31
Jul 13

MICHAEL JACKSON – “Earth Song”

FT + Popular130 comments • 5,445 views

#731, 9th December 1995

Earth Song “The environment” is something of a pop graveyard, and no surprise. Beyond specific conservation efforts, the problems we’ve created seem simply too vast for us to cope with as a species. No wonder our pop singers have mostly failed to rise to their own challenge and write great songs about it. “When I think about the hole in the sky,” a Lennon simpered, “Salt water wells in my eyes”. And that was about the level of it.

“Earth Song” isn’t strictly about green politics – whales and elephants get a cameo, but it’s more of a general ‘why oh why’ address-stroke-sermon-stroke-meltdown on the general rottenness of mankind. But actually, if you were to write a song which really captured the impotent 3AM anguish of the environmentalist, their horror at human civilisation’s slow, placid self-immolation, it might sound a bit like this.

“Earth Song” is not generally taken seriously in Britain, even though it’s Jackson’s biggest-selling single here. Perhaps its fate was sealed the moment Jarvis Cocker jumped onstage at the BRIT Awards and wagged an accusing arse in Jackson’s direction. An attempt to puncture the messianic pomposity of Jacko’s kid-festooned “Earth Song” performance, he said. And, he didn’t need to add, its tactless creepiness. The specific kids became a bargaining chip in the PR to-and-fro that followed (though imagine the playground kudos!) but Cocker had a point, about the song as well as its staging. If any rock performance gets to be slammed as messianic, it’s one where the singer is explicitly addressing his song to God, then spends the video in cruciform pose, lashed by Biblical storm and fury.

Except, this being Jackson, the agony isn’t so much presumptuous as personal: he’s not taking on the sins of the world in the extraordinary call-and-response coda, just mainlining them, free-associating them, howling them out from a place beyond sense. “What about yesterday/What about the seas/The heavens are falling down/I can’t even breathe” – apocalypse as panic attack, the end of the world staged in Jackson’s burning head. “What about the man/What about the crying man?/What about Abraham?”

Between each of these growled and screamed questions a massed choir sings “What about us? What about us?” – except sometimes when they snap back “What about it?” at Jackson, a disorienting “so what?” that makes the singer seem even more alone. If you could seem alone in the widescreen pomp-rock tumult of “Earth Song”‘s closing minutes, that is. The choir makes the coda – turning Jackson’s sermonising into full-blooded hellfire preaching – and the coda makes the song. It’s the most committed, vein-popping performance we’ve seen on Popular for years, and even in despair the most swagger Jackson’s shown us for a long time too.

Before that we have his version of XTC’s “Dear God”, a hand-wringing plea for the attention of an absent creator. Jackson goes for a wracked vocal – though beautifully controlled, as always – over a stately rhythm and lots of production fairy dust, and for two verses “Earth Song” is something of a chore, even if it has a lot more momentum than “You Are Not Alone” and a better, wordless hook. It’s only when the drums turn up, at almost 3 minutes, that the song begins its shift from mawkish blubfest to armageddon power ballad.

Cocker wasn’t buying it, and he wasn’t alone. It’s easy to listen to “Earth Song” and think “This is ridiculous” because, well, it is ridiculous if you’re in the wrong mood for it (though sometimes it’s great because it’s ridiculous: I can like “Earth Song” and take it seriously and still enjoy sending emails saying “WHAT ABOUT THE ELEPHANTS???”). It’s lachrymose, overblown, vulgar, all things which sometimes make for awful pop music. It’s also intense, grand, and passionate, all things which sometimes make for great pop music – and seemed especially pertinent in a British pop world reshaped by Oasis, where epic was in vogue.

“Earth Song” is a very rich, reclusive, strange man channeling a childlike anger at the terrible things people do through a adult, practised sense of how to build a record, and if you find the outcome queasy I absolutely understand. But I don’t agree – it’s blown up to Michael Bay levels, but there’s the same strangeness, terror, conviction and craft here as there was on “Billie Jean” or “Bad” or any of the Jackson singles from deceptively happier times.

7

Comments

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  1. 101
    hardtogethits on 4 Aug 2013 #

    Alan, these are absolutely fantastic – thanks for sharing.

  2. 102
    admin on 4 Aug 2013 #

    thanks. still fiddling, trying to make the decades highlighting a bit better than the default – almost there. other dimensions to consider – number of votes, tom’s score.

    also i HEART rogue traders Voodoo Child – I even played it on one of my rare ‘DJ’ing stints – and only maybe 20% because it was used in a Who finale (magic flying space jesus who). A story also disliked by many, but not me.

  3. 103
    Tom on 4 Aug 2013 #

    Isn’t Voodoo Child in the episode before Dr Space Jesus anyway? I def. remember that as a great moment.

