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May 11

MICHAEL JACKSON – “Black Or White”

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#670, 23rd November 1991

There’s an odd symmetry between this record and “The Fly”: Michael Jackson, like U2, was stratospherically famous and looking to make a push for new-decade relevance. Also like U2, the idea he hit on was making darkly personal songs out of a blend of dance music and rock. But he came at it from the opposite direction – in “Black And White” it’s the rock elements which are grafts, clumsy-seeming attempts to toughen a sound.

But Jacko’s music was hardening anyway – Bad was full of nervous tics and defensive twitches, the liberating looseness of Off The Wall slipping into paranoia on standouts like “Smooth Criminal”. “Black Or White” is more upbeat, uplifting even – its chorus sentiment is glib on paper but more compelling on record because Jackson sounds aggressively committed to it. He seems hyped throughout and by the shouted middle eight he’s spoiling for a fight. The Dangerous era is the start of “late Jacko”, I guess, the King Of Pop’s supposed slide into decadence and lunacy, but whatever goes missing between Thriller and the end it’s not Jackson’s belief. He always sounded like there was something vital – for him, for the world – at stake in the music, and that alone would make “Black And White” compelling.

In some ways, it’s a mess. The extended intro – the hey-kid-turn-it-down skit from “Do The Bartman” recycled and played straight – is annoying, and wastes Slash’s guest spot. And the rap is pleasant but inexplicable – its avuncular even-handedness may fit the text of the song but completely misreads its mood. Other ideas work much better – the riff is great, announcing Jackson’s return more neatly and stylishly than any publicity. And the rock elements work too just because they’re so odd – the lead-in to the rap is a crescendo of digitised shredding which sounds like nothing we’ve ever heard on a number one before. The rock music Jackson is looking to co-opt here is technical, gleaming, and very shortly to be extinct, which is one reason “Black Or White” has aged strangely. It’s ambitious, overcooked – like most later Jackson singles not a total success, but for all the mis-steps there’s a vitality to this record which thrills me.

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Comments

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  1. 121
    Izzy on 21 Jun 2011 #

    #117 – I believe (b) was my article almost verbatim, yes. It was still relatively rare for indie acts to make the big top forty, so to have several there together then half the show given over to a superstar’s video (much of which wasn’t even music) felt grossly cruel.

    #120 – that ‘Let’s Work’ performance was rather bemusing. It seemed like a lot of fun, but it was strange to me why this old man should get all that attention. I still have the chorus in my head, despite having not knowingly heard it since (of course, my history on this thread suggests I’m probably internally singing something completely different).

  2. 122
    hardtogethits on 21 Jun 2011 #

    #120. Was a fascinating story. It’s true about Let’s Work being #41 when aired, and that was the lowest-charting record to have featured on TOTP for months. TOTP DID refuse to broadcast a TOTP studio recording of “Time Will Crawl” by David Bowie earlier in 1987 because it fell down the chart, so megastars weren’t exempt from the rules. However, to be no.41 and climbing was permissible, and Let’s Work may have been cut even more slack because of a chart error which initially placed it at no.40 (Record Mirror printed it at no.40), and the gap between no 40 and 41 in cultural terms is inestimable.

    Regrettably, I have to point out that it didn’t fall down the chart, it made an unimpressive climb, firstly to 33 then to 31, where it peaked.

    By the way, loved the Say Say Say story – recall it at the time but would never have thought of using it to illustrate how strong TOTP rules were, even though it’s pretty much the perfect example. If chartwatchers ever wondered why it went 25-10-13-14-3-2, there’s the answer.

  3. 123
    punctum on 21 Jun 2011 #

    Or how Aspergic the rules were, or how easily they could be ignored or overlooked when it suited the producer (see the endless stream of no-mark flops turning up on the ’76 reruns). Makes one wonder whether wiping of the earlier tapes really represented that much of a loss (the embarrassing ’67 Xmas special for instance, which has survived onto YouTube).

    “Let’s Work” is a terrible record.

  4. 124
    hardtogethits on 21 Jun 2011 #

    Yes, but I cannot really contextualize what the rules meant in the 70s and I think the idea that they even existed may be a case of backcasting. Between 1980 and 1991 the rules weren’t inflexible (whether a good thing or not) and so features on US Hits, European charts and album charts made the show open to brief glimpses of wild cards that should have had no place on the show. However, there was no obvious manipulation (ie plugging) and on the specific issue of the broadcasting of videos and studio recordings, the rules were transparent and incredibly well-kept, as the examples of Time Will Crawl and Say Say Say show. Now I wouldn’t argue in favour of the rules were it not for two compelling reasons:

    1. Their application showed TOTP were not in anyone’s pockets;
    2. TOTP with the rules achieved both deep and broad appeal; it was a good show (perhaps because of 1, perhaps not).

