Michael Jackson doesn’t fit neatly into the role of producer, since we consume not only the music he makes but also him and his performances. This signals that a more comprehensive model than the two presented in the introduction must be constructed to better understand the way he and his music affect cultural reproduction. Stuart Hall makes some important revisions to theories about the hegemony problem, and this chapter draws on Hall’s ideas to explore a solution and create a new model of how people participate in and are implicated in ideology-building. As a cautionary note, I want to preemptively aver the inadequacy of my model; Michael already broke the other two before I even started analyzing, and I imagine that mine will similarly fail to “contain” him. But perhaps that’s the main point: Michael’s “Bad”ness defies fixity, structuration, limitation. His success is his ability to break out of “frameworks of intelligibility” (Representation). This chapter explores how this tendency in his work serves the purpose of subverting hegemony.
Hall presents two main modifications that relate to my current undertaking. First, we cannot talk about hegemonic relations in terms of blocs of people (producer vs. consumer). Rather, we should talk about them as discourses that articulate with one another through people (“Rediscovery” 146). Hall says that the “class struggle in language” is “not one in which whole discourses could be unproblematically assigned to whole social classes or social groups.” Although different discourses’ ways of seeing and valuing the world may have some alignment with the lived materiality of certain classes, that is “not the same thing as ascribing ideologies to classes in a fixed, necessary or determinate way”; it is also true in the same way that discourses cannot be assigned unproblematically to a race, a gender, a sexuality, etc.
This non-fixity of “ideological terms” is an important foundational lynch-pin for theorizing the subversion of oppressive ideology: a group may “conduct an ideological struggle to disarticulate a signifier from one, preferred or dominant meaning-system, and rearticulate it within another, different chain of connotations,” giving it a new, non-oppressive function (146). The song “Bad” and its accompanying short film radically question the way certain values are assigned to race, class, and gender and disrupt any notion of permanency in these connections. By taking elements from the dominant meaning-system and reassigning them, this artifact of pop culture works subversively against any attempt to lock down hegemonic meanings.
The short film for “Bad,” directed by Martin Scorcese, was created in two parts, the first in black and white and the second in color. The second, more famous part contains the song and choreographed dancing, and I will discuss it after I lay some additional groundwork. The first part of the video depicts how the dis-articulation and re-articulation of discourse elements in new configurations leads to structural change, so I want to discuss it here. It is viewed far less often than the second part (evidenced by view counts on YouTube), so it may not have as much cultural effect. For those who do see it, though, it undeniably opens up for examination the relationship between articulations of ideology and configurations of class, race, and gender.
On his way back to the inner city from his mostly-white prep school, “Daryl” (Michael) runs into a Hispanic student. He asks, “How many guys proud of you?”, to which Michael responds, “Three.” The other student says, “Shoot, four guys proud of me,” and they laugh it off together. This moment of racial-minority solidarity highlights the discrimination both of them face in their white schools, where they get demeaning pats on the head because no one expects them to succeed; but it also looks forward to the discrimination they face from people of their own race. Daryl and the Hispanic student expose how problematic it is to impose ways of knowing, believing, understanding, and living on people based on their race. Both the students at their schools and their peers at home resist the fact that the students disarticulate elements of a dominant ideology (education, manner of dress, style, and speech, etc.) and rearticulate them into their home ideologies.
One potent scene portrays potently this resistance to rearticulation. One of Daryl’s friends sports stolen glasses and jokes about having taken the lenses out. When another friend calls the style of the glasses “turtle shell,” Daryl corrects him: “It’s tortoise shell.” An awkward moment, silent but filled with tension, follows his remark. This signals differing values, along with differential access to status and class markers (Hodge).
The leader of the crew (Wesley Snipes) implies that Daryl is betraying them in terms of race, class, and even gender when he says Daryl would rather play tennis (traditionally a very elitist sport) with his white friends than hang out with his old friends. “Are you bad?” he challenges Daryl, “You either down, or you ain’t down.” Here the black and white color choice for the film highlights the simple-mindedness of such a challenge. By disallowing the rearticulation of ideological elements into their home discourse, Snipes’s character shows a limited perspective that can only see two possibilities. He views Daryl’s rearticulation as gentrifying rather than hybridizing, and he cannot envision how that might actually be a resistant move.
