with the occult, to such an extent that the Jehovah’s Witnesses declared that he was no longer a member. And a month ago a 39year-old Hanover Park, 111., mother of three who called herself “Billie Jean Jackson,” after Jackson’s song about a paternity dispute, filed a real paternity suit against the singer, later claiming that he had enjoyed intimate relations with her in the back of a blue Rolls Royce. Jackson meanwhile retreated into the pursuit of odd obsessions. One was to try to obtain the remains of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, for which he unsuccessfully bid $1.3 million. Another was to find a technology that would prolong his youth; he started sleeping in an oxygen chamber. The star’s preoccupations with the unnatural began to embarrass both fans and corporate sponsors. Adweek magazine reported that executives of Pepsi Co., which has a three-year, $13-million promotional contract with the singer, literally booed some of his most recent commercials because of Jackson’s effeminate appearance.

CBS has launched its reply to Jackson’s critics with a massive deployment of talent and money, and an almost military concern with security. While Bad was still in production, the company made anyone who was part of the project sign statements promising not to divulge details. Then, last month, CBS began hosting lavish parties across the continent to play the record and screen the video for major retailers. At Los Angeles’ Century Plaza Hotel last month, 300 guests—company executives and local retailers—were treated to an estimated $39,000 worth of seafood, pasta and cold cuts while they listened to the new release.

At first it seemed that the media campaign would not surmount Jackson’s image problems. Three weeks ago, at a party atop Toronto’s Sutton Place Hotel, giggles broke out when Jackson’s waxen face, with its high cheekbones and plucked eyebrows, appeared on the video monitor and began singing, “I’m

bad. .. .” But in Toronto, as elsewhere, Jackson’s spell finally took hold. Said one guest, drummer and songwriter Fred Duvall, 31, “It doesn’t matter how strange he is. When the music starts, that’s where he is a genius.” Some reviews have been less generous. But Bad is already No. 2 on Billboard’s chart, and advance sales of the album top 2.5 million copies. Said Shane Dempsey, manager of Ottawa’s A&A Records and Tapes store: “Although there aren’t any little girls fainting in the store, it’s doing very well.” This week Jackson launches his new world tour in Tokyo, and he will play in still-unnamed Canadian cities some time in early 1988. There is always a chance, of course, that the next wave of Jacksonmania will be a ripple compared to the mighty surge of the past. But the consensus seems to be that The Gloved One has kept his magical touch.

-VAL ROSS, with ANNE GREGOR in Los Angeles and RUTH ATHERLEY in Toronto

Like the old English nursery rhyme, when Bad is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is horrid. The album offers sounds that are both soft-centred and hard-edged. The opening line on the gutsy, up-tempo title track is “Your butt is mine”—a defiant boast from Jackson to anyone who challenges him. Featuring the dazzling finger work of jazz organist Jimmy Smith and a

punchy rhythm of buzzing bass and hand-clap percussion, the song sets an aggressive tone. It is echoed by another cut, Speed Demon, which combines a revved-up, synthesized rhythm resembling an accelerating race car and the cacophony of a video arcade. With a tight bass, choppy guitar strums and a piercing saxophone solo, it is one of the album’s best tracks.

The album is also surprisingly raunchy. Dirty Diana is the story of a predatory woman, another installment in Jackson’s repertoire of paranoid songs about rock-star groupies —a preoccupation made most explicit in his 1982 hit Billie Jean. But Bad also features gentler songs that reveal other 3 sides of Jackson’s musix cal tastes. Another Part & of Me takes its jazz-funk o flavor from that master of Motown, Stevie Wonder. But its ingenuously hopeful message and cosmic references are distinctly Jackson: “This is our planet/You’re one of us/And this is our message to you.” And Man in the Mirror is a full-blown spiritual number that features vocals by two gospel groups, The Winans and The Andrae Crouch Choir. Sung with earthy conviction, it is the album’s most uplifting number.

Some cuts emphasize Jackson’s black roots: Smooth Criminal, a sinister song about the murder of a woman, includes rap talk—the spoken chants of street music. And Liberian Girl features chants in Swahili by South African singer Letta Mbulu. But despite

the exotic packaging, the song’s mushy lyrics and monotonous synthesized drumbeats make it merely a humdrum track.

There are other disappointments, particularly in the album’s duets. On I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, singer Sied'ah Garrett sounds so much like Jackson that their voices are indistinguishable. Even worse is the track’s spoken opening, on which Jackson whispers sweet nothings in a whining, wheedling voice. And Just Good Friends, which should have been an inspired collaboration between Jackson and Stevie Wonder, lacks engaging lyrics or musical bite.

The album’s major problem is Jackson’s own—the unresolved struggle between the public perception of him and the image that he wants to project. That is most apparent on the title track, which should be the album’s strongest, most convincing cut. Full of bravado, Jackson boasts assertively, “You know I’m bad, I’m bad/You know it, you know it.” But it is simply too hard to believe the man-child’s tough message of conviction.

Still, with its clever blend of romantic ballads and itchy dance numbers, Bad is a worthy successor to Thriller. It is a work by the master of musical newspeak, the artist who has shown the world that black can be white, male can be female—and Bad is mostly good.