Who’s Bad?

Joie:  So, Willa, you know that there is a whole huge campaign going on right now for Sony’s upcoming re-issue of the Bad album. They’re re-releasing it in honor of its 25th Anniversary and it sounds like it’s going to be a pretty big deal, with a re-issue of the album itself, plus a separate disc of previously unreleased material that was recorded during the Bad sessions, plus a third disc recorded live during the Bad tour – the first ever Michael Jackson live CD – and a DVD of the July 16, 1988, concert at Wembley Stadium performed in front of the Prince and Princess of Wales! I’m really excited about it.

Willa:  I am too. I actually went to Walmart today to get the new Bad-era single “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” / “Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round.” To be honest, I haven’t bought a single since the old 45s with the big hole in the middle. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as singles anymore, except on iTunes. So I went to Walmart and was completely disoriented – wandered around for about 10 minutes before I even found the music section – and then it wasn’t there. They had Immortal and Number Ones but that was it, and I didn’t see any singles for anyone anywhere. So either they had sold out already, or that store wasn’t carrying it.

Joie:  You know, I couldn’t find it at my Walmart either. I don’t know if they can’t keep it stocked or if they didn’t carry it at all but, I was very disappointed. Anyway, not surprisingly, all this has me thinking about the Bad album, and more specifically, the Bad video. I just love the long version of that video with the black and white, Martin Scorsese film. And I love the way that story sort of frames the actual music video itself.

Willa:  I do too. I saw the video many times when it was in rotation on MTV, but didn’t see the full Scorsese film until years later, and I was stunned by it. I’ve always really liked the Bad video. He’s addressing some very important and sensitive issues – and at the risk of sounding like a teeny bopper, let me just say upfront that he is unbelievably gorgeous throughout the entire dance sequence. But the film is fascinating and adds so much nuance and dimension to what’s happening in the video cut. As with so many of Michael Jackson’s films, there is so much going on – and the more you look, the more you see.

Joie:  Oh, I agree. I always see something new, or something that I hadn’t noticed before, every time I watch a Michael Jackson video or live performance. It is really amazing how that happens. But I’m shocked by your admission. You really went years before you saw the full short film version of this video? How did that happen?

Willa:  Well, Joie, I guess the short answer is that I’m old! I wrote my college papers on a typewriter, if you can believe that. It had built-in correction tape, and I thought that was really high-tech!  And I did my graduate research without the Internet. Just imagine. I went to the library to do my research. How quaint is that? My son actually asked me the other day if cars were invented when I was a kid. For Pete’s sake.

Joie:  Oh, Willa. Sometimes you make yourself sound like a dinosaur. You are not THAT old! I wrote my college papers on a typewriter too, for heaven’s sake!

Willa:  Really? Well, that’s reassuring. Thanks, Joie. And I don’t mean to sound like a dinosaur – I think I’m still a little wigged out from wandering around inside that huge strange store with no idea where anything was, or what I was even looking for. I felt like Mr. Magoo.

So anyway, MTV played the Bad video, but they didn’t play the entire film. And it wasn’t in movie theaters. And there wasn’t any YouTube – there wasn’t even an Internet. So where would I have seen it? Where did you see it?

Joie:  Well, you know, sometimes MTV and VH1 and others would have a special ‘Michael Jackson Weekend’ and they would play the long versions of all the videos. You might have seen it that way. So anyway, now I’m really interested to know, since you had only seen the short version for so long, what was your initial reaction when you finally saw the long version? Did it measure up to things you had maybe heard about it? Or had you even heard about it?

Willa:  I don’t think I did know there was a longer film or I would have made an effort to see it. I’ve always liked the video cut, and think it’s fascinating how he’s redefining what it means to be “bad.” He’s not bad because he’s mean or macho, but because he has self-knowledge – he’s in tune with himself. He’s creative and talented and more adorable than mere mortals have any right to be, and he’s not afraid to show it. I loved that.

You know, a lot of critics mocked him because they said he looked effeminate but was claiming to be “bad,” and I absolutely disagreed with that all the way around. First of all, he’s not effeminate. He doesn’t reject his feminine side (which is refreshing) but he certainly doesn’t reject his masculine side either – he just seems like a wonderfully complete person to me. Secondly, I strongly objected to the notion that you have to be macho to be “bad,” or worthy of respect. To me, this video is pushing back against that kind of thinking – in fact, that’s the whole point, to my mind – and I really welcomed that.