The crew challenges Daryl to show solidarity with them by robbing a man, but he turns “soft” at the last moment and he helps the chosen victim escape. This leads to an argument over “who’s bad” and what counts as “bad,” which leads into the song. This argument is the setup, and the song in the second part is Michael’s reply. Juxtaposing the black-and-white first section against the full-color second allows an analysis in terms of disarticulation of hegemonic meanings and rearticulation of ideological elements in newer, freer configurations. Taken as a reply to Daryl’s friends’ resistance, “Bad” contests a notion of fixed meanings and concretely assigned ideologies, and offers new definitions of old terms that may offer subversive potential.
The second key revision from Hall shows why Michael Jackson and “Bad” are particularly well-situated for such subversion. An oppressive ideology, Hall says, can best be subverted from a position of power, because one must have insider access and power to renegotiate the terms of the discussion (“Rediscovery” 147). Access to the means of signification is not distributed equally: groups that use the dominant discourse can “establish the primary framework or terms of an argument,” while subordinate groups using other discourses have to “perform with the established terms of the problematic in play.” If the subordinate group takes up “the privileged definition of the problem,” this gives “credibility to the dominant problematic,” and “reproduces the given terms of the argument” in the very act of making a counterargument. This model of dialogue reproduces the material conditions of hegemony and reifies the subordinate status of the dissenting group. In terms of this theory, Michael Jackson is thus in a better position to subvert hegemonic cultural reproduction than, say, a punk band. This is partly because of his position of power in the industry. Michael Jackson calls into question the terms of the argument in several ways: he asks for a redefinition of what “bad” means, but also a redefinition of what it describes, who gets the label, and what effects the label has.
Before diving into a deeper analysis of “Bad,” I want to briefly consider how and why it can be successfully subversive given the cycle of appropriation and sanitation of subversive music I introduced in the introduction. Consider this third model that I have constructed that takes into account Stuart Hall’s revisions on ideology, articulation, and power:
The third model accounts for the non-fixity of meanings (Hall Representation). When different discourses articulate distinct meanings for the same symbol, there is potential disagreement between interpreters. When people have differential access to power, this disagreement turns into ideological control or oppression. The importance of this model is that neither the meaning of the symbol within any discourse nor the outcome of the negotiation between people (let alone the identity of those negotiating) is predictable, and hence not assessable in a generalized way. We cannot make a model that satisfactorily accounts for consumers’ behavior, so I focus on something that is available for assessment: the commodity, and specifically Michael Jackson as a commodity.
The significance of the commodity itself has been neglected in past models of critical pop culture analysis (the preoccupation seems to have been with whether consumers affect producers or producers affect consumers, or both). Commodities have an ideological agency because discourses flow through them (note that the arrows flow both ways in my diagram: our interactions with commodities form us and our discursive practices). Michael Jackson had a position of power in the industry, but the way he gets mass-commodified and mass-consumed allows him to shape discourse in a unique way that the role of “producer” in older models simply cannot account for. Analyzing Michael Jackson as a commodity is a unique theoretical move that allows me to tease out nuanced dynamics of the way his music shapes culture. I theorize the position of “commodity” as a discourse-laden object (or person-as-object) that does three things:
First, commodities simulate and dissimulate—they are simulacra. Any re-presentation that seems to be merely a transmission of reality is problematic: representations are productions of meanings (Representation). Yet commodities often dissimulate, or pretend that they aren’t fabricated commodities, objects, and desires; then they simulate, or pretend that they are authentic, original, true, natural, or objective (Simulation and Simulacra). I analyze this feature of commodities more fully in Chapter 5. For now, it is important to view “Bad” as a re-presentation of a reality even if it seems to be a real-istic depiction.
Second, commodities manufacture demand for themselves, and by doing so they have a formative effect on consumers. Because music is a symbolic commodity (made with symbols), it is always already ideologically inflected; therefore, to manufacture music is to manufacture beliefs, values, and attitudes. Horkheimer and Adorno claim that the culture industry creates the desires they pretend only to cater to (122). Yet because of the agency of the commodity, we don’t have to blame “producers” of culture. Meaning already exists in the process of interpreting a commodity: it implicates us in the meaning-making process and shapes our habits and expectations (Representation). So interpreting an image (or consuming a commodity) forms our desires, and is also an identity-forming, practice-forming act.