    Each of these statements invites several sub-discussions, but the simple truth is that after 1991 TOTP continually failed to win new audiences and with the rules gone, so did Good Things #1 and #2 above.

  5. 125
    AndyPandy on 21 Jun 2011 #

    I have been quite surprised by the cavalcade of utter flops which litter the 1976 TOTPs. In my brief time as a chart fan roughly 1979-80 I do remember however that it was quite common to feature records in positions 41-50 but don’t remember records outside those positions being included as they obviously were a couple of years before.

    Incidentally (and possibly not right on topic!) it should also be remembered that up till the very end of the 1970s (?) positions 31-40 were not much more significant than 41-50 as the Radio 1 chart show was just a Top 20 and TOTP and ‘The Sun’ newspaper etc used to just feature a Top 30 – IIRC I don’t remember things going to a Top 40 until the very end of the 1970s. I know in late 1977 when I used to record Tom Brown’s chart rundown it was just a Top 20.
    Does anyone remember actually when it went to a 40?

    With the TOTP in 1976 etc however I don’t think the flops were featured so heavily for anything more sinister than they were cheap and available, the charts were full of American soul,funk and disco who were too expensive to bring over and you wouldn’t have a viable show if all people did was look at promotional films.

    However not wishing to flog one of my old hobbyhorses yet again I do think there was something mildly ‘sinister’ happening in the early 90s when they brought the ‘live’ rule in so they could eliminate the rave music that was taking over the charts and was often not reproducable in the live way they insisted on.

  6. 126
    Mark G on 21 Jun 2011 #

    I did feel the beginning of the end when “Bad” was given the whole programme to air. There’s a long preamble where MJ and someone are talking on a subway train, and it’s all very good, but I did wonder what music we had to forego to watch this scene setting biz.

    That David Bowie “Time will crawl”, presumably filmed well in advance of the single being out, was one of the first things shown on TOTP2 as an ‘exclusive!! Unseen!!’ cake/eatit..

  7. 127
    Mark G on 21 Jun 2011 #

    #125 well, there was the performance of “Injected with a poison” which got affected by a new rule “no miming to samples” so a dancer just shouted the title and “we don’t need that anymore’ to general puzzlement.

    You know, I’ve enjoyed those 1976 flops as much if not more than the hits!

  8. 128
    AndyPandy on 21 Jun 2011 #

    But Michael Jackson was such a unique cultural phenomenon that I think he warranted this – and for once the BBC got it right.
    More people (well those below 25 anyway) at work semed more interested in him than any other pop cultural thing I’ve experienced. His penetration of the consciousness of the 16-25 age group (or at least those I mixed with in day to day life – work/pub etc)at the time of ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’ must have been unprecedented since the Beatles.

    I remember in 1983 at Windsor Safari Club (a pretty underground jazz-funk club) and which defintely wouldn’t have been playing Michael Jackson they had the ‘Thriller’ video on the big screen and even all the serious funkers stopped dancing and whatever else they were doing and watched it.

    Re127 – and the flops – I suppose I’ve enjoyed them too – its the rough with smooth that for me makes it such a great viewing experience!

  9. 129
    hardtogethits on 21 Jun 2011 #

    #125

    Interesting insight.

    The Top 40 replaced the Top 20 as the Sunday evening chart show in November 1978.

    I don’t know when TOTP began to countdown the positions outside the Top 30 – not for a good couple of years, and I actually wonder, did they ever actually do so?

    Of greater intrigue to me though, is when the Tuesday dinner BBC RAdio 1 countdown began to cover 40 records. It was before November 1978, but I haven’t a clue by how much?

  10. 130
    punctum on 22 Jun 2011 #

    Week ending 13 May 1978, in both cases.

  11. 131
    punctum on 22 Jun 2011 #

    #124: TOTP ground to a halt pretty much when the charts became a reflection of record company marketing policies rather than genuine popularity; hence no stability. In addition, the increasing dominance of dance music played against the visual aspect of the show; programmes composed of blokes pressing a finger on a keyboard/sampler one after the other were not viable.

    Wonder if the reruns, if they last that long, will include those “US Hits” segments.

  12. 132
    Mark G on 22 Jun 2011 #

    Oh, with old Kingy?

    I believe we have a few GazGlit appearances before that.

  13. 133
    hardtogethits on 22 Jun 2011 #

    #130 – sorry, this is genuine fascination not pedantry and apologies if, even for a nanosecond, it comes across as the latter – can you clarify what you mean by “in both cases”? The Tuesday dinner broadcast is I presume one of the cases…what’s the other?