  4. 104
    Patrick Mexico on 4 Aug 2013 #

    I don’t think I actually mind Rogue Traders’ Voodoo Child, but jumping forward a decade from where Popular/my 1001 greatest singles blog is currently researching, it just sounds so dystopian-obnoxious and coarse. Had this been terrifying old 2006, I’d be a lot more accommodating towards it, but then again, I risk being the same way with, er, From Paris to Berlin. I think by the time Popular, TPL and MSBWT hit that year I’m going to express some serious “crack is wack” views..

  5. 105
    Chelovek na lune on 4 Aug 2013 #

    #98 Had never thought of “Be My Lover” as being remotely gay disco. Partly, possibly, as the result of having spent quite a bit of that summer working in rural parts of a country in which (then) all expressions of homosexuality were illegal (Romania), with societal attitudes to match, and in which the song was very widely played indeed, on the radio, in bars, at discos, everywhere, really. I suppose nowhere in the UK is quite like Moldavia, culturally or climate-wise, but, still, it does suggest the track does transcend narrow stereotypical boundaries…

  6. 106
    Alan on 4 Aug 2013 #

    “it just sounds so dystopian-obnoxious and coarse”. What’s not to like

  7. 107
    Patrick Mexico on 4 Aug 2013 #

    #103 Well worry not, I’m not the one doing the narrow stereotyping. It was a comment on how any pop from ABBA to Suede initially may attract a genuine and sincere “gay” fanbase (obviously you can be of any orientation and still like it – as a child in ’93 I thought Animal Nitrate was about the Animals of Farthing Wood being threatened by a chemical plant!), but then the “mainstream” media dredge it back in garbled, doughnutty language as a stereotype that’s used as a stick for Jeremy Clarkson and Roy Chubby Brown types to beat the LGBT community with, and implying you have to be sort-of-borderline-that-way-inclined-nudge-wink-what-is-this-Gene-Hunt to like it.. which is obviously terrible. But fuck ‘em, and their law.

    Sorry anyway – I think I was confusing Be My Lover with something else.

    This is the best cover of it. Bill Nighy, the Ruining Love is All Around Even More Than Wet Wet Wet Guy.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuJq10Gbz4M

  8. 108
    Steve Williams on 5 Aug 2013 #

    #96 – Yes, Radio 1′s Ninety From The Nineties. Around that time they would always do a big long list with a track played every hour over the festive period and then a complete countdown on New Year’s Day, usually with Kevin Greening doing the honours. Sometimes it was a listeners’ vote, either singles or albums, but this time it was a list they’d compiled themselves of the ninety best songs of the nineties so far. I remember listening to it on the way home from my aunties’ house. And Common People at number one!

  9. 109
    tm on 7 Aug 2013 #

    Tom @ 18 (sorry, this is probably the longest gap between comment and response!) I remember the press reaction to the Jarvis thing at the time being initially ‘you speccy gimp, how dare you challenge the King of Pop, won’t you please think of the children?!’ – they were already down on Jarvis over Sorted Out for Es and Wizz – but then shifting sides after they gauged that the public mood was that Jacko had brought it on himself by acting like a pillock.

    A friend of mine who was heavily Christian at the time claimed that Jarvis, who he claimed for Christianity, was protesting Jackson’s ‘blasphemy’ in styling himself as the Messiah. I remember thinking that if that was true, there were some decidedly unchristian sentiments in Jarvis’ own music…

  10. 110
    Steve Mannion on 8 Aug 2013 #

    Yes iirc afterwards people like Eno were saying afterwards that they felt Jacko’s Messiah pose was unbearably tasteless and laboured and so delighted by Cocker’s hi-jinx. The tabloids were indeed hugely disparaging of Cocker initially, partly as it was reported that he had injured one of the kids during his runabout – but the footage suggested it was really one of Jackson’s minders who may have stepped on a child’s foot in his rush to thwart Jarv’s mighty terror threat.

  11. 111
    Ed on 8 Aug 2013 #

    Cocker was already a bit of a hate-figure for the tabloids, because of the ‘Sorted for E’s and Whizz’ packaging hoo-hah, so they were inclined not to take his side.

    It inspired one of my favourite Chris Morris moments:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxNyyZpP3GM&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    In hindsight, the shift in views of the ‘Earth Song’ imbroglio probably marked the start of his progress in the tabloid imagination from sexually deviant drug-peddler to endearingly eccentric national treasure.

  12. 112
    Steve Mannion on 8 Aug 2013 #

    I think the week before the Brits NME had Pulp as guest editors so they got two front covers in a row – just wondering if anyone else managed that pre-Strokes (not that they necessarily did either but I feel like this kind of thing was more likely in the C McNicholas era for some reason).

  13. 113
    Izzy on 8 Aug 2013 #

    I’m fairly sure Oasis did, but I’d stopped buying by then. I also think Blur/Oasis had the cover the weeks before & after their chart battle.

    I remember being vaguely disapproving, having absorbed some of the cover’s history as a thing of record. There was an excellent retrospective feature around 1992 (might’ve been in the 50th anniversary edition) which listed the most-featured-on-covers. Bowie led with 18, I think second might’ve been U2. The numbers were low enough that two-in-a-row seems unlikely. Of course Oasis smashed all those records within about four years.

