31
Jul 13

MICHAEL JACKSON – “Earth Song”

FT + Popular130 comments • 10,239 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. 61
    @PsynapsisLtd on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Excellent piece from @tomewing on Michael Jackson’s biggest UK hit, the polarising Earth Song. http://t.co/R1RoTi1SeO

  2. 62
    Tom on 31 Jul 2013 #

    I’ve come round on both Bridge and Hey Jude, FWIW, but I also think Jackson is just straight-up a better singer than McCartney which makes his build up listenable for me. And Bridge builds up sonically but I don’t think goes anywhere very different emotionally – whereas with Earth Song you have a guy on the brink in the build-up who then falls off.

  3. 63
    thefatgit on 31 Jul 2013 #

    I get where Doctor Casino is coming from, and his comparisons helped me to get over the Jacko histrionics and concentrate on the song. Earth Song is bad porn with a great money-shot (which doesn’t make it great porn, like too many artistic camera angles and not enough flesh). Hey Jude is decent porn with a bad money-shot. Bridge is quality porn with an amazing money-shot (albeit soft-focus). Apologies for the analogy, but that’s how I got a handle on it.

  4. 64
    mapman132 on 31 Jul 2013 #

    As has been stated multiple times already, this was never released in the US. It got no radio play that I’m aware of, although I vaguely remember seeing it on VH-1 once or twice. Again, most Americans, even many MJ fans, have never heard of it. As to why it wasn’t released, some plausible theories have been advanced in this thread. Another thing to note that due to the post-allegations backlash in America, a messianic sounding song like this might have been considered the worst possible thing to release.

    As for me, I’m as much pro-environment as the next person (in fact, I think climate change is by far the biggest issue of the 21st century), but Earth Song just feels like a self-serving ego-fest to me. I’ll admit arriving at it a bit negatively the other day – knowledge of the Brit incident, and what I vaguely remembered from those VH-1 plays didn’t help. The best thing I can say is that it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected – certainly miles better than what preceded it at #1 – but it just felt overblown and way, way too long. I’m surprised it’s getting love here, but everyone’s entitled to their own opinion of course. 3/10 from me.

  5. 65
    @hjasnoch on 31 Jul 2013 #

    “WHAT ABOUT THE ELEPHANTS???”—@tomewing on Michael Jackson’s Earth Song is splendid writing. http://t.co/yaodQtGYC4

  6. 66
    Auntie Beryl on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Jackson from 1987 onwards felt like degrees of overkill to me.

    The “Bad” album: 20% too much Jacko.
    “Black & White”: 25%
    The “Dangerous” album: 25%
    The launch of the History album: 40%.
    “Earth Song”: 60% too much Jacko.

    A huge seller. No denying that. But that was it for Jacko.

  7. 67
    23 Daves on 1 Aug 2013 #

    The interesting thing for me – and possibly me alone – is that despite being a fully paid-up member of the Green Party and having a wife who has a day job dealing with environmental concerns, there are actually no environmental pop songs I can actually remember liking. I’ll even include the vague, scattershot headline quoting of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me” in this, with its tossed-off aside of “Fish full of mercury”.

    Maybe the issue is that pop music (at least for me) has to somehow reference individuals, speak directly to other humans, to have any sort of emotional impact. “The Earth Song” isn’t a message so much as one great, angry finger-wagging nag, as if Jackson has had one too many Martinis and is having a bit of an angry turn in some Hollywood bar somewhere. You can imagine Diana Ross sat opposite him, trying to calm him down, while he cuts her off angrily with “What about the common man!” (and what a nice link back to “Common People” that lyric is too – for me, one of the best bits about Cocker’s stage invasion were the cheers he received from members of the audience who were obviously convinced some kind of duet was about to take place. Imagine if it had?)

    As already referenced above, Jackson did better with “Man in the Mirror”, which – while not being a specifically environmental song – tries to cross-reference the personal and the political with the simple but effective central image. But perhaps the fact I can’t accept big, bold, epic messages about elephants and whales speaks more about my personality than anything else. After all, there’s a possibility that “The Earth Song”, for as much as I find it tedious, obvious and overly long, was also immediate and obvious enough to turn more children on to the idea of environmental issues (and therefore have a potentially far-reaching impact) than anything anyone else did. But I was cringing as I typed that. Sorry.

  8. 68
    Rory on 1 Aug 2013 #

    Julian Lennon’s “Saltwater” was an Australian number one for four weeks in 1992. (Edit: which I now remind myself that Tom mentioned in his first paragraph. Time for bed.)

  9. 69
    DanH on 1 Aug 2013 #

    I actually saw this video quite a few times in the States back in the day, though it must not have gotten single release, as others have pointed out here. I remember even then thinking, “Okkkkk, take a step back”…thought it was the most pretentious thing I had seen.