The ideological pull of a commodity is not necessarily solely hegemonic or subversive. Some commodities meant to create profit for capitalistic interests are simultaneously subversive to dominant ideology (Lovell 513); and since commodities create desire, such a commodity could create dual and conflicting desires. Michael Jackson is precisely this type of commodity. Bad became Jackson’s second highest-selling album, creating enormous profit and stoking the flame of the commodity-capitalist engine. Yet within “Bad” we see and hear multiple subversive and at times contradictory ideological messages.
Third, commodities manufacture consensus. This is a fabricated consensus; it does not have its basis in actual consumers, but in an image, a hyperreality constructed and shown to consumers as if it were reality. Baudrillard calls these fabrications “silent majorities” (Shadow). Stuart Hall says that “the media become part and parcel of that dialectical process of the ‘production of consent’ – shaping the consensus while reflecting it” (“Rediscovery” 153). Hall clarifies that this is not a process of “conscious intentions and biases,” which further justifies my focus on media commodities—songs, videos, images. These representations produce meanings about events, objects, and relations, and then communicate those meanings. By their very physically static nature, they attempt to fix the meaning, to naturalize it; this is one way power is asserted (the agent here: the commodity) to enforce an ideology. This property of commodities, however, also opens up the possibility for commodities to reshape reality by fabricating a consensus in terms other than the currently constituted ones. In this way, “Bad” fabricates a consensus towards a different relation among ideologies, and participates in this “process of consensus formation” by re-presenting, hence producing, a new reality.
These three functions of commodities constitute their ideological agency. As they manufacture demand for their own partial representations of the world, representations that often pose as if they were neutral or whole or original, they enable a mass consumption of a system of hyperreality. If we view Michael Jackson as a commodity, then, these three functions inform how representations of him (songs and videos) actually exercise agency, regardless of who made the representation or their intent, and regardless of individual consumption. Trying to parse out the “authentic” Michael from his presence in his art is an unattainable goal and a theoretically misinformed one. A new focus on Jackson-as-commodity will demystify the process of the transmission of ideas from Jackson’s artifacts into actual disturbances of material reality.
Through a multiplicity of representations, Michael Jackson has been used as both a hegemonic and a counter-hegemonic commodity. Many representation of Jackson subverted norms of the dominant cultural ideology, and many of those subversions were absorbed, sanitized, and appropriated by popular culture just as Hebdige explains. But because he was in such a position of power when Bad was released, the effect of this appropriation is actually change, not stasis. Jackson’s subversions contradict expectations, and when images contradict our expectations, they subvert and partially reconstruct our reality (Representation). Hall explains that with enough of these contradictions, meaning will “loosen and fray.” With this theoretical framework of counter-hegemonic commodities in place, I will show how “Bad” serves the purpose of loosening, fraying, and finally un-fixing meaning in many ways.
Language, Structure, and Sound:
The lyrics of the song present both a radical destabilization and proliferation of definitions of words, as well as a post-modern distrust of language in general. First and foremost, Michael sings over and over again, “I’m bad, I’m bad!” As I mentioned earlier, the song is presented within the video as a retort to his friend. They disagree about who is bad, but Michael disagrees more fundamentally about what bad means. These two definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary represent at least some of the conflicting meanings of the word in this song and video:
12. As a general term of approbation: good, excellent, impressive; esp. stylish or attractive. (According to OED’s etymology, this usage developed around the 1950’s by jazz musicians.)
13. Originally in African-American usage. Of a person: (originally) dangerous or menacing to a degree which inspires awe or admiration; impressively tough, uncompromising, or combative; (in later use also) possessing other desirable attributes to an impressive degree; esp. formidably skilled. (OED’s etymology documents this usage starting in the 1940’s and 50’s.)
The song does not reject one definition in favor of the other. Rather, what it rejects is a singular definition of the word. Wesley Snipes uses the word “bad” with the connotations listed in definition 13 (it’s hard to imagine him getting up in Michael’s face and shouting aggressively, “Are you stylish or attractive?”); the lyrics don’t shy away from this definition altogether, but they transform it by incorporating other meanings (like “formidably skilled” and the approbatory sense from definition 12) – a rearticulation of new connotations into the discourse. As Michael shuttles among these various meanings and disavows a single, fixed one, the song refuses to accept even its own new possibilities as definitive.