  14. 114
    Steve Mannion on 8 Aug 2013 #

    Of COURSE someone has now wikip’d this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_NME_covers#1995

  15. 115
    Tom on 8 Aug 2013 #

    I’m guessing Pete Doherty would be a better candidate for “the double” than the Strokes.

    Mojo has run a Beatles-then-more-Beatles twofer I believe.

  16. 116
    Tom on 8 Aug 2013 #

    I can sense your surprise.

  17. 117
    weej on 8 Aug 2013 #

    #114 Wow, most recent ten NME covers = Liam Gallagher, The Who, The Killers, (Festival Preview), Arctic Monkeys, Bobby Gillespie, Jay-Z, Babyshambles, Arctic Monkeys, 40 Years of Hip-Hop.

    I’m not saying those artists are (all) bad, but that’s a pretty depressing list.

  18. 118
    Tom on 8 Aug 2013 #

    All of hip-hop ever vs Babyshambles fight

  19. 119
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 8 Aug 2013 #

    Does side A include Coolio?

  20. 120
    James K. on 11 Aug 2013 #

    The Cocker/Jackson incident is not very well-known in the U.S., I think – at least, it was unknown to me! Now that I do know about it, I wonder if it inspired either of the two (unrelated to each other) stage-crashing incidents at the 1998 Grammys. (Maybe not, since two years is a long time – if it had been the 1996 Grammys held later the same month or even the 1997 Grammys, there might be a connection.)

  21. 121
    Izzy on 11 Aug 2013 #

    I’m not even sure it’s that well-known here tbh. As far as I recall it wasn’t even visible on the broadcast (retrospective talking heads shows have to resort to grainy outtakes with a highlight circle round a tiny figure who may or may not be Cocker, and may or may not be mooning) and only became a story a day or so later once the initial distaste, presumably from briefing by Jackson’s people, subsided and the tabloids awoke to the comic potential of the thing.

  22. 122
    Steve Mannion on 11 Aug 2013 #

    Not sure about that Izzy – this clip from 5:01 onwards gives as much of Jarv’s antics as I do remember seeing on the live broadcast – a fair bit!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJqIEU6RfUo

  23. 123
    Izzy on 11 Aug 2013 #

    Ha okay, that escaped me live somehow. Pity he didn’t pick a moment when MJ was actually on the stage though.

  24. 124
    Mark G on 11 Aug 2013 #

    Well, after he got on the cherry picker was when the pale was beyonded..

  25. 125
    Ed on 13 Aug 2013 #

    Listening again to ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’, I was struck by how its structure parallels that of “Earth Song’. They begin in very different places – mournful bewilderment for MJ, hipster fatalism for the Pixies – but they build to similar incoherent howls of confusion and despair, in the coda of ES and the third verse of MGTH.

    Lyrically, MGTH is quite brilliant, I think. Casually anecdotal in the first verse, it delivers a little thrill of horror in the second with the switch to the first person. By the third verse, Francis is trying desperately to make sense of the universe.

  26. 126
    Izzy on 14 Aug 2013 #

    Talk me through it. It was, more than any other, the track that made me think they were nothing but overhyped gibberish.

  27. 127
    Ed on 17 Aug 2013 #

    @126 Rap Genius does a pretty good job here: http://rock.rapgenius.com/Pixies-monkey-gone-to-heaven-lyrics

    I would add: the monkey that’s gone to heaven is a lovely metaphor for human over-reach. And the third verse suggests that while the power of evil is greater than humanity’s ability to understand or control it, the laws of nature are more powerful than either of them.

    By the Pixies’ standards, it seems pretty explicit. Don’t ask me to tell you what Gouge Away is about, though.

  28. 128
    @jamesharveytm on 4 Jan 2014 #

    this is a very good writeup of MJ’s bananas ‘Earth Song’. Read the final paragraph http://t.co/7WEXC0BSyz

  29. 129
    Patrick Mexico on 24 Mar 2014 #

    Sorry to all, especially Chelovek, for my small-minded and borderline homophobic comments on this thread. I didn’t mean anything genuinely malicious.

    Be My Lover is one of the greats of its pop era and genre. There are just a couple of intimate personal issues I have with it:

    1. I live in Bristol. The song’s title is the equivalent of when I lived in Preston and Snap! had a comeback single named “You’ll Get What You’re Given, No Butter Pie For You Tonight You Bloody Pillock.”

    2. Another La Bouche track became Where Do You Go by No Mercy.

  30. 130
    Erithian on 10 Apr 2014 #

    Just sat through this again and seen the Brits performance for the first time in full – utterly awful, a combination of overblown song and unimaginative arrangement, with the infamous video showing Jacko bringing everything back to life and the kids on the Brits stage allegedly being told “pretend he’s Jesus”. As excessive as pop has ever managed to be, and even leaving aside all the dubious allegations, pretty sick-making. Sorry…

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