31
Jul 13

MICHAEL JACKSON – “Earth Song”

FT + Popular130 comments • 9,596 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

1 2 3 5 All
  1. 1
    wichita lineman on 31 Jul 2013 #

    A great piece – it reads like a 9. I actually have no idea if it’s a 9 or a 2. It’s the opposite of Robson & Jerome in just about every way possible.

    My friend Jane was convinced the line after “what about the elephants?” was “what about their lovely tusks?” But then she also thought Coolio sang “been spending most of our lives in an ambidextrous paradise.”

  2. 2
    Garry on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Can the Dear God analogue be extended to the video – first few seconds of both videos panning through trees at odd angles.

  3. 3
    Chelovek na lune on 31 Jul 2013 #

    I’m glad to see that this gets a mildly sympathetic write-up, as I think it does deserve it, for all the inherent and unavoidable ridiculousness of the performer setting himself up as the suffering messiah (and the video is simply ludicrous from start to finish). There is craft, there is real anguish, and MJ is on pretty top-ish form – the OTT nature of the final few minutes make it work: and above all make the track stand out from previous, really lachrymose, Jackson efforts of a broadly similar theme (Heal The World, most obviously).

    (I’m still unsure: does this work better with or without the video and surrounding visual context, or purely as a tune. I became familiar with this purely as the latter.)

    The thing about “Earth Song” is that it plays to the performer’s strengths, and idiosyncrasies, of both character and technique: which also saves it from being whipped out in X-factor type contents, probably forever: the value of sincerity in adding depth and substance to art (even in a context such as this) clearly can’t be underplayed.

    Now for a classic 90s single (in which the, in that case, rather understated, angst of the artist is every bit as evident as in “Earth Song”) about “a deaf dumb and blind God who doesn’t explain”: The The’s “Slow Emotion Replay”. Would have been a delight to talk about that here. But I guess this will have to do.

    7

  4. 4
    Izzy on 31 Jul 2013 #

    I hated him so much at this time – for living off past glories for crushing, unearned success, while delivering the safest, lamest music.

    How did I get it so wrong? This is an extraordinary record, trying to do so much, and succeeding, so that six-and-three-quarter minutes is barely enough. I more or less agree with the review, and obviously the coda makes it.

    There are things I don’t much like:
    • the ‘production stardust’ in part A feels cheap to me, like he’s taken the first orchestra setting from a fancy laptop and thought ‘that’ll do’; and the percussion’s dull; but it’s redeemed by the guitar and full, enveloping bass; and above all by the vocal, which is delivering coda-level intensity from line one;
    • the lyric, I think because it’s too safe a choice; everyone likes the environment, imagine the effect if all this force were used to write about something contentious;
    • the key change in the coda, it’s too rote; take it up six steps rather than (I’m guessing two);
    • the ‘woo’s have just been dropped in, it doesn’t need ’em; or rather, it demands a tic that’s even more trademark, somehow, even more extreme.

    A couple more thoughts: this smashes Coolio’s gothicism into the ground; and as ever with MJ, I’m now in awe at his attempts to unify everything in his music. Nobody else does this. (9)

  5. 5
    AMZ1981 on 31 Jul 2013 #

    As Tom said, this record is too wrapped up with the story of what subsequently happened at the Brit Awards in February, even though the record was already way down the charts by then. As far as the Michael Jackson story is concerned, in 1995 against all the odds he’d ridden out the first wave of child abuse allegations and recovered a lot of his popularity. The Brits performance might have not been as controversial if Jarvis Cocker hadn’t (rightly) pointed out how tasteless it was but it damaged Jackson’s image and, aside from a passing visit in 1998, he troubles this blog no longer.

    During Earth Song’s six week reign two much hyped records failed to dethrone it. One was the `new` Beatles song `Free As a Bird` released to capitalise on a new wave of Beatlemania, the other was Mike Flowers Pops caberet version of Wonderwall which gave the first instance of two versions of the same song in the top ten for many years (but which would happen again in Spring 1996).

    The other runner up during that time was Boyzone’s cover of `Father And Son` which deserves more credit than chart watchers tend to give it; it had already changed chart direction once on its way up (8-4-5-3) and twice jumped into the number two slot when the records mentioned above shot their bolt. Given that Boyzone will enter this blog with short lived, here today gone tomorrow chart toppers, this genuine crossover hit needs highlighting.

