9
Jul 13

MICHAEL JACKSON – “You Are Not Alone”

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#726, 9th September 1995

Jackson Alone Whatever grim spirits drove Michael Jackson, they were hovering around his music long before HIStory – a double album that, through hubris or masochism (or commercial good sense) directly linked his greatest songs to his newest. There’s terror and paranoia to spare on the hits, even before Jordan Chandler’s accusations against Jackson curdled his public profile: the HIStory songs were darker still. Whether it was the agony of wrongful accusation or the cold horror of discovery motivating Jackson – or just a development of his existing demons – his music around this time is a sea of sorrow and fear.

This applies even to a track like “You Are Not Alone”, not written by Jackson, but which ends up sounding as diffused, sad, and lost as any of his own songs. As an attempt at tenderness and comfort, it’s hardly convincing. For all that this period of Jackson can be a tough listen, its best songs are as compelling as anything he’d done since Thriller. But they’re usually the ones where he sounds most adrift or angry, not the ones where he’s trying to persuade someone – or himself -that things are going to be OK.

Glimpses of the Jackson his 80s fans loved poke through, which just makes this trudge all the sadder. His voice hasn’t lost any of its sensitivity, and the “whispered three words” break is a brief and lovely glimpse of the old Jackson balladry, the tender, courtly singer who made “Human Nature” or “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”. But the rest is suffocating, an endless snowfall of smothering triple stresses – “YOU are NOT a LONE, I’LL be HERE for YOU”, on and on and on, with the brutal truck driver’s gear change before the final chorus giving the impression of a ghastly forced smile. The situation of the song seems to slide – a departed lover? a bereavement? a reconciliation? – but whatever R Kelly intended it’s hard to hear it as sung to anyone but its singer. His hiccups and vocal tics – also carried over from happier times – now seem like Gollum-esque sobs, and his shift to his growlier register over the fade underscores how badly this song fails to soothe: the last we hear of Jackson is a miserable plea of “GOTTA STOP BEING ALONE!” howled low in the mix.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Tom on 10 Jul 2013 #

    “Stranger in Moscow” isn’t really about Moscow*, so I’m not surprised the Russian public was a bit baffled!

    *(except in the sense of the Moscow that exists on Earth-M, the Earth in Michael Jackson’s head. Of which more anon.)

  2. 32
    Another Pete on 10 Jul 2013 #

    Let’s not forget the promotional stunt for his album HIStory which must of been around this time that involved a giant statue of Michael Jackson being floating down the Thames. Maybe it’s this statue Mohammed Al-Fayed had in mind for Craven Cottage instead of one that looks like it was bought from a garden centre.

  3. 33
    wichita lineman on 10 Jul 2013 #

    The first appearance of R Kelly on Popular gives me the opportunity to share this extraordinary behind-the-scenes clip, just in case you haven’t already seen it:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdaAWFoWr2c

    MILTON!

  4. 34
    Steve Mannion on 10 Jul 2013 #

    That is highly entertaining, although I was hoping for a line like “Girl what you think the R in my name stands for anyway…real talk”.

  5. 35
    Ed on 11 Jul 2013 #

    @16 – Yes! Sorry I forgot you. I had to go and re-read it. It’s a great piece.

  6. 36
    punctum on 11 Jul 2013 #

    Yet another entry I can’t write about because it comes from a number one album – and (despite my earlier miscalculations) there are three more of these to come in 1995. Was there ever such a concordance between number one singles and albums, and yet also such a disparate gulf?

  7. 37
    punctum on 11 Jul 2013 #

    So all I have to say about this record for the time being is…

    “YOUR BURGERS ARE THE BEST!”

  8. 38
    Steve Mannion on 11 Jul 2013 #

    re mapman’s Billboard stat at #5 – curious tho isn’t it that Jackson debuts at #1 AFTER the scandal and not before, and especially odd after the relative flop of ‘Scream’ (here at least, if only in the specific context of failing to make #1). I always loved the ‘Scream’ video tho – still the most expensive promo ever made (assuming no major could spend $6m on a clip post-Napster)?

    Back on the Prince entry there was talk of his general 90s decline despite actually topping the charts in the process. MJ’s equivalent trajectory surpasses that for relative oddness – although some rate much of his 90s stuff highly (I’m increasingly sympathetic to the argument that Dangerous is better than Bad), he didn’t even end up having fewer #1’s in his 30s than he did in his 20s.