    I ask because TOTP did NOT go with a Top 40 countdown from May 1978, and nor did the Sunday evening broadcast.

  14. 134
    hardtogethits on 22 Jun 2011 #

    #131, True. In late summer / Autumn 1991 the rules went out of the window, and there was a sudden (unprecedented) increase in the number of dance records with (little or) no crossover appeal by acts with(little or) no chart form, bursting onto the chart in very high positions. Cause / effect / vicious circle?

  15. 135
    Izzy on 22 Jun 2011 #

    Is ‘crossover appeal’ the key? It ties in with what I was getting at in #30 about ‘Black or White’ representing a final attempt to reconcile all genres under a unanimous champion, The King of Pop. Even he later became the King of Pop, Rock and Soul shortly thereafter, and would no doubt have had to continually expand his title, à la Queen Victoria, if he’d tried to keep that up as the 90s progressed and everything ghettoised.

    Maybe a single charts show was just an impossible ask in such a climate. I certainly don’t remember many ‘event’ appearances after this one; at least not ones that would have had everybody talking, the way Culture Club or whoever were supposed to, back in the day. Not too many artists who could do that, full stop.

  16. 136
    lonepilgrim on 10 Sep 2011 #

    Jon Landis is probably not the most reliable witness but here’s his perspective (as director of the videos for both ‘Thriller’ and ‘B & W’) on MJ:
    “I was and remain very fond of Michael. I liked him a lot. He was a sad character in that he was an abused child. And “Thriller” I guess was his peak in terms of his powers, by the time I did “Black Or White” he was mad. [Laughs.] The guy that I worked on “Thriller” was a genius and he was 20 years old, but it was like working with a gifted 10-year-old. The guy who I worked on with “Black Or White” was crazy. Michael had gone mad. [Laughs.] I just feel he’s a tragic figure. I liked him a lot and you won’t hear me say bad things about Mike. I mean, I don’t believe he was a child molester. I really do not. I think he was damn weird, no doubt about it, but in terms of sexually molesting a kid, I don’t think so. When he was on trial, I tried to go to show support, and his father wouldn’t let me in the court. His father hates me. I mean, he was surrounded by bad people, and he also created a lot of his misfortune, but he was an incredible performer. Seeing him live in a stadium—and I’ve worked with a lot of people—I’ve never seen anyone who had that kind of power onstage. But in real life he was just a skinny little guy who wasn’t there. He had no presence.”
    from: http://www.avclub.com/articles/john-landis,61457/

  17. 137
    lonepilgrim on 12 Sep 2011 #

    the ‘Black and White’ video is referenced heavily in this new video by Das Racist:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5q9dduwfVg

  18. 138
    hectorthebat on 31 Mar 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1990s (2001) 101
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 50 Best Michael Jackson Songs (2014) 9
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 93
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 21
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 19
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – Songs of the Year 44

  19. 139
    Mostro on 20 Apr 2015 #

    “Black or White’s” fundamental problem is- and has always been- that the accompanying video- and the hype surrounding it- reduced the song itself to being little more than a soundtrack.

    Has anyone who was around at the time ever been able to judge it on its own merits away from that, and away from the suffocating hype that surrounded it as the lead single from “Dangerous”?

    It’s good, but not outstanding. The hook is catchy enough, but as a whole it never did much for me. In some respects the pop/rock hybrid elements feel like Jackson’s earlier 80s work taken to its ultimate commercial conclusion, but with that style already edging into anachronism by 1991. The rap middle-eight, on the other hand, is very much *of* that era, which is to say quite dated today.

    The video itself is utterly bloated, overblown and self-indulgent, itself a victim of its need to be an “event”. Jackson was always a very video-centric artist, but this is just massive for the sake of it, with no real focus.

    The two minute Macauley Culkin skit (*) cuts- with only a cursory connection- to the song (and video) proper with its “Jackson as world citizen in Jackson-centric world” dance sequences- itself with enough elements to put most videos to shame. Towards the end this switches to another sequence based around the morphing heads gimmick. And to be fair, this was quite clever and still looks good today (considering how cheap some other morphing from that era now look). But it could almost be a different video in its own right.

    But wait- there’s more! Remember that the full version gives nearly another five minutes post-song of Jackson as cat/vandal/self-pleasurer in a backstreeet somewhere. Then a few seconds of The Simpsons, because why not?

    “Black or White” is still a decent song, but not an outstanding one, and not one that even remotely begins to justify its massively overstuffed video. But in this case, I doubt that was ever the point.

    (*) As Tom notes, a slightly altered take on the opening skit is repeated on the album version of the song, but this really wouldn’t work if you hadn’t already seen the video. I think it’s safe to say that this was taken for granted, but itdoes rather prove the point.

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