The song doesn’t only expand and unfix definitions, but shows a skeptical attitude about language and words to some degree. Michael accuses his addressee twice directly, saying, “Your talk is cheap, you’re not a man” and “Your lying eyes, gonna tell you right.” One specific misdeed seems to be lying or misusing language. But the distrust of his cheap talk is based on actions as well: “The word is out, you’re doing wrong.” This set of lyrics gives a confusing picture about language: on the one hand “the word” can be trusted to give information about this person’s actions, but on the other hand the accused’s words are not trusted. One possible way to explain this contradiction would be to say that Wesley Snipes represents a one-dimensional understanding of “bad” (and of language and practice in general), whereas Michael and his crew represent a plurality of definitions, a different understanding of how language works. In this sense, “the word” (language is given agency here) can be trusted because it has a polysemous character. A limited perspective of language may itself constitute the wrong-doing. But lest I comfortably proclaim a new reign of linguistic relativity, Michael reminds me that some things do get locked down: “Gonna lock you up before too long,” he sings. This fixing prevents me from fixing unfixing as the fixed interpretation of this song.
At the end of the chorus, there is a sense that plurality of voices can contribute to building trust in language: “And the whole world has to answer right now just to tell you once again: who’s bad?” First, the consensus of the “whole world” gives strength and believability to the utterance; but second and more importantly, the consensus the world comes to is not an answer, not a definition, an ideology, a solution—rather, it is a question, and a destabilizing one at that. “Who’s bad?” appears to be a simple question to end the video with. An obvious answer would be, “Well, Michael is bad, he has just told us so about twenty-nine times.” If so, the line could simply be “I’m bad.” But the open-endedness itself is what prevents this video from being appropriated into the service of hegemony. As I have consumed this text an uncountable number of times, I have incorporated its ideological accents and I have interpreted it according to mine. Sometimes we come to a stable, resting, temporary agreement. But it always sings out to me again, “Wait, really?” “What’s bad?” and “Are you bad?” The very act of consuming this commodity disrupts stability.
One of the most culturally potent ways “Bad” troubles hegemonic representations is by disarticulating violence and crime from each other by discriminating carefully between different types of crimes depicted in the film. When Michael and his gang try to rob a man in the first segment, Michael clearly doesn’t want to participate in that illegal action of physical violence to another person. However, he and his (new) crew jump the turnstiles in the subway station as they dance, which is technically a crime but a non-violent one. They also spray-paint BAD on the wall and tear down a “wanted” poster with mug shots and “BAD” written on it. Why commit these crimes when he was hesitant about other crimes (robbing and drug-dealing) earlier in the film?
The question goes back to a connection between “bad” and “smooth” in one of the closing choruses. Michael sings, “You know I’m smooth, I’m bad, you know it,” and equating those terms points directly to the song “Smooth Criminal” near the end of the album. This implies a connection between what it means to be “Bad” and what counts as “Criminal.” “Bad” in the sense of this video is explicitly not criminality in the way the current American judicial system thinks of it—that’s the point made by tearing down the “wanted” poster labeled BAD. The dancers, the video, the song, they’re all calling for a reconsideration of these terms and problematizing the simplicity of the bad = criminal (= black) equation. Why would we classify assault and robbery under the same term as jumping over a subway turnstile? Both are technically illegal, and called “crimes” (the legal system has different levels of severity, but it’s more the issue of what counts as illegal or “bad” in general that I’m getting at here). What does this conflation say about real-life values? Being a “good” or upstanding citizen in this society means precisely being “not bad,” while “bad” covers a wide spectrum of activities. It’s a troublesome label that this video forces us to reconceptualize.
Beyond rearticulating via language, the structure of “Bad” also reinforces a disarticulation of fixed norms and opens itself up to question. The third bridge presents both a utopian moment and a puzzling mystery. Michael sings, “We can change the world tomorrow. This could be a better place.” He presents no Earth-shattering, specific solutions, but at least there’s an acknowledgement that “change” (not fixity) is necessary to create a “better place.” These lines juxtaposed against the second part of the refrain present a contradiction: “If you don’t like what I’m saying, then won’t you slap my face.” Michael invites physical violence as a method of conflict resolution (likely a taunt playing on Wesley’s propensity towards violence). There are, obviously, multiple ways to see these lines. The most interesting to me, however, is to unsee them: this entire stanza is absent from the music video! Why? Perhaps this reinforces the song’s general distrust of language. Or perhaps the choreography was more interesting than the lyrics. It would be very like Michael Jackson to remove these lines just to make people like me scratch our heads in wonderment. Any small move to throw stability out the door is a success for “Bad.”