  6. 6
    Brendan F on 31 Jul 2013 #

    I’ve always hated bombast in music and Michael Jackson revelled in it by the 90s after his coronation as the ‘King of Pop’, here it becomes positively messianic. I can appreciate it’s not a bad record but as the antithesis of everything I love about music I can’t bring myself to truly like it. 5 for me.

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 31 Jul 2013 #

    what struck me when I watched this again recently was how MJ is able to tap into a deep well of anguish for this song so that despite the clunkiness of some of the lyrics the emotional truth of the performance is compelling and powerful. The videos ‘solution’ to the environmental devastation is to reverse time which has an additional poignancy both for its impossibility and for how it speaks (perhaps) to a desire to reverse MJs own history

  8. 8
    Tom on 31 Jul 2013 #

    The reversing time / exploding planet stuff makes me think he’s going for Kal-El as much as Jesus!

    I’d forgotten this kept “Free As A Bird” at 2. Maybe he was the Messiah.

  9. 9
    hardtogethits on 31 Jul 2013 #

    If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I have a fondness for this record which is strangely mercenary. I bet, for me, at the time, a small fortune on it being no.1 at Christmas at 13/8. Short odds but not the favourite.

    And should anyone challenge this as a hard-hearted view, remember those romantic romancers the Pogues, and the Christmas Fairytale that revolved around a bet.

  10. 10
    fivelongdays on 31 Jul 2013 #

    I couldn’t stand this when I was 13, but the years have been somewhat kind to it. It’s all about the coda, of course, and Jacko-as-Messiah becomes rather tiresome, but it’s enjoyably daft and epic. Think I’ll give it six.

  11. 11
    Ed on 31 Jul 2013 #

    The only truly great pop song about the environment, with a theology that is more devout but bleaker than Jackson’s:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mK3iSglbZUM

  12. 12
    Mark G on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #8 blah etc naughty boy..

    The thing is with Jarvis’ stunt, in retrospect, now MJ’s gone, the whole thing seems churlish. And yet, at the time it was a lash-back from the Britpop gang, at a time where they cound actually inflict the blow. Now? Neither party would be in the same building…

    While we are here: Scritti Politti. When “Lions after Slumber” came out, it reminded me strongly of Michael Jackson in the vocal stylings. I imagine MJ was listening, as the fade-out of “Will you be there” is a complete nick. But, I guess his lawyers were bigger than Green’s.

  13. 13
    Chelovek na lune on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #11 You had me worried for a minute there that you were going to link to “Big Yellow Taxi”. Thankfully, you chose wisely.

  14. 14
    Kat but logged out innit on 31 Jul 2013 #

    In English we had to stand up in front of the class and do a 5 minute talk on a song that had ‘a message’. We could pick anything we liked as long as it didn’t have swearing in it. My two metaller chums chose Pearl Jam’s ‘Jeremy’ (problematic) and Metallica’s ‘Seek and Destroy’ (which I think they ‘claimed’ was about the war in Bosnia, er, only about 10 years too early dudes). I mumbled my way through TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’, was too embarrassed to talk about the safe sex bit properly and got quite a poor mark for it.

    EVERYONE ELSE IN THE CLASS chose ‘Earth Song’. Twenty-five bloody talks about Earth Song dragged out over two lessons. We were all fvcking sick of hearing about the environment by the end. I think this was also around about the time my WWF subscription expired (pandas, not wrestling). Bad luck elephants.

  15. 15
    ciaran on 31 Jul 2013 #

    There seems to be no middle ground with this.You either love it or hate it. More so than any other a score between 1-10 would be awarded for this by many here.

    Personally I liked it from the first time I heard it and the brits fallout always seemed a tad unfair. Yes the image of Jackson as a Jesus like figure may have been hard to take for some but he handled it much better than most and his more reserved singles are a bit dull.

    It did seem like he was trying to create another billie jean or thriller epic for the 90s with ES in both audio and video (although ‘Imagine’ might well be the comparison to be made by detractors.) It felt like it was one that we would hear time and time again but 12 months later it was almost like it never even existed.