But then I saw the complete film, and suddenly the video portion took on so much more meaning than it ever had before. It was amazing to me. So you didn’t have that experience? You saw the long film around the same time as the video, so knew how it all fit together?

Joie:  Yes. In fact, the first few times I saw the video, it was the long version. I think MTV played it in its entirety for like a whole day or something. You know … back then, they used to make a really big deal out of video premieres, and the day a video premiered, they would show it at the top of every hour for the entire day.

You know, this is slightly off topic here but, I feel led to say this. MTV really used to be something special. Now, of course, you would never know that because all they show anymore are “reality” shows but, back in the day – when Music Television actually focused on the music – it was the coolest station on cable. Never before had there been a station completely devoted to popular music; it was awesome and unlike anything we had ever seen! And then it just … died. I honestly don’t know how they still get away with calling themselves MTV. They should change their name to RTV!

Willa:  Actually, that raises a really important question, Joie. Where do people go to see music videos now? YouTube? I use YouTube a lot for looking up things I already know about, but I don’t know that it exposes you to new bands and new videos the way MTV did.

Joie:  No, that’s really true, Willa. And it’s also a little sad. I have a teenaged nephew who loves “reality” TV shows and MTV is his favorite channel because that’s all they show. When I told him what the M in MTV actually stood for, he had no clue! He had no idea that it used to be a channel devoted to music. And he’s a very talented young musician himself! But I just think it’s so sad that there’s an entire generation out there that has no idea how great MTV used to be.

Willa:  Hampton Stevens talks about that a bit in his wonderful article in The Atlantic, “Michael Jackson’s Unparalleled Influence,” and he has an interesting take on the rise and fall of MTV:

The oft-repeated conventional wisdom – that Jackson’s videos made MTV and so “changed the music industry” is only half true. It’s more like the music industry ballooned to encompass Jackson’s talent and shrunk down again without him. 

I have to say, I think he’s on to something.

Joie:  It is an interesting thought, isn’t it? And in some ways, it’s a very valid point he’s making. Of course, that’s not to discredit all the thousands of other wonderful bands and artists that were featured on MTV over the years but, it is almost as if they simply couldn’t exist in the music format without the continued contributions of the King of Pop. You know, this is a topic that fascinates me and it may need further exploration sometime.

But getting back to the Bad video, even though I had seen the whole short film version when it premiered, after that it really was like it went underground for several years and you just had to be lucky enough to catch one of those ‘Michael Jackson Weekends’ in order to get a glimpse of the film version. But it really is an incredible film, and what I love most about it is the fact that it really showcases Michael’s acting ability. You know, he was not a bad actor and he’s never really been given credit for that.

Willa:  Oh, I think he’s an amazing actor, and an intelligent actor, if that makes sense. One of the things I love most about his lyrics are their emotional complexity, and we see that emotional complexity in his acting as well. The character he plays in Bad has a lot of different forces weighing on him, and as an actor, he conveys that so subtly and well.

His character is a smart kid from the inner city who’s done well and earned a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, and the film opens with him at the prep school trying to negotiate this other world that sees him as something of an outsider. Then we see him coming back to his old neighborhood and trying to re-enter and negotiate the world he grew up in, but that world doesn’t fit him anymore either. So we see him positioned between these two worlds – just as Michael Jackson himself always seemed to be positioned between two worlds – and we can really see and feel his internal struggles as he works through all that.

Joie:  I agree with that statement, Willa, that Michael himself always seemed to be positioned between two worlds. I never quite made that comparison between his own life and this short film though. Very keen observation.

Willa:  It’s funny, isn’t it? On the surface, this kid from the inner city seems to have very little in common with a superstar like Michael Jackson, but there are some pretty profound connections between them, I think. Or maybe it’s just part of his skill as an actor that we feel a connection between him and the character he’s portraying.

Joie:  But you know, the really interesting thing about this video is that the storyline of the short film is actually based on a true story. In fact, Michael was very careful not to take credit for the storyline of the video, as we saw during a taped interview for Ebony/Jet Magazine back in 1987. Michael told the interviewer that they adapted the story from an actual incident that was reported in Time or Newsweek magazine where a young Black boy from the ghetto named Daryl goes away upstate to prep school in a bid to better his life, and when he returned home on Thanksgiving break, his old friends back in the hood became so envious of him and suddenly saw him as such an outsider, that they actually killed him. So, once again, we see him using his art to draw attention to the social ills plaguing us.