There is another structural subversion in the second verse, similar in effect. The verse has 3 four-line refrains, not 2 or 4. Even numbers are typical in pop music. When odd numbers are used, they are almost always symmetrical and match throughout all the verses or choruses. But the first verse has 4 four-liners, so it is strange and rare for the second verse to have 3 in comparison with most pop music. Even a passive listener could find this disruption of expectations to be disorienting. This is a subtle but “bad” move: even the structure keeps you on your toes and unfixes previously locked-down meanings.
The sounds and pronunciation in this video make it obvious that the dominant ways of understanding sound do not always suffice. Michael’s sounds and words defy transcribers’ attempts to spell and write them. For example, I’ve chosen to write “gonna” instead of trying to spell some mangled version of what I think I hear on the track, and I make that conscious choice to respect the inability of written language to contain this commodity and this artist. Michael’s pronunciation of “come on” (a lyric not universally agreed upon) similarly defies the spelling tools I have (linguists, have a go with your phonetic transcription). Michael repeats a sound like “nah” (unvoiced, but with passion!) after every other line, and there are many other sounds and yells and noisy breaths in the video. These unintelligible sounds act as yet another destabilizing feature: you simply cannot understand everything in this song. If that’s the way you approach music, it asks you to reconsider what you’re doing.
Clothing and Aesthetics:
The very act of listening to the pop commodity of “Bad” requires the consumer to disarticulate and rearticulate several sets of meanings. The lyrics, the structure, and the sounds all call into question what is “normal” and create new associations for the listener. Watching the visual aspects of the video is an even stronger counter-hegemonic experience. In the moment before the song starts, the video switches from black and white to color. This signals that the visual aspects of the film have just become more important. Out of the shadows and from behind the pillars a variety of people pop out and congregate behind Michael. The new crew is racially diverse, and they sport many different colors and styles.
Then the camera does a slow 180-degree pan around Michael’s body, starting at his heels and ending on his face. The silver heels of his boots have gold longhorn cattle emblems on them, and the buckles and leather straps around them have a cowboy look to them. Higher up his legs there are more straps, but these ones are canvas belts with loop-style buckles, all adorning classic black Levi jeans. Progressing upwards, he is wearing no less than three belts (and likely more) with lots of metal—buckles, studs, metal-ringed holes, with bits of chain and metal loops hanging from the belts. On his right hand he wears a brace similarly adorned with punk-style accoutrements. The jacket has zippers and buckles at odd angles and in unexpected places.
This prolonged focus on Michael’s iconoclastic “Bad” outfit draws attention to its hybridity and distinctiveness. There are at least three distinct genres of fashion combined: cowboy-Western style in the boots and lower buckles; punk style in the metal, the color scheme, and haphazard-esque construction; and military style in the jacket cut and the belts and epaulets. (A fourth genre could be found in his Levis jeans and “everyday” canvas belts.) These elements aren’t just combined, though: each one is overblown to an extreme, which reveals how constructed and non-natural this figure is. The outfit, just like the lyrics, keep us guessing, and we can never quite be sure what it is “supposed” to be. It disarticulates all these elements of style and clothing from their “natural” places and rearticulates them in relation to “bad”ness.
One way to read this outfit would be to call it an incorporation of punk style into popular culture, a la Dick Hebdige. By putting non-clothing items onto clothing (studs, metal, safety pins) and by making the clothing bad-on-purpose, punk style subverts the norms of what clothing is supposed to do—a destabilizing surrealist juxtaposition.
However, when pop culture takes punk clothing and commodifies it, Hebdige fears that it loses its subversive power. Clarke, however, asks whether we can reenvision style incorporation as a breakthrough rather than failure (Storey Intro 165). Hall’s idea that subversion is easier from a position of power helps support Clarke’s reenvisioning: since Michael Jackson is the center of pop music, when he “reincorporates” subversive punk style it actually shifts the center towards a punk ideology.
