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.

4

Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom on 9 Jul 2013 #

    Our first encounter with R Kelly! Better to come from him, I suspect.

  2. 2
    Mark M on 10 Jul 2013 #

    (I feel I’ve told this story before, but…) I reviewed HIStory. Of course there were no tapes available – I had to go to Sony, where I was locked in a room with some speakers, snacks… and cardboard cut-outs of the Michael statue from the album cover, slightly larger than man himself, I reckon. In my memory there were four, at least. In any case, it was weird and distracting and when I was released back on to London’s streets I had no useful thoughts on the album.

  3. 3
    hardtogethits on 10 Jul 2013 #

    Two things about which I think, when I think about You Are Not Alone.

    a. Used in a funny scene in Grandma’s House! Someone please link to it (can’t find the clip)! It demonstrated some of the songs weaknesses!

    b. This is one of the best 3 cards to be dealt if you’re ever playing “Top Trumps Specials: An Unofficial Guide To The Music Of Michael Jackson”, best done over a cup of tea and a packet of Fruit Jaspers.

  4. 4
    Ed on 10 Jul 2013 #

    “Whatever grim spirits drove Michael Jackson, they were hovering around his music long before HIStory”

    I remember a critic praising Jackson’s Thriller-era music as a brilliant dramatisation of the dancefloor as a metaphor for relationships of money and power, discipline and control.

    It turned out to be not much of a metaphor at all.

  5. 5
    mapman132 on 10 Jul 2013 #

    I know most people here aren’t chart-stat-geeks the way I am, but I can’t let this one pass by without noting its place in history as the first ever single to debut at #1 in Billboard Hot 100 history. As a longtime follower of the Hot 100, I still remember exactly where I was when I found out (from an actual print Billboard magazine, no less, in the days before Internet ubiquity). There had been hints this could happen in the months prior as record companies had been starting to tinker with release dates, much as they apparently did in the UK. First the Beatles’ seemingly unassailable highest debut record (“Let It Be” at #6) fell when Michael and Janet entered the chart at #5 with “Scream” that June. Then, more surprisingly, a record by the Notorious BIG entered at #5 the very next week. Then, finally in September, this. Of course, it would drop out of #1 after one week, but the precedent had been established, and #1 debuts became semi-common in the US for a few years until Billboard started allowing unreleased singles to chart on airplay alone, putting such high debuts out of reach until American Idol, and later the digital age, came along.

    Ironically, I think this is one of the few UK number ones of 1995 NOT to debut there. The first single to debut at #1 on both sides of the Atlantic I don’t think happened until 1997 (one guess which…)

    But, for all that chart history, the single itself is…kind of dull. MJ was clearly past his prime here, and in fact his 13th Hot 100 #1 would prove to be his last. I guess we still have a couple to go here though….

    Agree with Tom’s 4.

  6. 6
    Tom on 10 Jul 2013 #

    We have his BIGGEST SELLING UK SINGLE still to come!

  7. 7
    Chelovek na lune on 10 Jul 2013 #

    This leaves me utterly indifferent. His voice is still beautiful, in its kind of crystalline, polished, innocent manner, but the song is just dull and the instrumentation and production duller. Rather more listenable than “Scream”, which as comebacks go, did seem to hint that not all was well. “They Don’t Care About Us”, which had some balls (as well as a couple of strikingly, unexpectedly, shockingly, antisemitic lines) was very much better, and to my recollection the only one of his singles from this time that really did seem to hark back to the things that had brought him such acclaim earlier on. It’s, obviously, all rather a tragedy. And I’d be quite happy to never hear this again.

  8. 8
    mapman132 on 10 Jul 2013 #

    #6 Actually, I guess I am aware of that. Very strange from my American POV, but we’ll get to that…

  9. 9
    Ed on 10 Jul 2013 #

    If you like this, you’ll love these: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Resistible-Demise-Michael-Jackson-Books/dp/1846943485

    The best book about Michael Jackson, ever. (Admittedly the only one I’ve read, ever.) With contributions from FTers Tom and Marcello. (And maybe others?)

    A couple of the Amazon reviews are quite entertaining, too.

  10. 10
    swanstep on 10 Jul 2013 #

    ‘She’s out of my life’ for dummies (without the great vocal, the great relatable lyrical through-line, the great spare arrangement, and so on). Some nice changes, but for me at least, soppy slowies have to have essentially *all* their ducks in a row on pain of being a trudge (as Tom nicely puts it) or an embarrassment. YANA surely wouldn’t have been a #1 for anyone but MJ (puts ‘Shake your Body down to the Ground’ one more time to raise spirits).

  11. 11
    weej on 10 Jul 2013 #

    I don’t think YANA is dull, I can even imagine liking it, but something about it just makes me feel a little queasy.

    The video ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAyKJAtDNCw ) is surely worth noting as it features frankly pornographic scenes of Lisa Marie Presley naked apart from a wet towel draped over her bottom. I couldn’t believe it was allowed on TOTP. Watching it again, the way they interact with each-other seems a little too forced and distant for a husband and wife, but that shouldn’t really aurprise anyone.

