Last summer, I added Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video to the music analysis/research unit of my English 102 curriculum. As most of my readers know, my classes have been dissecting the “Black or White” video for years. More recently, I had added “Earth Song” to the curriculum, but had also debated the idea for some time of adding “Bad” which I felt could make an interesting companion piece to “Black or White”‘s racial themes. I had started using “Bad” in American Lit to help illustrate and enrich the theme of Langston Hughes’s essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, and having had much success there, felt inspired to add it to English 102 (also, I had spent the better part of the summer writing on the “Bad” short film and the story of Edmund Perry myself for an upcoming anthology collection on Jackson’s works) so perhaps I was feeling especially inspired to discuss it in the classroom. In any event, however, I have discovered as an educator that Michael Jackson’s songs and short films-many of them replete with social conscious messages that still resonate with us today, and what’s more, remain relevant today-are important works for facilitating analytical class discussions and debates.
On that note, I wanted to share with you an exceptionally insightful essay written by Bethany Pittman, who used Elizabeth Amisu’s excellent analysis as one of her required sources:
The Superhero in Michael Jackson’s “Bad” by Bethany Pittman
Released on September 7, 1987, Michael Jackson’s pop funk song “Bad” was a number one hit within one month. Originally written to be a duet, it was included on the album Bad and was received with mixed reviews from members of the black community. Many were unsure what to think about the video; however, Jackson’s intent was to improve the relationships between the black and white communities. Jackson’s character, Daryl, is an embodiment of both these communities and the consequences he faces because of that. By comparing Jackson’s character in “Bad” to Harry Potter and Superman, Elizabeth Amisu is painting him as a superhero – one that is creating a radical, cultural movement in the black community.
It is clear that the video is making a statement in the black community even from the first scene. Jackson’s character is one attending an all white school where he is doing exceptionally well academically. Later in the video when he is surrounded by his black friends he is mocked for this; attending this school is something that is simply unacceptable for his friends since it puts blacks and whites on the same level. His friends believe that the white community is filled with snobby rich people, completely opposite of the environment in which they have been raised. During the train scene, the sole black female has her head and eyes covered while looking down. The rest of the white males and females are uncovered and looking out of the windows. Jackson’s character does the same, showing that he is used to being immersed in the white community regardless of his skin color. These two examples show to the audience that it is possible for the black and white communities to exist together without harm; this even creates a more educated black community in the case of Edmund Perry. Based on the true story experiences of Edmund Perry, “Bad” showcases a black male standing up to his friends for what he believes is the right thing to do.
Continuing on through the beginning of the music video Jackson’s character undergoes peer pressure from his friends. When Jackson’s character says that he does not want to participate, his friend repeatedly asks him “Are you bad?” This is paired with taunting about how Jackson’s character has lost his respect with his friends by being sent to a “sissy school” within the white community. In her article, Amisu claims that Jackson’s character “is going from safety to conflict”, the “safety” being the upper class school, and “conflict” being Daryl’s home and friends (Amisu). She compares this transfer of protection and shelter to Harry Potter’s first train ride to Hogwarts. While Daryl is returning to his home where he was raised and Potter is departing to Hogwarts for the first time, they are both faced with challenges once they reach their destination. They both are moving between different communities with different societal standards and cultural norms. By drawing this conclusion, Amisu is presenting the audience with the idea that Daryl is accepted in both communities, furthering a cultural movement in the black community.
Amisu goes on to show this bilateral personification of Daryl in her analysis of his clothing during the dancing scenes. She states that “Jackson is simultaneously Clark Kent and Superman, both a shy introvert and an inspiring showman” (Amisu). The “shy introvert” is referring to Jackson’s character at school. He is one that follows the rules and excels academically; one that pays attention in class and is eager to learn. The “inspiring showman” in Daryl is brought out when his friend continues to taunt him and ask him “Are you bad?” Daryl is frustrated and shows that he is indeed “bad” by performing inspiring and insistent dance sequences throughout the video. Much like Superman, Daryl is existent and accepted in two completely opposite communities. Rather than the civilian and superhero communities, Jackson’s character is portrayed in the white and black communities.
Amisu also presents an interesting idea of perhaps Daryl was being taunted as not “bad” enough because he did not want to be associated with the black community anymore. Perhaps he had lost pride in his roots and his current friend group after being submersed in the culture of the white community. Daryl assures his friends that he is still “bad” even though he does not agree with their actions. He shows how being “bad” can be a good thing – a stand of confidence and individuality. This portrays Daryl as his own kind of superhero.
He is representing both the black and white communities simultaneously, and is standing up for what he believes is right. By doing this he is showing that there is a moral obligation for society to follow regardless of skin color. Aisha Harris claims the meaning of the song “Bad” is about Daryl “making his own place” in the world (Harris). In the video, by encompassing both communities, indeed Daryl has created his own ideas, morals, and place in his world. He is fighting for individuality within the togetherness of the two different communities.
While Jackson has had many songs that have stirred viewers and formed mixed reactions, “Bad” was one that has always been targeted specifically towards the black community. Based on a true story, it emotionally appealed to viewers and brought into light the racial divide still occurring two decades after the ending of the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson’s character, Daryl, is an artistic embodiment of the combination of the black and white communities and sends a message to the audience about the importance of unity within society. This unity gives him the individuality and courage to say that he is indeed “bad” and can stand up for himself against his friends. Daryl’s character is one that can be considered a superhero for he is not afraid of merging two different ideas and cultures while still maintaining his unique independence.
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5 THOUGHTS ON “STUDENT ESSAY ON “BAD”: THE SUPERHERO IN MICHAEL JACKSON’S “BAD” BY BETHANY PITTMAN”
SEPTEMBER 17, 2016 AT 9:36 PM
Great!…finally the genious behind Michael’s work is being discovered ….I give dedicated every day work for it and makes me happy that it comes to light around the globe ��…hugs from me
SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 AT 2:44 AM
Thank you for bringing Bethany’s essay to our attention, Raven. Great that you are providing the opportunity for people to learn and appreciate Michael’s art in-depth.
SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 AT 9:26 AM
I believe that “Bad” also touched upon the stereotype that black people are supposed to be ‘dangerous’ and criminally tough.
Daryl’s friends plan to attack that old man at the subway station. When one of them asks Daryl “Are you bad?” he also means “Are you black enough to do this?”. What Daryl does later on by saving the old man and dancing, shows that being black or bad shouldn’t be related to crimes. He does want to put black and white people on the same level, that being the level of morality and duty towards society. This isn’t devided by race or anything else. It’s everyone’s duty and this is important on fighting one of the biggest racist remarks towards black people.
The friendly hand grabbing at the end means that we can and must work together to reach that level of equality, not only on rights, but on responsibilities too.
SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 AT 2:51 PM
Such beautiful work!!! I am proud to have been able to enjoy this piece.
SEPTEMBER 19, 2016 AT 6:16 AM
Thank-you for publishing this beautiful piece. I am delighted to know that Michael Jackson Studies has found such success with your students, especially with regards to culture, ethnicity and social issues. Michael Jackson’s art is still so relevant and resonant. To my mind he becomes more so as the years progress. I particularly enjoyed Bethany’s points about Michael Jackson and cultural mobility, the idea that Jackson’s work really can be used to forge more transition and mutability between cultures, instead of the ‘cultural appropriation’ we see so often today. The quote, ‘Daryl, is an artistic embodiment
of the combination of the black and white communities and sends a message to the audience about the importance of unity within society’ stayed with me for some days since I read this piece. You are surely doing magnificent work with your students.