    A real shame because it offers so much – great build up,tension, moodiness, brilliant video, stunning effort from MJ.It would have been a 10 in 1995 for impact but I agree with the 7 in 2013.

    I liked Pulp as much as anyone and ‘A Different Class’ is a stone cold classic but I thought the brits incident wasnt a good move by Cocker.Maybe the britpop crew felt that Jackson was reigning on their parade and wanted to make an example.’Running the World’ from 2006 was his own answer to ES maybe.

  16. 16
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 31 Jul 2013 #

    “reigning on their parade” <– excellent work there :)

  17. 17
    James BC on 31 Jul 2013 #

    I still gawp in disbelief at people who can stand this. Goes on forever, impossible to dance to, and the lyrics really are rather shallow when they aren’t the Bubbles-aping “ooh ooh ooh, ah ah ah”. If you want social comment from MJ, you are far better doing what the record buying public did after his death and going with his first stab at it, Man in the Mirror.

    I once heard the session bassist Guy Pratt telling a funny story about recording this, though, so at least some good came out of it.

  18. 18
    Tom on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Re Cocker’s churlishness: Like Izzy I disliked “Earth Song” at the time, but I also found the triumphalism of the music press post-pitch invasion somewhat gross. Obviously I like the record more now, but I’ve gone the other way on the stage invasion too – any kind of incident at a music biz gala tends to add to the gaiety of the nation, and maybe even ask useful questions the performances duck out of. I think Jackson’s performance would have spoken for itself, but Jarvis’ intervention turned it into a kind of national question on “what do we want our pop to be like?” and I appreciate it being asked even if I didn’t really like the answer the press came up with.

  19. 19
    Ed on 31 Jul 2013 #

    @11, @13 – There’s also this, which is terrific, although it stretches the definition of “pop” a bit:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUordYmGrQk

    It is surprising, really, that Yes Men / Climate Action-type environmental activism has not inspired more music. This is the only example I can think of.

    The album version in full: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isi4FYDFfps

    And I hadn’t known about this: a trip-hop cover by Meat Beat Manifesto: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsF5nmwAp3s

  20. 20
    Tom on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #1 My brother came up with “What about the elephants / Have we got their tusks?” so this is clearly a productive mishearing.

    #4 I don’t actually like the stardust, and you’re right about the lyric being a safe choice – even when he brings in the “Holy Land”* he doesn’t actually say anything very interesting. But I think the key change works fine – especially in comparison to the “You Are Not Alone” one – and I like the “woo! woo!” bits, just because they’re so incongruous. (They remind me, in a weird way, of the way Kevin Rowland ends one of the tracks on Don’t Stand Me Down – perhaps the whole intensity of the song is bringing him to mind?)

    *this is the funniest bit of the song BTW, “What about the Holy Land?” and the snapped-back “What about it?” is very easy to hear as irritable. Christ, Michael, not the fucking Holy Land TOO.

  21. 21
    anto on 31 Jul 2013 #

    re:14 At my school ‘Heal The World’ and ‘Man In The Mirror’ were two of the songs we were told to contemplate the meaning of during meditation sessions in the chapel (RC School) although with the latter we were told to “put aside your thoughts about the person singing it and just listen to the words” but really Michael Jacksons influence on educational methods has been less readily acknowledged than his impact on pop music.

    By the time ‘Earth Song’ came along I couldn’t really understand anyone still wanting to listen to Michael Jackson who just struck me as being behind the times but who unfortunately still had a fanbase massive enough to give him mega-size hits and so however long ‘Earth Song’ was at number 1 it seemed to be absolutely ages.
    I think the Michael Bay comparison is pertinent here as this does put me in mind of the cold can’t-fail-won’t-fail craft of a modern movie blockbuster. For me the beginning has more power than the climax. Starting a single from such a point of weariness is one way of establishing focus but by the first chours my mind has wandered.

  22. 22
    Steve Mannion on 31 Jul 2013 #

    re #12 good point about how the combination of MJ and JC (not Jesus but same initials) at the same event and what’s happened since makes this feel like a far more distant time and place than it really was.

    I welcomed JC’s antics at the Brits bearing in mind they came at a time when anticipation of untoward shenanigans at the ceremony were at their peak. In recent years the Brits seem to have become so anodyne in every way the effort spent on televising them has never felt so worthless.

