“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.