Artist: Michael Jackson
Cover Art Direction: Tony Lane & Nancy Donald
Cover Photo: Sam Emerson
Design Lyrics: Jeffrey Spear
Michael Jackson began work on what would become the Bad album in 1985. Three years had lapsed since the release of Thriller, and fans were waiting anxiously for the sequel. Following up the most successful record in the history of the music industry, however, was not an enviable task.
The Bad album started out its life as, Smooth Criminal, after the title of its tenth track. The song traces its history back to “Chicago 1945,” a song Michael wrote in 1985 and recorded 1986. Elements of “Chicago 1945” made their way on to a subsequent track titled “Al Capone.” As Greg Phillinganes remembers: “By the time we were working on Bad, Mike’s ideas became stronger and clearer. Songs like ‘Al Capone,’ titles like that, even as working titles, show that Mike had a tremendous cinematic approach to the making of his music.” Eventually, the song was rewritten as “Smooth Criminal” and restructured into its final form.
On July 13, 1987, company executives at CBS met to discuss putting the final touches to Michael Jackson’s Bad album, the successor to the record-breaking and Grammy Award winning Thriller. Photographer Sam Emerson was personally chosen by Michael for the album cover. The initial photograph chosen for the cover of Bad was inspired by a portrait of actress Gloria Swanson by famed photographer Edward Steichen.
Steichen’s 1924 portrait of Gloria Swanson in black lace remains one of the most powerful photographs ever taken. Steichen hung a piece of black lace in front of Swanson’s face near the end of a photo shoot; immediately grasping Steichen’s intent, Swanson assumed the role of femme fatale, ready to pounce and devour — the lace seems too flimsy to contain her gaze, highlighting the mysterious, flimsy power of glamour itself. Here, Steichen employs his best techniques to great effect: strong light-dark contrasts, sharp focus, and detail. Critics continue to swoon over how the patterned lace frames Swanson’s lips and chin.
This photo, however, was immediately rejected by the CEO of the company, Walter Yetnikoff, who at the time was managing Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, George Michael, Gloria Estefan, and New Kids on the Block, to name a few. He felt that the photo did not present Michael in a positive light and suggested something with a more urban approach.
As a replacement, photographer Sam Emerson decided to go with a more conventional album cover that reflected the contents of the album itself, as well as presenting Michael in a new light. Sam Emerson photographed Michael during most of the Bad era, as well as on both the Bad and Dangerous tours. The photograph Emerson eventually decided on was very suggestive, taken in the same wardrobe Michael used for the title track of the album.
In the short film for “Bad,” Michael appeared dressed in a set of trousers, a black jacket covered in belt buckles, buttons, and metal contraptions. The main concept was to highlight the new image of Michael Jackson as a tough guy, and so a white background was used so that nothing hindered his figure. Michael also wore a set of light brown contact lenses for the photoshoot in order to contrast his naturally dark eyes with his all-black wardrobe. They also made his eyes appear a bit glossier, adding that magic touch to the photo.
At the top right, the title of album was added in red graffiti and his name was inserted vertically at the far right of the cover. The idea was to further propagate the notion of Michael being tough and edgy. He wanted to attain his street credit by appearing to empathize with inner city youth and the day-to-day problems they faced.
Perhaps Michael Jackson himself put it best: “‘Bad’ is a song about the street. It’s about this kid from a bad neighborhood who gets to go away to a private school. He comes back to the old neighborhood when he’s on a break from school and the kids from the neighborhood start giving him trouble. He sings, ‘I’m bad, you’re bad, who’s bad, who’s the best?’ He’s saying when you’re strong and good, then you’re bad.”
“I think my image gets distorted in the public’s mind. They don’t get a clear or full picture of what I’m like, despite the press coverage I mentioned earlier. Mistruths are printed as fact, in some cases, and frequently only half of a story will be told. The part that doesn’t get printed is often the part that would make the printed part less sensational by shedding light on the facts. As a result, I think some people don’t think I’m a person who determines what’s happening with his career. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The design of the title was the work of Jeffrey Spear, a famed cartoonist from Virginia, and well known in the graphic advertisement industry. The letters of the word “BAD” were made to look like they were spray painted as an homage to a similar piece in the short film. The lettering of his name, “MICHAEL JACKSON,” is stylized using an Arial font with the letters “C” and “SO” appearing slightly smaller than the rest.
Man in the Mirror
This series of 8 photographs was taken by Matthew Rolston and appears in the center of the album. Michael is dressed entirely in black with in-camera lens tricks for added flare.
The Bad album was the first album in history to generate a record five number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100. Nine of the eleven songs on the album were eventually released as singles, each accompanied by a unique and ground-breaking short film.
Mohammad Osman is an Artist, Writer, & Cultural Historian.