    ‘Stranger In Moscow’ is indeed better, but then so is the MJ version of Portishead’s ‘Numbed In Moscow’ I just imagined. What if there’d been no cause for controversy in his ‘private’ life and untarnished he’d gazumped Madonna to recruiting William Orbit and Massive Attack as opposed to the more predictable idea of him just contemporising with R&B more ie Timbaland and hooking up with Rodney Jerkins much sooner than he did, or making more of the kind of pre-Kanye kind of weird/rongness Mark refers to which I would love to discuss more as I’m not quite sure what it amounts to re his post-Dangerous stuff. I am kinda stuck on the idea that MJ kept playing it too safe production-wise and really nothing after ‘Bad’ sounded like it couldn’t have actually been on ‘Bad’ (not to suggest ‘Bad’ is devoid of some stark inventive moments musically, and I loved the 25th anniversary documentary about its making from last year).

  9. 39
    Izzy on 11 Jul 2013 #

    One of many fascinating moments in This Is It had him almost wordlessly coaxing the-guy-with-the-laptop to make (iirc) The Way You Make Me Feel more … more … the way it is on the record. MJ looked more like a guy in love with the sounds he knew than one who wanted to play with the avant-garde.

    Which obviously isn’t a criticism when he synthesised so much of it into magnificent shapes already, and even in the 90s would still pull off unexpected things, like Scream or They Don’t Really Care About Us. I can’t imagine most of Madonna’s partners to hold any fascination for him (though he’d’ve got a kick out of Stuart Price).

  10. 40
    Tom on 11 Jul 2013 #

    #38 One effect of the accusations was to radicalise the fans a bit – it shrank the overall fanbase but if you were a Jackson fan afterwards there was a higher chance you would go all in on your fandom. Mobilised fanbase + pop world geared up to rewarding same w/first-week buys = more number ones. Not that any marketers were using 90s Jacko as a case study.

  11. 41
    JLucas on 11 Jul 2013 #

    I’m not sure Michael could ever have “done a Ray of Light”. Madonna may be his closest equivalent in terms of mind-boggling superstardom, but even she never felt quite as hobbled by the need for every album release to be an “event”. She was much more productive through the 80s and 90s, with albums that were big hits (Like a Prayer, True Blue) and albums that were more modestly received (Erotica, Human Nature). Every album Michael released had to live up to ‘Thriller’, and I don’t quite get the sense that for Madonna the expectation was the same.

    HItory Disc 2 is probably his most personal album, and even that was disguised behind a Greatest Hits package and ridiculous myth-making promotional gimmicks (the aforementioned statue).

    I’ve always thought it a shame that it’s never been released as a One-Disc. It is essentially an entirely new solo album of his, with some of his most famous hits, but more up to date or comprehensive hits packages post-HIStory Disc One have rendered it somewhat overlooked.

    Final point, I think Madonna was always more skilled at holding a part of herself back. When Jackson entered personal mode – as he does on a good half of HIStory -he has no barrier. It’s completely exposing in a way that worked wonderfully in some places (Moscow) and slipped into mawkishness or self-indulgence elsewhere (Childhood, D.S.)

    Ray of Light was and is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing the ‘real’ Madonna, but it was still another pose she was striking. She’s clearly made of stronger stuff, and knows the value of a calculated retreat. It’s unimaginable that she’d ever fall victim to an equivalent of the Bashir interview. Living his entire life in the spotlight, the art of withholding is a lesson Jackson never learned.

  12. 42
    Patrick Mexico on 11 Jul 2013 #

    Every time I hear this I think it’s Peter A****.

    Fine with Jacko’s aggressively gonzo brilliance in Billie Jean, Beat It, Don’t Stop.. et al, but even in his heyday found the ballads a little awkwardly saccharine, like munching through a naff kids’ breakfast cereal. Unfortunately, this is the eye of that storm. An easy 3. (But don’t write him off just yet!)