Willa:  Oh, I’m glad you shared that, Joie, because I had that story all wrong. I thought the real story behind the screenplay was that his old friends talked him into joining them in a robbery, and he was killed during the robbery.

But what’s really interesting to me about how the screenplay revises the actual story is that there are no bad guys. As you say, he often uses his videos and longer films to draw attention to social ills, but he also forces us to then think about those social ills in more complicated ways. It’s very easy to say the problem of gang violence is simply that there are all these evil hoodlums running around in gangs. But as Bad shows us, these guys may be talking tough and playing the role of hoodlums – “wanna-be thugs” as you called them a few weeks ago, Joie – but they aren’t mean or evil. They’re just young men trying to prove themselves and protect themselves in a harsh environment.

At the same time, it’s very easy to go to the opposite extreme as well – from a position of rigid condemnation of these young men to a position of moral relativism – and say we’re all the product of social forces so there’s really no such thing as free will, and no such thing as right and wrong. And Michael Jackson rejects that as well. As he sings to those wanna-be gang members, “You’re doing wrong / Gonna lock you up before too long.” And in the long call-and-response at the end, he tells them that if they don’t know the difference between right and wrong, they need to find out:

Ask your brother
Ask your mother
Ask your sister
Ask me
’Cause you’re doing wrong  

So while he refuses to condemn them, he still insists that they need to make a choice between right and wrong, and he insists that their choice matters.

Joie:  And I think that’s a message that he tried repeatedly to convey to us, Willa. That our choices matter. Whether we’re talking about racism, like in “Black or White,” or about prostitution, like in the Who Is It short film, or about gang violence and inner-city turmoil like in this video. We always have a choice in life – no matter what the circumstance – and our choices are important; they shape the outcome of our lives.

Willa:  That’s a really important point, Joie. You’re right – we can’t control the circumstances we’re born into, or many of the things that happen to us, but we can control how we respond to those circumstances, and those decisions matter. As he sings so beautifully in “Much Too Soon” from the Michael album,

I hope to make a change now for the better
Never letting fate control my soul

We can’t control fate, but that doesn’t mean we have to let fate control us.

Joie:  And I think that is the central message of the Bad short film, Willa.

So, next week, Willa and I will begin a 10-week Summer hiatus. It’s that time of year when everyone is busily taking advantage of the nice weather and enjoying some much needed R & R with their families, and Willa and I both have some upcoming travel plans so, it’s time for Summer vacation. But this doesn’t mean that we’re going to leave you high and dry! We have decided to revisit some of our favorite blog posts over the next 10 weeks and we’re actually really excited about it. We spent a great deal of time going over our conversations and deciding which ones to “rerun” and I think we were a little surprised when our choices coincided perfectly.

Willa:  Though looking back, maybe it’s not so surprising, Joie. We discovered that, while it’s important to look at larger cultural issues sometimes, such as prejudices about race, gender, and sexuality, what really nourishes both of us is Michael Jackson’s art – his songs, his videos, his voice. That’s not too surprising! So for the next 10 weeks we’ll snuggle in with some blog posts from throughout the year that take a close look at his art. And the comments sections will still be open, so we hope you’ll join us as we revisit some of his songs and videos and maybe bring new perspectives to the conversation the second time around.


About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on June 21, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Excellent conversation as usual. I love the BAD short film and no matter how many times I see it, Michael still gets me with his raw sensuality! I was so shocked the first time that I saw it back in the 80’s because it was quite obvious that little/Thriller Michael was gone and now he is become fully a man and expresses in ways that we were not used to. I felt the first crotch grab that he threw at us in the film and I still do! *faints* My son’s say that it is pitiful watching throw fits and squeals when I watch it. I can’t help it!

    But anyways, I didn’t try to find the IJCSLY single at the store. The day that it was released, I ordered it online from Walmart and had it shipped to one of the listed fed ex receiving stores for Walmart for free. Try that and you may get better results.

    Get some much need rest over the summer. You ladies deserve it and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I may not always comment, but I do read your posts!

    Much love.

  2. I found the new single at Wal-Mart in the ‘new release’ section. I didn’t notice it at first b/c the cover is too bland in my opinion. So I asked a clerk and they pointed it out. I think you have to ask the clerk b/c the cover is so blah and nondescript it gets hidden very easily in all the other CDs. Also there were a bunch of stickers on the front that hide Michael’s face! ‘Don’t Be Messin Round’ is a wonderful, happy tune and you can tell Michael was having so much fun. Michael’s intro to “I just Can’t Stop’ is very sexy.

