Michael Jackson’s videos were often encapsulated in short films, the most famous of which being “Thriller,” in which the star takes a girl on a date to a scary movie, turns into a were-cat, and then dances like mad with a crew of zombies. The whole adventure, which turns out to be a dream (or was it?) is a thirteen-minute epic directed by John Landis, and undeniably a watershed moment in pop culture. We have certainly watched it at least a hundred times.
MJ’s high-production videos often cast him as an outsider (especially the the highly satirical “Ghosts”). The one we often forget is the full length video for “Bad,” because for some reason we’ve only seen its West Side Story-inspired subway dance sequence as many times as we’ve seen “Thriller.”
In the eighteen-minute version of “Bad” was written by Richard Price (author of the seventies Bronx street life novel The Wanderers) and directed by Martin Scorcese. Jackson plays a young man named Daryl who has returned to his neighborhood after graduating from a private school. His former friends are petty thieves and it quickly becomes apparent he no longer belongs there. In an effort to prove he is still bad, Daryl takes them to a subway station where he will mug an old man — but he doesn’t go through with the crime and is berated.
This is when he sings “Bad,” they lyrics for which are part self-promotion (establishing Michael’s new darker image) and part cautionary tale. Like several songs on the Bad LP, Michael sings of the world “be[ing] a better place,” while also warning his friends “they’re gonna lock you up before too long.”
Bad definitely changed Michael’s image, and the album also introduced a sleeker outsider MJ with “Smooth Criminal.” But its hard to imagine Michael as bad. Nowhere is this more clear than in the first line of “Bad,” which is one of our favorite first lines ever on an album: “Your butt is mine.” He couldn’t even say the word “ass,” which would have sounded so much more natural.
It wasn’t until after Michael was relentlessly persecuted by Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon in 1993 that his lyrics really turned towards the angrier image implied by “Bad.” On HIStory, Michael swears for the first time (unless you count “damn” appearing on Dangerous) in the song “This Time Around.” Another song specifically directed at Sneddon (“D.S.”) uses the word “ass” so we know he was finally able to say it.
Michael was remembered by associates for his abhorrence of vulgar language, so it is sort of sad that they creep into his lyrics as he becomes increasingly isolated. This is nowhere more heartbreaking than in “Scream,” his duet with sister Janet on HIStory, in which he shouts “stop fuckin’ with me, it makes me want to scream!”
The tabloid media at whom this line was directed was entirely out of touch all of us who still bought records: while they eagerly predicted HIStory to become an enormous failure, the collection was a commercial and critical success for Michael.
And, since we still hear people make jokes about this in the record shop six years later, we guess it has to be repeated: Michael Jackson was never convicted of a crime. He was acquitted of all charges by a jury of his peers. The family which accused him had a history of criminal behavior, domestic abuse, fraud and frivolous lawsuits.
In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi reported shortly after the completion of the trial:
And then there was the very key figure in the case, the accuser’s mother, who had to plead the Fifth Amendment on the first day of her testimony to avoid cross-examination on a welfare-fraud allegation – a witness so completely full of sh—t that Sneddon’s own assistants cringed openly throughout most of her five days of testimony. In the next six weeks, virtually every piece of his case imploded in open court, and the chief drama of the trial quickly turned into a race to see if the DA could manage to put all of his witnesses on the stand without getting any of them removed from the courthouse in manacles.