  13. 43
    swanstep on 11 Jul 2013 #

    @40, Tom. I think the impact of the accusations was much greater in the US than outside it. Someone mentioned upthread that YANA was MJ’s last #1 in the US, but really that understates the dropoff in support: MJ was barely in the US singles chart after this (‘You rock my world’ peaking at #10 is his only subsequent top 20 placing). The Tour to support HIStory had no dates in North America (2 concerts in Honolulu were as close as he got). In fact, AFAIK, two special anniversary concerts for MJ and the Jackson 5 in NYC in 2001 were MJ’s only gigs in North America post the Bad Tour in 1989, and of course ‘This Is It’ was going to be a London-only event. For someone as wedded to the idea of being a true mass entertainer as MJ was, and living in LA, this must have been misery- and crazy-making.

    @ Jlucas, 41. Agree that Madge possibly shrewdly holds stuff back. She’s been through some serious shit in her life but you’ll never figure that out from her lyrics. And for all her seeming self-exposure, she’s only talked about the genuinely nasty stuff (rapes, etc.) in interviews once or twice.

  14. 44
    Tom on 11 Jul 2013 #

    #43 The singles chart thing makes total sense. Airplay helps dictate the Billboard chart, and airplay includes a whole lot of other factors – including weighting “makes you not want to switch off” quite high since it’s a push medium not a pull one. So polarising acts don’t get it. (THere’s a good anecdotal story in a marketing book I read about how difficult it was to get “Hey Ya” – a huge sales and internet success by the standards of the time – accepted on radio.)

    But I don’t doubt there was a real decline in support too.

  15. 45
    mapman132 on 11 Jul 2013 #

    #43 & #44: I’d have to say this is definitely the case. MJ was radio poison in America from about 1993 to his sudden death, at which point, everything was apparently forgiven. The massive UK/European hit to come was never even released in the US – I doubt most Americans have even heard of it.

    Re: “Hey Ya”: Thought you were poking the bunny here, but apparently not. Anyway, I’m surprised to hear this, as I remember “Hey Ya” getting a lot of US airplay back in 2003. I guess it was a slight genre-buster though. But your overall analysis is definitely valid. The airplay component has kept the Hot 100 much more middle of the road than the UK and other national charts, which means fewer truly great or truly awful #1’s. This is starting to change a bit in the digital era, as traditional airplay gets less weight. Unfortunately the most extreme example yet is at the truly awful end of the scale (no bunny – congrats UK, but I still won’t mention it by name…).

  16. 46
    Tom on 11 Jul 2013 #

    #45 I looked up the book – its Charles Duhigg’s The Power Of Habit. I was misremembering slightly I think (my copy isn’t to hand) – it wasn’t about Hey Ya’s lack of airplay but about how it was difficult to get passive radio audiences to not switch off – they had to stagger the airplay in unusual ways IIRC. Anyhow I’m in the office tomorrow morning so I’ll look up what he says and what his sources were.

  17. 47
    Another Pete on 11 Jul 2013 #

    #43 Apparently one of the reasons for staging “This is it” in London was that in having stricter gun laws here in the UK alleviated his paranoia of being shot on stage. Maybe this is why he sparingly performed in his native US post-Bad.

  18. 48
    Kat but logged out innit on 11 Jul 2013 #

    I liked Scream and its video enough to buy it on cassingle (the only MJ output I’ve ever bought!), and it’s definitely in my Top 5 Nineties Jacko Tunes. All the squished-up squeals and whistles (from both MJ/JJ and the backing track) make me think of the animated kids’ show Bertha with its fizzing, popping factory production line — it’s not even that much of a stretch to think of Michael and Janet as toy aliens emerging from the conveyor belt at the end. (If Bertha is not your era, you could probably substitute Ivor The Engine‘s fssshticop sound.)

    YANA on the other hand = slow, basic, mushy, vom-worthy, almost stalkery sentiment. I can’t hear any of R Kelly’s usual playfulness/heartfelt emotion through the gloopy sad vocal of a weakened man going through the motions. How could these songs even be on the same album?

  19. 49
    Mark G on 11 Jul 2013 #

    I’m not sure MJ ever gave anything of his real self ever, he always struck me as an empty cipher for whatever emotion the song required. “Man in the mirror” was not even a reference to himself really, it was purely about convincing you that it was.

    That does not mean he did nothing of worth, quite the opposite.