Another way to interpret Michael’s outfit comes from Elizabeth Wilson’s discussion of postmodern fashion. She says, “Our finished ‘appearance,’ therefore, is the end result (yet itself alterable and altering) of an often elaborate construction” (Wilson 435). In this sense, Michael’s outfit amplifies and obviates its own constructedness, making aspects of each genre conspicuous rather than natural or given. Wilson says Frederic Jameson “objects to this proliferation of practices” in postmodern fashion because “the hysteric overflow of possibilities, the hypertrophy of styles, destroys meaning” (435). But that is precisely the point—the fashion is “bad” because it calls for a destruction of fixed categories and a renegotiation of meaning.
In particular, Michael Jackson’s fashion opened up gender configurations for men. When fashion “playfully transgresses” gender boundaries and stereotypes, it exposes “the masquerade of femininity” (437), but Wilson suggests that “it would be more subversive to extend the notion of artifice to masculinity” (437-8). Michael Jackson has done just that. Historically, the acceptable and available fashion choices for men have been limited in comparison to women’s fashion. Terms like “power suit” and “power tie” reflect how men’s fashion privileges certain dominant modes of masculinity. Michael Jackson’s dresses in alarming, shocking, eye-catching ways and thus exposes the “normative nature of social practices, always so intensely encoded in dress” (438) and opens up greater possibilities for men’s dress and their social practices.
Throughout this project I have tried to avoid sources who knew Michael personally (including his autobiography and other biographies). But I couldn’t resist reading what Michael Bush, one of Jackson’s long-time designers and dressers, had to say about the construction of Jackson’s outfits. Jackson first established a partnership with Bush and Tompkins during the Bad tour and collaborated with them throughout the remainder of his life. Bush tells several stories about fashion choices that prompted questions and urban legends. For instance, Michael decided to wear tape on some of his fingers for a while (63). He also started wearing an armband that had no significance whatsoever (71). For a couple of years, Jackson wanted three letters, chosen at random, embroidered on the shoulders of his jackets. Bush came up with “CTE,” and says, “It meant nothing. And that felt right” (73). According to Michael Bush, Jackson wanted to do things with his fashion that (a) nobody had done before and (b) would keep people guessing. There was never an answer. Just a question. The “Bad” outfit asks a provocative question just like the final lyrics: “Who’s bad?”
The visual, including fashion, is in many ways more important and more trusted than language in this song. Both of these aspects of the video significantly disarticulate “normal” ideological relations. Wilson uses fashion to point to another category: “Fashion in our epoch denaturalises the body and thus divests itself of all essentialism” (437). So now I take that turn and look at how “Bad” destabilizes ideological constructs of the body.
Body and Gender Practice:
Let us return to the moment when the camera pans around Michael’s body and stops on his face. The Michael we see in this video has notably lighter skin and slightly altered features compared to the Michael from previous albums. His face looks beautiful, smooth, almost like porcelain. The cleft in his chin is more prevalent. The longer, looser hair is distinct from his earlier look and from most of the other men in the video. Right after this moment a pipe bursts, prompting Michael to whip his head in that direction.
The camera is even closer to his face now, and we can see his makeup—lips colored, eye shadow, eye liner, eyebrows well-manicured, and not a hint of a whisker beyond his sideburns. Though not particularly “feminine,” this face is not paradigmatically masculine either.
To better understand the aesthetic changes in Michael’s face, I draw on Jack Halberstam, who discusses non-normative bodies and their subversive potential. Films that focus on such bodies create a “preoccupation with the body as a site created through technological and aesthetic innovation. Technotopic inventions of the body resist idealizations of bodily integrity” (Queer Time 124). It was between Thriller and Bad that Jackson had his first plastic surgeries, which certainly constitute “technological and aesthetic innovation.” Halberstam’s argument as applied to Jackson means that since we can see his body as constructed, as an invention, it helps us break out of preconceptions of when men are “supposed to” look like. Since he is a living, breathing body, we cannot merely dismiss this as an artistic impossibility or a Utopian dream. He’s right there, staring at us, a living proof of the possibility of difference, a challenge to expand our notions of what bodies can or “should” look like.”
