#203: Michael Jackson, "Bad" (1987)

There’s a meme where a guy dressed as an alien with a giant, bug-eyed head is chasing someone down a street. The caption says, “Me asking everyone I meet for their birth details so I can find out their chart.” I’m definitely that person. I’m not an astrologer by any means, but I do find it fascinating. I see at it as a way to look deeper at aspects of the personality. I find it usually leads to questions we already have or insights we already suspect about ourselves.

My friend Erin says that she’s never known anyone more proud of their sign than a Virgo. I’m sure many signs would disagree, but for me, it’s true. Besides the fact that I’ve been known to hashtag #Virgopower, or that I’m honored to share a sign with Beyoncé, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, Sean Connery, and Nas—just to name a few—when it came time to write about Bad, the first thing that came to mind was that the album is also a Virgo, born on August 31, 1987, two days after the birthday of Michael Jackson (born August 29th, 1958). There’s some speculation about his time of birth, but the prevailing theory is that it was 7:33 p.m., making his rising sign Pisces, same as his Moon sign.

If you go with that, it’s likely that his energy was a constant push-pull. Six signs apart, Virgo and Pisces are considered polar opposites. Virgo is usually typecast as the perfectionist: analytical, organized, conscientious, contemplative, and hard-working. Pisces is thought of as the daring, artistic, creative, intuitive, soul-searching free-spirit. Think of Beyoncé (Virgo) and Rihanna (Pisces). The relationship between these signs signifies the duality between control and escape. Astrologers believe that your sun sign is your identity, who you believe yourself to be, while your rising sign is what you show to the world, and your moon sign reflects your emotions, your inner mood. A prevailing theory is that anyone of any sign might do well to try to embody the astrological traits of your polar opposite. Still, none of this really matters unless you decide it does. That’s the magic of astrology—free will.

As with anything complex, astrology is often misunderstood, especially when trying to boil someone down to one aspect of a much larger puzzle. Just as easily as we brand someone with the character traits we think they might have based on their astrological sign, so we think we understand artists based on what they show to the world.

Many critical references to Michael share the undercurrent of extreme duality one could assume in his astrological makeup—shyness vs. gregariousness, masculine vs. feminine, the push/pull between tension and escape, wanting to be understood and accepted, and longing to be left alone. Good vs., well, Bad.

As Michael experimented creatively, writing nine out of the eleven tracks on Bad, his public persona appeared more and more theatrical—expressed in the paranoia of “Leave Me Alone,” and “Dirty Diana,” the groupie tale, the prayer for evolution of “Man in the Mirror,” and the bravado and machismo of “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal.” “Leave Me Alone” in particular—the psychedelic video for which won a Grammy—addressed the myth of Michael and the rumors that plagued him, like the stories that he slept in a hyperbaric chamber and that he wanted to buy the bones of the Elephant Man. There was a widely-held belief that his increasingly changing physical look—which he attributed to weight loss, diet, and diagnoses of Lupus and Vitiligo—and plastic surgery, meant he wanted to be white. Joseph Vogel, author of Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, writing in The Atlantic, says, “This was the ominous undercurrent beginning to swirl around Jackson and it had an impact on both his own psyche and that of the public (particularly in the U.S.). The tension between control and liberation or escape percolates throughout the Bad album and its accompanying music videos.”

The dichotomy and distance between what Michael gave to the world and what he kept for himself, his inner world, grew as his fame and success eclipsed every entertainer, and especially black entertainers, who had come before him. Of Michael’s trajectory, author James Baldwin said, “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair…”

The term Wacko Jacko, which tabloids began to use in the 1980s, may have had some basis in some of his stranger behavior, but there’s no denying that its origins are racist, as the term came from a reference to a British slang word for monkeys, which has long held derogatory meaning for blacks. Vogel writes, Like Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” scene in Invisible Man, it was a process by which to reduce Michael Jackson the human being and artist, to ‘Jacko’ the minstrelized spectacle for avaricious amusement. (It is significant to note that, while the term was used widely by the white media, it was rarely, if ever used by black journalists.)”