  23. 23
    Mark G on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Re the Brits performance (excl JC now), it started as MJ wandering the stage on his own, nodding between verses with two fingers on his chin, like he was presenting a Powerpoint slideshow.

    And at the point where this is getting somewhat boring, here comes the whole world and god and all this molokey.

    Just as well it’s 5 mins plus..

    2nd misheard lyric: “This crying earth that we’ve been shown”

  24. 24
    Chelovek na lune on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #14 and also #21 Gosh, that sounds unbearable. The only time we had to discuss “pop songs with a message” at school (or indeed, popular music at all) was when (back in the late 80s) our music teacher, on successive weeks, got us to analyse the lyrics, meaning and structure of “Mama” by Genesis and “Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna.

    This and the situation outlined in 21 this does present the case of, of on the one hand, a RC school using a time presumably devoted to some form of Chritian worship encouraging mediation on Michael’s slightly inane and wildly incoherent, but powerfully enunciated, musings about the environment; and on the other hand, a secular and liberal school using music lessons as a pretext to discuss the ethics of abortion… Everything is upside down.

    (Earth Song: inescapable in Ukraine at the time: Boyzone’s “Father and Son” likewise. New Beatles let alone Mike Flowers Pops: all but unknown)

  25. 25
    Steve Mannion on 31 Jul 2013 #

    He totally says ‘weeping sore’ at some point which only grossed us out further.

  26. 26
    Ed on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Misheard lyrics, part 2: the lyrics sites don’t agree on whether the Holy Land is torn apart by “creed” or “greed”.

    “Creed” would be more accurate, I guess, but would intensify the song’s religious scepticism. “Greed” would imply an interestingly provocative take on the problems of the Middle East.

  27. 27
    Tim Byron on 31 Jul 2013 #

    It’s funny, one of the first things that happened after I started paying attention to pop music was the big hoo-haa over ‘Black Or White’ when it came out, and I loved that, and had imbibed the received wisdom that he was the King Of Pop etc (according to the recent oral history ‘I Want My MTV’, the people on MTV received a memo saying they’d only get ‘Black Or White’ as an exclusive if they started calling him the King of Pop, but it seemed to me that he had long been the King Of Pop at the time). It just seemed to me at the time that Jackson’s every move was genius, because that’s what the media was telling me, and ‘Black Or White’ was pretty awesome so it made sense.

    I don’t think I’d ever questioned that narrative until I saw the thing with Jarvis on the news. In fairness (I think?) to Jarvis, he said it was a spur of the moment thing and he was drunk, rather than it being a calculated move. But something about the act and the song made me realise at the time that some of the hype about Jackson was smoke and mirrors, that he wasn’t necessarily in a league above every other pop star the way he wanted himself to be portrayed.

    I mean, there’s definitely a strong melody or two in the song, in a way that always seemed to be missing in subsequent MJ singles after 95 or so (I do wonder what happened there, how he lost that gift?). But still, it’s not an overly well-developed song, and while the arrangement is doing a lot of work to hide that lack of development with pomp and circumstance, it’s all a bit empty somehow.

    (Also, for better or worse, I don’t think I ever understood most of what MJ was singing in the good bit at the end of the song – I only learnt about ‘what about elephants’ today! So thank you, Tom, for alerting me to its existence)

  28. 28
    weej on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Just to note that JC seems to be somewhere between embarrassed and mortified about the incident now, and that it came at the peak of his britpop ligging.

    I didn’t mind the song at the time, it seemed to be ridiculously bombastic, sure, but in the context of a watchable performance that’s fine, surely? (So long as people don’t take it seriously, oh, right…) I haven’t listened to it in 15 years, but will give it a go again tonight.

  29. 29
    Tom on 31 Jul 2013 #

    In a way, I think “don’t take things so seriously” is something Cocker and Jackson are both pushing back on in their music.

  30. 30
    weej on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Oh, I don’t mean taking the issue seriously, that’s fair and valid, and taking yourself seriously as an artist, well, of course, that too.
    But as “The Messiah” / “King of Rock & Pop” ? I don’t know if MJ believed it, but a certain section of his fanbase did and still seem to.

1 2 3 5 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)

Required

Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page