Dance and Movement:
As I near the end of this chapter, I want to give some well-deserved attention to the magnificent choreography in “Bad” – how the subversive body moves. The dancing in this video, both Michael’s and his ensemble’s, is of a higher caliber than what appears on the videos of Thriller. The choreography for “Beat It” and “Thriller” is both silly and simple. In “Bad” the dancing becomes more skillful and complex (generally) and takes on a new seriousness. They dance for cooperation and solidarity, not for women or power (Hodge). This comes through in their teamwork: they help each other jump and move, and each dancer’s steps complement his neighbor’s rather than merely copying him. In contrast, the choreography in “Thriller” is just line-dancing in unison. Not only is the dancing more complex, but its complexity mirrors the subversive message of the lyrics, the clothing, and the body that I described above.
I want to look at two moves that are, to me, mind-blowing and life-changing. The first, not performed by Michael, I describe as a roller-skates split lifted into a moonwalk, depicted in this series of pictures:
Everything about this is backwards from how bodies are “supposed” to work. Starting from a full splits position while wearing roller-skates, the dancer defies common-sense notions of both flexibility and gravity in an enormous feat of strength and pulls himself back to a standing pose. He gives the illusion of pulling himself up by grabbing the collar of his jacket. (This is obviously not what helps him stand, but it could be a satire of the “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” cliché.) And once he’s upright, he starts moonwalking! … in roller-skates! He gives a brief glance to the camera, as if to say, “It ain’t no thang.” These few seconds leave me flabbergasted every time I watch the video. I half-believe that someone has put a slow-motion video in reverse; played the “right” way, this would be a nasty roller-skating accident.
Throughout this video, men have pushed against boundaries in what they say, how they dress, and how they look, but the ultimate test is to walk the walk. … or to moonwalk the walk, rather. If “Bad” is all about subverting hegemonic norms, as I have argued, this move is perhaps the symbolic capstone. It disarticulates items from one discourse and rearticulates them in another: flexibility and skating have been more associated with women than men in general, and walking forward is more common than walking backward. Appropriating new discourse features onto the male body proliferates possibilities for enacting masculinity.
The second move is Michael’s iconic crotch grab. “Bad” is the first music video in which the move appears! Right there at the beginning, before he even sings a word, he
spins in a full circle, puts one hand behind his head and the other over his crotch, and gives us his first Michael Jackson grab-and-thrust. He does it so smoothly, so casually.
The move is deployed many times throughout this video, and it became a standard feature of his videos and performances.
It takes an incredible amount of chutzpah to grab one’s crotch in front of millions of viewers. But why does that seem scary? Perhaps because the penis has been constructed as (1) primarily a sexual thing, and (2) therefore as a private thing, and something to be ashamed of in public contexts. The move is often accompanied by a very high-pitched “Ow!”, which disassociates the crotch-grab from stereotypical machismo. This move disarticulates the penis from discourses of sexuality and masculinity, and rearticulates it in an aesthetic and kinesthetic system of meaning. In yet another way, Michael questions cultural constructs and makes bodies useful and meaningful in ways heretofore prohibited or unimagined.
When Michael’s friends challenge him by saying he’s not “bad” anymore, he responds in the baddest way possible. Instead of showing them he measures up to their standard, he radically changes the definition. Badness isn’t about aggression or physical violence. It’s about changing the world, accomplishing positive things by rubbing up against oppressive systems, challenging norms, and cooperating with others.
I’ve spent many pages claiming that the point of “Bad” is to keep us guessing, to resist fixed interpretations, and in the very act of writing this down I have fixed that as if it were an authoritative interpretation. There are alternative readings for this song and for all the songs I analyze in subsequent chapters. I look forward to reading Michael Jackson’s autobiography after I finish this project to find out what he had to say about these songs, and I deeply hope to find differences in our interpretations. These interpretive differences are the very fruits of a counter-hegemonic commodity. Because “Bad” functions as a counter-hegemonic commodity with agency, its ideologies interact with mine differently than with someone else’s, and the two of us have to renegotiate meaning. I have shown how this song loosens and frays hegemonic, stabilized meanings; the ensuing chapters extend that quality to the entire album: Bad succeeds in raising to a conscious level and problematizing previously unconsidered ideological fixtures.