Saturday, October 3, 2009

Michael Jackson and Martin Scorsese's "Bad"

Martin Scorsese’s “Bad” was, in many ways, a better film that “Thriller”. I think by now there’s no question of which is the better remembered of the two, but “Bad” I think is actually improved by its relatively rare exposure. It still feels like a bit of a special treat to see the long-form video (as opposed to the relatively useless short version).

The video of “Bad” is a story about class and race, and about how demeaning it can be to straddle those lines. For somebody who’d already gone from poor to unbelievably rich and who was well on the way to a skin colour that in no way resembles his race, this was heady stuff. Michael Jackson’s character, however, doesn’t seem to be choosing his place in all this: his character is shy and passive, until the leather-and-clasps-man within breaks out.

His character is an inner-city kid who, for some reason, goes to a private school ‘uptown’. In the school, everyone is white (except Michael and a Latino in the same boat). In Michael Jackson’s neighbourhood, everyone is black. Both sides are equally condescending: the preppy well-off white kids who tell Michael and the Latino that they’re ‘proud of’ them for, I suppose, overcoming the restrictions of their backgrounds, and Michael Jackson’s friends from the neighbourhood, who see Michael Jackson as a softened sell-out who has forgotten where he came from.

What’s interesting about this, though, is that where Wesley Snipes and the other inner-city homeboys get their come-uppance (of sorts – really it’s just a detente), the rich kids don’t. Once Michael Jackson gets on that subway, the white kids are gone, never to atone for being condescending. And while the overall message of the song-proper part of the video is valid (wearing leather and dancing with men who look like Village People of all ethnicities is just as legitimate an expression of ‘badness’ as mugging senior citizens), it would have been nice to see the rich kids subjected to a dance-routine montage with a similar message. It would, I guess, have created a sense of balance.

As it is, though, the video offers us something much more valuable: a whole other song. This is something that doesn’t happen that often in music videos: the equivalent of a ‘bonus track’, I suppose. Once the song itself fizzles out (I must confess that “Bad” is not my favourite Michael Jackson composition), we are treated to an a capella call-and-response that is, in my opinion, as exciting and musically accomplished as anything in the song proper.

Pity it never showed up on any album.

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