Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Playboy Music

The special CBS aired to celebrate (surelv not to sell) its record affiliate's star 1987 offering, Michael Jackson's Bad (Epic), made the mistake of filming Michael next to his Madame Tussaud dummy. I'm not going to judge who was more alive, but the comparison was disquieting. Michael's latest date with the plastic surgeon has left him resembling one of the zombies in the "Thriller" video, and while Bad isn't as bad (conventional meaning) as that, it definitely ain't bad (black-English meaning), either.

Yes. pop tans should enjoy Michael's new music. The electronic groove this rhythmic genius constructs is a muscular improvement on the black-pop standard set by producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for sister Janet (try "The Way You Make Me Feel" or the CD-only "Leave Me Alone"). His vivid vocal signature hias matured -- the gulps and shrieks are less mannered, the basic attack more soulful. And there's none of the cutesy goop that made Thriller such a jagged milestone.

But it wasn't 38,000,000 pop fans who bought Thriller -- there aren't that many. It was 38,000,000 citizens of the world, and Bad won't do it for them. It's got no can't-miss extras, no musical master strokes like "Beat It" or "Billie Jean." And while words aren't supposed to matter, the lyrics -- about fear of groupies, crime, cops, the man in the mirror -- aren't going to dispel the widespread suspicion that this man is really Howard Hughes.

Playboy, Jan. 1988

Dec. 1987 Feb. 1988