    We’re just beginning the 200 straight weeks of “One Sweet Day” at #1 at this time in the US. Two of my least fave acts at the time, OF COURSE it couldn’t miss ;-)

  10. 70
    Rory on 1 Aug 2013 #

    (Tom mentioned “Saltwater”, that is, not its Australian number-one-ness. But looking again, I realise I was thrown originally by “a Lennon”, which didn’t tip me off; I was trying to think which John song it was. I was out of the country when the song rode up the Oz charts, and I’m not sure I’d heard it before just now on YouTube.)

  11. 71
    mapman132 on 1 Aug 2013 #

    #67: A few times as I’ve been following this blog, I look at some of its cruddier number ones and wonder why I ever followed the UK chart anyway. Then I look at the corresponding US number ones and quickly remember. Even though the UK had 16 weeks of Bryan Adams and 15 weeks of the Wets to deal with, these long stays were the exception, not the rule. Us Americans had long-running mediocrities at number one ALL THE TIME in the 90’s.

    And then there’s the fact that many of the best and most popular hits at the time didn’t chart at all on the Hot 100 due to lack of a single release, but there’s a specific UK#1 in 1996 where I’ll address that more fully.

  12. 72
    flahr on 1 Aug 2013 #

    This is one of my friend’s favourite songs (the favourite song of one of my friends, that is, not one of the favourite songs of my sole friend). It’s more tedious than I remember it being (four minutes of rather desultory stuff followed by two minutes of blustery inconclusive tantrum). I agree that the bass is pretty good. Video is sick-making and not in a good way. [3]

  13. 73
    MikeMCSG on 1 Aug 2013 #

    Dire and ghoulish as it undoubtedly was “Free As A Bird” and the Anthology set as a whole did have the useful effect of bringing The Beatles crashing off the pedestal they’d occupied for the past 25 years as the untouchable avatars of quality in pop. It’s been much easier for people to review their work objectively since then. It’s also why the expected chart takeover when their downloads became available never happened ; people simply don’t worship them any more.

  14. 74
    swanstep on 1 Aug 2013 #

    @71, MikeMCSG. I don’t think the Anthology sets had that effect on me, rather they confirmed what I’d always suspected: that a big part of The Beatles’s excellence was their quality control, their ability with Martin’s help to edit and assess themselves very accurately, to almost always identify the best takes, the best versions overall of songs (where there were often quite different arrangements, different tempi, and the like to choose from in the studio), and so on.

    The documentaries that were released in parallel with the Anthology were hagiographic, and to that extent objectionable, but they also made the obvious strong case for awe at how much the B’s achieved so quickly. Worship was still appropriate.

    ‘Free as a bird’ was indeed pretty gruesome, but I quite liked ‘Real Love’. That would have been a legit #1 if they’d led with it I suspect.

  15. 75
    weej on 1 Aug 2013 #

    I’ve finally got around to listening to the song again and have to confess to being a bit disappointed. If anything, there isn’t enough bombast, and what there is is too slow coming. The verses are alright on their own, but there’s too much “you” and not enough “we”, then the “what about us” sounds a bit too much like “oh you awful humans, being mean to me AND the planet too.” This is why Man in the Mirror works where this doesn’t.

    And I was about to defend Free as a Bird but have just listened to it again and, well, yeah, I won’t bother. The TV series was IMO the best part of that whole Anthology project, could do with watching it again actually.

  16. 76
    Tom on 1 Aug 2013 #

    #72 yes, when I went through my big “rediscovering the Beatles” phase in my 30s (prompted by Popular to some extent) I remember thinking WOW now I can enjoy the Anthology too, lots more great music on there…. oh.

    (Has anyone here bothered making any one-disc compilations of the best things on it? A kind of Past Masters Three: The Outtakes would be good)

  17. 77
    Rory on 1 Aug 2013 #

    @71 As someone who pored over Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions when it came out, I loved listening to the Anthologies, and some of their takes were even the equal of the album versions for me. Nothing on them diminished the quality of the final albums, though; if anything, they underscored what good choices those usually involved. It’s a little perplexing to think that demonstrating that artists select their best work as their public face somehow suggests that the work is lesser in quality. Most artists do that, in whatever medium.

    (I liked “Free as a Bird” just fine, too, although I preferred “Real Love”. I doubt your “dire and ghoulish” claim! I doubt it!)

  18. 78
    Rory on 1 Aug 2013 #

    James BC @54: I’ve been singing the chorus to myself as “Ea-ea-ea-eaaaaaarth, So-o-o-oooooong” ever since reading your comment. Ea-ea-ea-eaaaaaar, Wo-o-o-oooooorm.

  19. 79
    flahr on 1 Aug 2013 #

    Miscellaneous additions: 1) Man in the Mirror is indeed far better, though if I am correctly remembering why it is not bunnied I am glad it is not bunnied; 2) since listening to this this morning to review I have had it stuck firmly in my head (so thanks for the “lovely tusks”/”Eaaaaaaarth Song” relyric suggestions for making it vaguely bearable).

  20. 80
    MikeMCSG on 1 Aug 2013 #

    #72/75 I wasn’t suggesting that the quality of the material on the Anthologies was all atrocious but that the big media overkill around the release of inferior product and, as Swanstep recalls, the annoyingly unrevealing documentaries tarnished the legacy.

