There’s an odd symmetry between this record and “The Fly”: Michael Jackson, like U2, was stratospherically famous and looking to make a push for new-decade relevance. Also like U2, the idea he hit on was making darkly personal songs out of a blend of dance music and rock. But he came at it from the opposite direction – in “Black And White” it’s the rock elements which are grafts, clumsy-seeming attempts to toughen a sound.
But Jacko’s music was hardening anyway – Bad was full of nervous tics and defensive twitches, the liberating looseness of Off The Wall slipping into paranoia on standouts like “Smooth Criminal”. “Black Or White” is more upbeat, uplifting even – its chorus sentiment is glib on paper but more compelling on record because Jackson sounds aggressively committed to it. He seems hyped throughout and by the shouted middle eight he’s spoiling for a fight. The Dangerous era is the start of “late Jacko”, I guess, the King Of Pop’s supposed slide into decadence and lunacy, but whatever goes missing between Thriller and the end it’s not Jackson’s belief. He always sounded like there was something vital – for him, for the world – at stake in the music, and that alone would make “Black And White” compelling.
In some ways, it’s a mess. The extended intro – the hey-kid-turn-it-down skit from “Do The Bartman” recycled and played straight – is annoying, and wastes Slash’s guest spot. And the rap is pleasant but inexplicable – its avuncular even-handedness may fit the text of the song but completely misreads its mood. Other ideas work much better – the riff is great, announcing Jackson’s return more neatly and stylishly than any publicity. And the rock elements work too just because they’re so odd – the lead-in to the rap is a crescendo of digitised shredding which sounds like nothing we’ve ever heard on a number one before. The rock music Jackson is looking to co-opt here is technical, gleaming, and very shortly to be extinct, which is one reason “Black Or White” has aged strangely. It’s ambitious, overcooked – like most later Jackson singles not a total success, but for all the mis-steps there’s a vitality to this record which thrills me.