“I remember when your head caught flame.”
I passed through my motherland (Missouri) today, en route to Tennessee after abandoning my (not so) stronghold in the mountains of Colorado. For those following my seemingly willful courtship with disaster, I returned home after several weeks of being displaced from a thousand-year flood only to lose my job a month later. Since like most humans on this planet I still subsist on money and electricity to support a mediated/subjugated lifestyle, I had to hustle to find a solution and found one in my mother’s motherland.
But what I really want to talk about is Michael Jackson.
I remember seeing the video for “Smooth Criminal” for the first time as an 11 year old in 1988 and realizing in that moment what an artistic mistake it was for Michael Jackson to select “Bad” as the titular framework and audiovisual initiation to his follow up to Thriller (1982). Bad (1987) was the end of the legendary MJ / Quincy Jones collaboration that began with Off the Wall (1979), and the beginning of the end for Michael’s out-of-this-world command as an image artist. By 1987 the effortless impossibility of his ’83 Motown performance had devolved into something more alien than otherworldly, a mutation distilled to perfection by Corey Feldman in real life and in the entirety of Dream a Little Dream (1989), but especially this scene:
My feeling is that Michael was fucked up on pain and painkillers by that point, the real beginning of the end occurring at approximately 6:15pm on January 27, 1984 during the ill-fated filming of a Pepsi commercial in support of The Jacksons’ Victory tour, when Michael achieved apotheosis by going up in flames. Watch how alone he is here, his supposed brothers oblivious to the plight of a genuine god burning at the stake/stage. There is no coming back from a trauma like this. If you’ve been wondering what kind of triggering event would lead someone to eventually seek out a straight up oblivion drug like propofol as opposed to say the narcotic depths of heroin, This Is It:
And so the young black god reposing with a tiger is taken away from us and we are offered in its stead a whitened humanitarian pedophile wearing chains, as if there’s no discernable difference between Gatesian neoliberalism and the Haitian revolution as modes of becoming.
But “Smooth Criminal” is one of those atemporal miracles that fights through this cycle of death and resurrection and refuses to be reborn. Here is an artist still looking every bit the “illest nigga alive / Michael Jackson’s Thriller” (Jay-Z), still defying physics (with that weird tilt thing a la the moonwalk just past the 7 minute mark), still exceeding expectations with a legit successor to the most popular album of all time — except, for those of us living in chronological time, it was too late. “Smooth Criminal” was Bad’s 7th and penultimate single, following the uninspired “Another Part of Me” and its even less inspiring video, and thus arrived like a recovery in the form of an afterthought.
So it was with non-satisfaction that I read last night in a hotel room in Topeka that Bad was originally called Smooth Criminal (with the track presumably lined up as the first single), but Quincy Jones thought “the [criminal] connotation was inappropriate” and so changed it to Bad.
It’s not that Quincy Jones was bad for Bad; “Liberian Girl” is 100% Michael and 100% garbage. The problem was Quincy and Michael were no longer strategically aligned. They were still hitting the heights but not the arrangement of those heights. Some of the best shit ever is on that album (“The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Dirty Diana”), but poetically something’s off. Quincy is thinking hip hop and Michael is thinking Captain EO, and both can’t stop thinking of Thriller.
Why else would you stumble out of the gate with the literally forgettable “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” notable only because it mimics Thriller’s opening gambit of releasing a modest duet as the first single (“The Girl Is Mine” with Paul McCartney)?
Why else would you reconstitute and unfavorably evoke the west side brilliance of “Beat It” with a fake-looking but real Hoyt-Schermerhorn station directed by a Martin Scorsese too coked up to realize he’s not directing The Wiz?
How else are we to explain Carl Weathers, Jasmine Guy et al and the meandering boredom of “Liberian Girl”?
Michael initially wanted to make a triple (!) album featuring an occultish 33 tracks, but Quincy talked him down to 11 and probably should have talked him down to 9, the magic number for Thriller’s near perfection. Sure we could probably lose “The Lady in My Life” without shedding any figurative tears, and personally I prefer the MJ / McCartney duet featured on McCartney’s 1983 Pipes of Peace album (“Say Say Say”) to “The Girl Is Mine”, but these aren’t flaws so much as contours. “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” are such stratospheric hits they can make us forget that on Thriller even the minor hits are sick, with Timberlake (for example) having mined an admirable career out of a lineage that extends through “P.Y.T.” and “Baby Be Mine” on into Off the Wall, and with my inability to think of a more infectious opening track in the history of everything I’ve ever heard than “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” One of my formative moments in this life was walking into a suburban mall outside St. Louis with my mother in 1983 (I was five) and laying down [my parent’s] cash money for the talismanic Thriller LP. This was the first and last record I ever bought.*
Michael’s goal with Bad was the decidedly populist aspiration (commercially speaking) of trumping Thriller’s success and selling 100 million albums. There’s a moment in Spike Lee’s commemorative documentary Bad 25 where somebody recounts that Michael wrote “100 million” on his bathroom mirror while developing Bad, an anecdotal insight that suggests the historical agency of his Man in the Mirror is founded in a kind of numerable ubiquity — as if revolutionary potential is tethered not to the irreducible infinitude at the core of every human being, but in their embodied multitude.
This is all to say that the follow up to Thriller should have been called Smooth Criminal, with the new titular track as the lead single and video, and a streamlined tracklist that repositions “Bad” to subsidiary single status and ditches mediocrities like “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”, “Liberian Girl”, “Just Good Friends” (w/ Stevie Wonder!!), and “Another Part of Me” (notable for its bizarre inclusion as the backing track of what was clearly supposed to be the “Thriller” sequence of the otherwise amazing Sega Moonwalker video game released in 1990), and throws in a couple of covers, reissues, or one of the more up tempo demo tracks that Quincy vetoed, e.g.
- “Smooth Criminal”
- “The Way You Make Me Feel”
- “Man in the Mirror”
- “Dirty Diana”
- “Leave Me Alone”
- “Speed Demon”
plus 2 of the following 3:
- “Come Together” (his Beatles cover featured at the end of Moonwalker)
- “State of Shock” (reissue of his Mick Jagger duet “State of Shock” that originally appeared on The Jacksons’ 1984 Victory album (and was originally supposed to feature Freddie Mercury instead))
- “Song Groove (Abortion Papers)” (catchy demo track if you can get past WTF lyrics like “abortion papers, signed in your name against the word of God”)
For the completists among us, I’ll leave you with a 45 minute walk-through of the Moonwalker video game (best parts are when he summons his enemies into a mini-synchronized dance number in order to dance them to death):
* Having graduated to cassette tapes shortly thereafter.