    I agree Michael was a wonderful actor and I wish he could have done more in this regard, as he wanted to do, but Hollywood didn’t give him access. The film is similar to the Wizard of Oz in the way it goes from black and white into color–and when Michael shows up with his buckles and his dancers–he is indeed bad! Missy Elliott, in the CBS special ‘The One’ says this was the first time Michael grabbed his crotch. She saw it as a statement of how free he felt–she also said he had people believing in a new persona–as if he were saying, “I will mess you up, it will get ugly, I could fight now.”

    Enjoy your well-deserved R and R! Thanks for continuing to post while you are away.

    • “Michael was a wonderful actor and I wish he could have done more in this regard, as he wanted to do.”

      I don’t know if this is true so I should do a little more research about it, but I’ve heard he really wanted to play the role of Edward Scissorhands. Wouldn’t that have been incredible? Not only do I think he would have done an amazing job with it, but there are so many parallels between his very isolated but very public life, and Edward Scissorhands’ isolation. I really wish that could have happened.

      • Willa – Michael and acting would make a great topic. I’ve heard many rumors about the Edward Scissorhands movie and would love to know the truth about that. Tim Burton has always said kind things about Michael. I’ve also wondered if Michael and JOhnny Depp ever met or had any conversations seeing how both were close to Brando.

        As for movies, I know the whole MidKnight project was to be big. It had the same screenwriter as Scissorhands and (I think?) Jon Peters was involved. Sadly, the director committed suicide and then 1993 happened. From everything I’ve read about the project, it sounds very similar to the comic book/graphic novel that Michael and Gotham Chopra were working on.

        Anyone have any additional info?

        • Hi Destiny. We should ask Joie about his film projects – I bet she has some information about it. I’d also like to know more about the Edgar Allen Poe film he was so excited about. He mentioned it in at least two interviews, but then it never happened.

  3. This video, long and short, is one of my all-time favorites. Love the way Michael looks, love the dancing, the humor, the vitality, as well as the sensitivity of Daryl who is condescended to at school–although his new friends don’t seem to have a clue that they’re condescending. Trying to please his old friends, he gets mighty close to betraying himself and literally stops himself at the last moment from committing an act of violence by realizing that’s just not who he is. Most of all I love that he allowed Daryl’s story to have a positive outcome, a happy ending. It was Michael’s gift to the dead boy. I did the same thing when I was rewriting MJ’s story. He deserved a happy ending, too, and I felt great satisfaction in giving it to him.
    Ten weeks without you guys is a long time, but I wish you a wonderful summer. I’ve read everything you have on this site, including every reader-comment. Willa, I remember those “self-correcting” typewriter ribbons, too. In fact, I still have a box of Bic Wite-Out tapes left from the old days. They actually come in very handy for the occasional hand-written screw-up.
    I’m looking forward to your return.

  4. I had the same Walmart experience, then ordered it online at Walmart.com – of course I paid out of the…universere for shipping, but it’s ok. I got several copies. Yes. I know I have a problem.

    Thanks for the blog this week. You guys are B A D in my book! 🙂 . , I’m behind several weeks on commenting, but thought I’d leave a quick thank you. For some reason, prefer the short film before the video to the music part. I can’t logically explain it. The first time I saw the full version, I was almost upset when the song started.
    Today, on the news there was discussion on a viral YouTube video, showing the bullying of am elderly, overweight school bus monitor by teens…and it left that sick feeling. Now, I know I am comparing real world to art, but watching the short film as Michael waits for the elderly man, brings the same feeling. And then the rellief at the choice he shows us we can make.

    Thanks again!

  5. Great comments as usual, ladies, Have a good summer!

  6. Thanks ladies. Enjoy the summer and I look forward to more great new post in the fall!

  7. Bad was a great short film,and Michael was a great actor in it! As usual the media tried to make their opinon that he looked effiminate,everyones!1So untrue the public thought he looked HUNKY!..He was so talented!!..AS the awful anniversay approaches,I can only say,”Michael I am so sorry I did not defend you enough before you left us,sorry..The world lost so much,when you left.