  20. 50
    Alfred on 12 Jul 2013 #

    I thought I was going to be the first to mention the superiority of “Stranger in Moscow,” but I’ll confine my remarks to point out that thanks to its title it had no chance in hell of being a massive hit anywhere — even in Moscow.

  21. 51
    Ed on 12 Jul 2013 #

    @40 – “One effect of the accusations was to radicalise the fans a bit.”

    And how. This piece about fans following the case over Jackson’s death, now being heard in court in LA, opens a window onto the lives of the hardcore:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-jackson-nation-20130627-dto,0,2758379.htmlstory

  22. 52
    Ed on 12 Jul 2013 #

    There’s a great passage at the end of Mark S’s piece in ‘The Resistible Rise…’ (see #9, #16), where he wonders about what will happen now the hellhounds have escaped from Jackson’s head and found homes in bilions of others. (Apologies for the crude paraphrase from memory.)

    The answer, apparently, is that like Obi Wan Kenobi or The Master, he’ll be everywhere.

    To name a few examples:

    He’s in that trial in LA, which has been full of glum details about his mental and physical condition in his final years.

    He’s in the new Justin Timberlake song, inevitably:
    http://www.hitfix.com/news/justin-timberlakes-bouncy-new-song-take-back-the-night-listen

    Increasingly, he’s in Justin Bieber:
    http://www.tmz.com/2013/06/21/justin-bieber-monkey-jet-miami-delay/

    He’s in ‘Random Access Memories’, as an absence. In part it’s an attempt to remake ‘Off The Wall’ / ‘Thriller’ with Jackson’s urgency replaced by Pharrell Williams’ casual self-confidence.

    And he’s in this, which might be terrible, but might be fun. I can’t tell. And it does have ‘Stranger in Moscow’:
    http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2013/may/24/michael-jackson-one-cirque-du-soleil-best-and-incl/#axzz2Ynw7naEu

  23. 53
    Ed on 12 Jul 2013 #

    @52 Erm, ‘The Resistible *Demise*…’, that should be.

  24. 54
    Tom on 12 Jul 2013 #

    #54 he needs a Greil Marcus figure to pull together / excavate / spin fairy tales around all the various strands of culture he’s spun out into. I’m still emotionally very tempted by the idea that he’s a break-point figure, a la Elvis, that pre-Michael, or rather pre-Thriller pop is a foreign era. But things are rarely that simple.

  25. 55
    punctum on 12 Jul 2013 #

    #54: be patient, I haven’t got to him yet.

  26. 56

    That Old Weird Neverland

  27. 57
    Dan Quigley on 12 Jul 2013 #

    Wichita @33: I’d somehow never seen that before, so many, many thanks! Wish R had written something more in this ‘Trapped in the Closet’ vein for Jackson than the track under discussion, although the desperate, almost free-tempo ad-libs(?) in YANA’s fade-out – a disquieting echo of the “Just look over your shoulder” moments in ‘I’ll Be There’ – go some way to balancing the stevia sweetness of the chorus.

  28. 58
    Kylie on 12 Jul 2013 #

    #15 I sang that on the playground too, haha!

  29. 59
    Ed on 13 Jul 2013 #

    Panstick Traces

  30. 60
    Patrick Mexico on 13 Jul 2013 #

    If there’s anything in this song’s defence it was that it wasn’t the chart hit of 1995 with the most monotonous chord structure – Enya’s Anywhere Is, well, is.

  31. 61
    Conrad on 16 Jul 2013 #

    This song reminds me of HMV in the days when I still lived in london, still bought CDs regularly, and enjoyed wondering around the oxford circus branch on a sunday morning before it got too busy.

    In fact so often did I do this that I soon realised I was hearing the same 3 or 4 songs on loop every sunday before midday, and this was always the one that played immediately before the tills opened! And it always made me feel slighly queasy. I’m not sure I liked any of the HMV looped selection. From memory, Losing My Religion was another.

  32. 62
    ciaran on 19 Jul 2013 #

    Not much going on here.The usual MJ slowie release from an album with more lively fare elsewhere.3.As boring as the other 70s/80s stars Number 1 in early 95 Cher,Hynde,Neneh and Clapton

    History was a big deal at the time but little stands out now.Scream was truly terrible.A complete waste of money that.

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