Watching the “Bad” video as a kid, I most vividly remember his transformation into the leather-clad dancer strutting his stuff in the train station with his boys, so different from the suave Michael reclining with a tiger cub in a white suit on the cover of Thriller in the poster on my wall. I had no idea how different he already was, or what the racial and societal implications really were, except for hearing my dad lament the loss of the blackness of Michael’s original nose. Rewatching as an adult—impressed by the fact that it was directed by Martin Scorsese!—I’m struck by the sincerity in his acting as a city kid with a ticket to prep school. Once he’s off the Metro North train and back on the block with his boys—among them Wesley Snipes, no less—it’s clear he’s no longer at home with them, either. He belongs nowhere, really. Through that lens the transition into the epic choreography doesn’t feel so much like the incredible dance sequence I remembered loving as a kid. It feels like the artist’s way of revealing his fight to understand himself after such a long absence in his prime and distance from the fans that made him famous—five years since the success of Thriller, long having eclipsed his brothers in the Jackson 5. Also striking is its thread to our current racial climate: both the song and video for “Bad”were inspired by outrage at the death of Edward Perry, a black prep school student killed by a police officer in NYC in 1985.

Despite its commercial success, artistically, Bad may have just embodied a few too many Virgo characteristics to please its detractors. Critics felt it was too stylistically polished, Michael’s way of trying to recreate the success of Thriller. They thought “Bad” wanted to be “Beat It,” and “Dirty Diana” wanted to recreate the power of “Billie Jean.” They also thought Michael was trying to out-Prince Prince. Referencing “Dirty Diana,” writer John Tatlock called Jackson, “a boy-child trying to write a song about the kind of woman he never meets in the kind of places he’s certainly never been to.”

“Bad” was supposed to be a duet between Michael and Prince. Can you imagine that? Perhaps if they’d worked together, Prince’s Gemini sun and Michael’s Virgo sun would have created something special. Astrologically, Virgo and Gemini share a ruler in the planet Mercury, thought to be connected to the mind and rational thought. In Vibe, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson says, “I have an actual theory on why we started connecting Michael and Prince together early on. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both were born in the summer of 1958 in the Midwest and both basically represent different phases of the coming-of-age life of black youth. Michael captured the imagination of post civil-rights America as a youth and he was their guiding light. And Prince captured the same post-civil rights America when they became teenagers and helped them mature into adulthood.” Prince’s former tour manager Alan Leeds suggests that the characteristics,  differences, and mutual respect the two shared that might have made for great music didn’t leave space for collaboration. “But the thing about Michael coming to Prince and wanting him to do ‘Bad,’ that really pissed him off. Prince was like, ‘Oh, he wants to punk me out on record. Who does he think I am, crazy?’ He couldn’t get outside himself enough to realize that it was the kind of thing that probably could have benefited both of them. Still, it would have forever been Michael’s video with Prince as just a guest. So that captured what the relationship couldn’t be. They were like Ali vs. Frazier. And the media couldn’t get enough of pitting these guys against each other. In the same article, writer Cynthia Horner captures what makes their mythology so alluring. “One of the reasons why we still care about Michael and Prince is because we will never know everything we want to know about them. They both understood the power of mystique,” she says.

The mystique and myth of Michael became increasingly harder to come to terms with as he dealt with the scrutiny and aftermath of his very public molestation trial. Writer Joyce Mason says, “Although he was found not guilty on all charges in his 2005 child molestation trial, he remained a symbol...of the Radical Virgo struggle to synthesize the extremes of sexual innocence and corruption.”

Karen Wink, in Pop Matters, says, “He became a figure in a myth that he (or we) did not expect to become real. In fact, we love our myths, those stories a culture believes as truth; tales that express the deepest truths of ourselves; tales mixing imagination and facts. And we do not like our myths to die.” She goes on to say, “As we sat in Jackson’s audiences, most of us experienced catharsis via his joy and pain: we exalted in his extraordinary entertainment, pitied his longing for a childhood, became mortified at his outrageous acts, then feared his demise. The myth was reflexive—standing on opposite sides of a mirror, we and he mythologized in likeness, constructing a superhuman place for him to live and for us to travel vicariously.”

Like Wink says about our voyeurism of Michael, we like stories we can believe, stories that express our truths, mixing imagination and facts. It’s exciting to have potential to reach for in our shared experiences.

What I enjoy about astrology is its promise. I like finding out someone’s rising sign, getting their chart details, because it means there’s a possibility of connection beyond what we already know or feel. We can connect to the positive traits of astrology just like we connect to the parts of the myths and mystique of our artists that suit us. But what about the parts of them that line up with the traits we don’t like? The ugly ones? The ones we hide? It would be easy to just associate with the positive qualities, but to do so would be disingenuous. Perhaps we should task ourselves with understanding the whole.

—Lee Erica Elder