  8. Thanks for another wonderful insightful blog – what are we going to do for 10 weeks? but have a great time. I am so looking forward to the full BAD anniversary package, cos we could not get the latest single in South Africa, so have to wait until the whole thing comes out in September, but so glad to hear that it reached No. 1 despite various people’s problems getting it in US.
    I have always enjoyed the full version of BAD cos it puts the coloured dance routine part in perspective – even the one with the kids on Moonwalker is great, but of course MJ himself is the man!! I love all the buckles etc etc etc – boy could he make a statement or what, and what a hunk!!
    A local radio station here in Cape Town is going to devote a whole day to Michael on the 24th in memory of him, so will be glued to the radio getting my fill. All the best ladies and enjoy your break.
    PS actually joined the fan club today as a supporting member which is great and feels like a real gift for me and Michael – RIP

  9. Wanda Polnitz

    I had no trouble finding Michael new single and it was only $1.88, it was in the new release section at the top of the CD section. I really loved the long version of Bad. Michael’s art and the way he produced his short films was amazing. I love your blog I really like how you break down your expose of what message Michael was putting in these wonderful shorts. Keep up the great blog and hope you have some great R and R.

  10. Thanks again for this great conversation. Like Caro, I wonder what I will do for the next 10 weeks. Thursdays just won’t be the same. I look forward to your return. Have a nice vacation.

  11. I hope you all have a fun summer too – or winter for you, Caro! And I hope you enjoy looking back at some of the older posts. Joie and I have learned so much from everyone’s comments over the past year, so our ideas about some things have shifted, and not many people knew about us when we first started. So for a number of reasons, we think it’ll be interesting to go back and have a discussion about some of the early posts from last fall, especially.

    Joie and I will both be traveling some this summer. (I’m going camping in the desert soon with another mom and five kids, including a preponderance of teenagers, but they’re all great kids and I’m really looking forward to it.) But we’ll be checking in regularly and joining the comments whenever we can. (Not much wi-fi in the desert!)

    p.s. When I couldn’t find the new single, I came home and ordered it online and got a message that it should come in to the nearest store within two weeks. But it’s been more than two weeks now and it still hasn’t come in yet, so I’m wondering if there’s been a mix-up somewhere. I’m excited it reached Number 1 on the Billboard charts, but I wonder if it would have done even better if it were easier to get. …

  12. I have a question that is off the point, but you are all so knowledgeable that I am sure someone can help me.
    Yesterday a local DJ had an half hour spot in memory of Michael’s 3rd anniversary – going to do the same for the next 2 weeks as well, as he said there is no way one can do Michael’s career justice in half an hour! and how right he is. He said that Michael first moonwalked in the short movie of Thriller. I didn’t remember that and looked very carefully twice, and I cannot see Michael moonwalking. Although he is known for doing it during live performances of Billy Jean, he did not moonwalk on the short movie. As far as I am aware Michael first moonwalked during the Smooth Criminal dance routine on Moonwalker – or perhaps that sequence is a backslide? not clear to see?
    Can anyone tell me when Michael first moonwalked on a short movie? Thanks. Have a great summer everyone, while I try to have a great winter as Willa said – brrrr!!

    • He didn’t moonwalk in Thriller. the moonwalk was first perormed on the television special “Motown 25:Yesterday.Today. Forever” in 1983 or 4, I forget which.

  13. aldebaranredstar

    Hi, Just read in A. White and J. Vogel that the story of Daryl in ‘Bad’ was loosely based on the story of Edmund Perry, who was from Harlem, had gone to a prestigious prep school and had been accepted to a presitigious college, and was killed by a plainclothes policeman, who claimed he was attacked by Edmund Perry and his brother and shot in self-defense. There was a trial and the policeman was found not guilty as there were witnesses who supported his account.

    Also J. Vogel quotes director Allen Hughes who told MTV News that Michael ‘was an incredible actor,’ not only for the work he did ‘going head to head with Wesley Snipes’ in ‘Bad’ but also ‘the nuances of ‘The Wiz’ (117).

    He wanted to play Peter Pan and was planning a play on Broadway when the 2003 charges hit. Also as Willa said he wanted to do a film on E.A. Poe where he would play Poe. He did have the tiny part as Agent M in Men in Black.

    I spent yesterday re-reading Karen Moriarty’s book about Michael–Defending a King. She says when he died he was facing 38 lawsuits. Things got chaotic, according to her, b/c too many fingers were in the pie and Michael was not in control of his finances and trusted his advisors too much. I hope one day it all gets unraveled in a good way. She also makes some statements that the 05 trial was one of the biggest against a single person in the history of USA in terms of the 70 plus person raid of Neverland, the 100 search warrants, the amount of $ spent by the prosecution, the 2,200 media registered to cover the trial.

    Glad to hear you will check in from time to time on the blog. Have a wonderful R and R.

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