The Top 500 Songs in Modern History…Song #138: Smooth Criminal by Michael Jackson (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #138: Smooth Criminal by Michael Jackson.

We do like to knock our heroes down to size, don’t we? The song, “Smooth Criminal” comes from an album by Michael Jackson called, “Bad”. “Bad” was the follow-up album to “Thriller” which was, in turn, the follow-up album to “Off the Wall”, which gave Michael Jackson an incredible run of highly successful albums during the 1980s. He was the undisputed “King of Pop”, selling a quarter of a Billion(!) copies of this trilogy during that time. Overall, for his career, Jackson has recorded album sales of over 400 million copies worldwide, making him one of the Top 3 highest selling artists of all-time, along with Elvis and The Beatles.

However, it was the time period between “Thriller” and “Bad” that Michael Jackson the superstar performer began to morph into Michael Jackson, the deeply flawed, tragic and, almost absurd figure that he became more greatly known as. During the writing of “Bad”, Jackson distanced himself from his family, as well as, from The Jehovah Witnesses organization, of which he had been a staunch ally for many years. It was, also, during this time period that he began a series of facial reconstructions and skin lightenings that changed his appearance drastically and caused much discussion in the media. It couldn’t have been easy to have been living his life at that time. For all of the ways that his life began spinning out of control, one of the ways he sought to regain his focus was by creating “Bad”. For this album, Jackson wrote a reported sixty songs which, in the end, were pared down to ten by producer, Quincy Jones. It was, also, a time of technological innovation for Jackson who, like many other creative artists, was discovering the power of digital recording techniques, as well as, digital/electronic instruments such as synthesizers which, in turn, caused the potential range of sounds available to him to expand exponentially.

“Bad” contained several hit songs such as the title track, “Bad”, “Man in the Mirror”, “Dirty Diana”, “Leave Me Alone”, “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Smooth Criminal”. This album sold over fifteen million copies, making it one of the biggest selling albums of the entire decade of the 1980s. Yet, because it did not match the sales figures for the album that preceded it, “Thriller”, music critics point to “Bad” as the album that officially started Jackson’s descent into disrepute and irrelevancy. With the benefit of hindsight, those same critics laud, “Bad” today; stating that it showed an obvious progression and growth in Jackson’s songwrting and song construction. But, at the time, a media feeding frenzy, of sorts, was on-going and Michael Jackson’s reputation was closer to “freak” than to “phenom”. None-the-less, “Bad” was a good album and, from it, “Smooth Criminal” has emerged as the best song of the bunch.

“Smooth Criminal” was a song that upped the funk factor for a Michael Jackson recording. There is a strong bass line that thumps all the way through this song, which gives it such a forceful, rhythmic quality. The song is built around a scenario in which Jackson’s character comes across a woman named, “Annie” who has been attacked and injured by a “Smooth Criminal”. In the song, he repeatedly asks, “Annie, are you ok? Are you ok, Annie?” The inspiration for that part of the chorus comes from a very benign source….the resuscitation dolls used to teach CPR. Those dolls are nicknamed, “Annie” and those learning to give CPR properly are taught to say the words, “Annie are you ok?” between breaths or between chest compressions, as a way to time their movements. So, anyway, the techniques involved in learning to perform CPR became the chorus for “Smooth Criminal”.

One of the other factors that helped lift “Smooth Criminal” to near the top of Jackson’s musical canon is the dramatic dance move of his, where he (and his back up dancers) hold their position and then, lean forward at a forty-five degree angle which, for us, regular folk, is physically impossible to do. In the official music video for “Smooth Criminal”, Jackson and his dancers were held into position by cables and wires. On stage, during a live concert, Jackson was able to maintain his lean by way of weighted shoes that lock into clamps that were built into the stage, itself. Regardless of the engineering behind this dance move, seeing it performed in real time was always an impressive feat. An additional bit of trivia: Jackson set his song in the 1930s and dedicated it to legendary dancer, Fred Astaire. No matter how complicated his personal life became, Jackson remained unchallenged when it came to his choreography on stage. The man may have evolved into someone of questionable character but, one thing that never left him was his ability to dance.

Michael Jackson is exhibit #1 when it comes to having to separate the artist from the art, in order to give his career the credit it deserves. For the better part of a decade, the top of the musical mountain belonged to him. His song output during that time is unrivalled in the consistency of its’ creativity and dynamic musicality. “Smooth Criminal” is one of the final songs of his that was truly great. His legacy is undoubtedly complicated. But, for a while, the eyes of the world were upon him and, from a performer’s point of view, he didn’t disappoint. Here is the funked up, gravity-defying song, “Smooth Criminal” from the album, “Bad” by Michael Jackson. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Michael Jackson, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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