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.