    Obviously John wasn’t complicit in it so he escapes censure. I’m guessing they didn’t lead with “Real Love”- which is better – because it didn’t leave the others enough room .

    Rory – you don’t think it’s a bit ghoulish the way they used that snippet of Lennon ? He’s no more on the record than Bela Lugosi is in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

  21. 81
    Rory on 1 Aug 2013 #

    @78. Yeah, fair enough, a bit. It was mainly the “dire” part I was disputing. I think they handled the snippet pretty respectfully, though; there are far worse ways it could have ended up. I suspect McCartney and Harrison kept each other in check – Harrison had been the more successful ex-Beatle of the late 1980s/early 1990s with the Wilburys, so McCartney had to pull his head in. Similarly, the massed weight of Beatles prevented it ending up too ELO-sounding; I don’t find Lynne’s production touches excessive on either track.

    Stretching the concept beyond a couple of tracks would have crossed a line, but they effectively gave the world a couple of new fully-fledged Lennon tracks, rather than the whisper-thin demos they had been. Listening to them both just now, they still sound fine. I’m glad they exist.

  22. 82
    DanH on 2 Aug 2013 #

    #69: The ’90s charts in America were strange indeed, to look back on. I can think of a bigger bunny in 1997 that astonishes me to not see on American charts.

    Re: Anthology…early ’96 was when I really started my Beatlemania phase, timely due to those Anthologies. Back then, and still now, I far preferred Real Love. Free as a Bird felt too patchwork, and BIG BOOMING DRUM-y (thanx Lynne). Even Real Love became a wee superfluous after the piano demo surfaced on Lennon Anthology later. And the interviews, I still like them, but I almost remember the parody on the Dana Carvey Show (blink and you missed it, it was that short lived) where Macca was reduced to ‘I did the plinky plinky, ya know, and Ringo did the thumpa dump dump, ya know’…not too far off ;-)

  23. 83
    Erithian on 2 Aug 2013 #

    There was a spicier bit of interview in the Jeff Lynne doc on BBC4 a while back where Macca recalled working with George on one of the new songs, can’t remember which, and George said something like “This is doing my head in”. Paul pointed to the tape deck and said, “But George – this is JOHN!” – and George retorted “I don’t care, it’s still shit!”

    Then there was Ringo reacting to Jeff Lynne wanting to use a click track for recording purposes. “But I AM the fucking click track!” he recalled saying. One wondered whether he’d said something similar to George Martin during the recording of “Love Me Do”.

  24. 84
    Patrick Mexico on 2 Aug 2013 #

    Heart on his sleeve, but he does go on a bit. It’s alright I suppose. 6.

  25. 85
    Mark G on 2 Aug 2013 #

    When the Boo Radleys issued “From the Bench at Belvedere”, I remember thinking “If this was the Beatles Reunion single, there would be joy and tears”, and something told me the actual Beatles single would be a massive disappointment. And so it came to pass. and the Boos single was ignored by those that really really wanted the spirit of The Beatles to reappear.

    No doubt the actual Second Coming would get missed in a similar way..

  26. 86
    weej on 2 Aug 2013 #

    I considered ‘From The Beach at Belvedere’, ‘Find The Answer Within’ and ‘Stuck On Amber’ for *something* and found I’d completely gone off all of them despite having listened to them on repeat at the end of 95. A shame.

  27. 87
    Patrick Mexico on 2 Aug 2013 #

    If there is any such way to measure it, will this number one have the biggest disparity/variety of marks out of 10? Would love to see the top 100 most “divisive” number 1s of all time.

  28. 88
    Patrick Mexico on 2 Aug 2013 #

    (As well as the most, er, for want of a better word, consensual.. looking for the brave people who would defend Robson and Jerome. But on Popular, there aren’t many grannies always telling us the old songs are the best, or lonely housewives clutching empty milk bottles to their hearts.)

  29. 89
    hardtogethits on 3 Aug 2013 #

    #85,#86. Yeah, this must be do-able. Tom, any plans?
    A proxy would be to compare the “six or more” end-of-year votes with the individual tracks’ average scores.

    eg Baby D average score 7.6 when reviewed in its own right
    At year end, 67 out of 131 or 132 believes it merits six or more
    Therefore 64 or 65 do not
    Max contribution from them 320 or 325
    Those who vote 6 or more would each nominally (remember these are proxy calcs) contribute either
    (995.6-320)/67. Or 10.08 out of 10.
    Or
    (1003.2-325)/67. Or 10.12 out of 10.
    which suggests to me – on the basis of this record’s marks and no others – that it must really polarise opinion.

  30. 90
    Tom on 3 Aug 2013 #

    The year end polls get FAR more voters than the individual marks though – the individual marks represent registered users, whereas any passing IP address can deal with the polls.

    But the dataset for the individual marks is available and standard deviation in Excel is usually a pretty good proxy for the “Controversy Rating” you’re talking about.

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