  12. 12
    lonepilgrim on 10 Jul 2013 #

    the tune reminds me a little of ‘I’ll blame it on the sun’ by Stevie Wonder but whereas that song admits to a sense of desolation (and is far superior all round IMO) this covers it up with a mask of unconvincing sentiment. MJ appears like an androgynous replicant in the video, desperately trying to pass as human

  13. 13
    anto on 10 Jul 2013 #

    I’ll go with the review on this one. It’s a bit of a trudge and the concilitory tone sat uneasily with the unpleasant speculation around MJ at the time. The promotion campaign for “History” was one of the strangest ever – a statue of the singer floating on the Thames (even uglier than the other likeness that his pal Mohammed Al-Fayed has insisted on having outside Craven Cottage), the frankly rather disturbing video for “Scream” and the half-hour broadcast – shown on the BBC – where he sat alongside Lisa-Marie pleaing his innocence. Also the use of apparently anti-semitic terms on one of the album tracks added to this dizzying, fractious blend of rancour and hubris.

  14. 14
    James BC on 10 Jul 2013 #

    One of the most musically insubstantial number 1 hits I would think. Four lines, four chords, repeat. Might sound nice played by a music box.

  15. 15
    JLucas on 10 Jul 2013 #

    “You are not alone, I am plastic too…” – I can’t think of this song without being reminded of the version we all sang on the playground. I suppose I was of the generation that only caught Michael Jackson as a macabre walking punchline rather than one of the most dynamic pop forces of all time.

    This is pure gloop, but HIStory has some really interesting stuff elsewhere. Of the singles, I actually think ‘Stranger In Moscow’ is one of his all time best. As tragic and desolate as this is slick and unconvincing.

    Also worth noting is the massively creepy album track ‘Little Susie’. Recording *that* in the midst of all his troubles must have taken some balls (or else a complete lack of self awareness).

  16. 16

    9: me too me too! —> “What About Death, Again? The Dolorous Passion of the Son of Pop”

    Also Alex Niven posts here now and then, while Robin Carmody is a long-time-since FT above-the-liner (though I forget if he’s been on Popular threads because I am old and my memory is full of lesser pop rubbish).

  17. 17
    thefatgit on 10 Jul 2013 #

    It’s probably the slowest MJ #1 ever, perhaps even the slowest song of his since “Ben”. And it’s almost impossible to look upon this favourably, unless you compare it to a bunnyable cover way over yonder, beyond the Popular horizon. It’s a calculated, lowest-common-denominator R&B ballad and Kelly and Jacko knew they didn’t have to try harder. I’m sure they were both shocked when the Billboard hoodoo was finally broken. With the exception of the excellent “Stranger In Moscow”, there’s nothing from HIStory, I would be tempted to revisit.

    The video just ramped up the shock factor as well. We knew his skin tone was getting lighter and lighter, but when his “significant other”, Lisa-Marie posed tanned, semi-naked in the temple scene (Aphrodite & Hephaestus? Apt if you imagine Elvis as Zeus), the only conclusion I could make was that all vestiges of his old Off The Wall and Thriller image had gone forever. He was but an alabaster simulacrum of his former self, fooling nobody with his naked=honest schtick.

  18. 18
    Tom on 10 Jul 2013 #

    BTW has anyone taken the obvious step of using “Stranger In Moscow” as backing for their Edward Snowden news features?

  19. 19
    Tom on 10 Jul 2013 #

    #17 I had forgotten the cover. Oh no :(

  20. 20
    swanstep on 10 Jul 2013 #

    @14, James BC. There are a bunch of other chords (even modulo key changes) both in the bridge to the chorus and in the middle eight. But I think you’re right that having the *same* 4-chord pattern for the main bits of both verses and choruses is a big part of what makes the song feel so static. That said, there are plenty of great songs (e.g., Chic’s Le Freak) that reuse patterns in this way. Normally, however, the reuse occurs because the pattern’s got incredible energy so that changing the vocal rhythm and timbres over the top brings out new aspects. That’s absolutely not the case here, so, e.g., the triple-stress vocal rhythm that Tom laments occurs in both the verses and the choruses, hence our finding the thing so deadly.

  21. 21
    Tom on 10 Jul 2013 #

    Yeah, there’s more to be said on this when we get to R Kelly’s own #1s, but he was obviously a believer in effect through repetition – I think it needs a different kind of singer, though. He’s also, it seems to me, going for a kind of lullaby effect – to work, the song ought to feel like a hug.

  22. 22
    James BC on 10 Jul 2013 #

    Should have got Ringo to sing it.

  23. 23

    Too busy right now to get into this — and besides, I’ve already written the massive incomprehensible essay on it (see #9 and #16) — but when it comes to HIStory and what came after, I very strongly maintain that if the person delivering such material had been based in the semi-academic avant-garde or the pop-industrial hinterlands, it would have been received with much more forgiving curiosity and (for MJ, if he knew how to hear it) useful and useable response. As a vanguardist, MJ is in one sense an outsider naif, of course — whose fault is this? his minders? his own? — but some of what made him an outsider is exactly what made Whitney Houston an outsider; as a performer, he was uncannily, stupendously gifted; as a professional, he was a quick study and very well-versed, to surprising depth, in musics that weren’t what you might call natural market neighbours; as a commercial property, he was vastly (not to say irresponsibly) cocooned. Deeply wounded by the horrific schedules of his youth and the ministrations of his actual sometimes nearly-as- horrific family, he was ever-more surrounded as he reached adulthood by people saying yes — not all of them good-hearted, some of them not very smart — and only very rarely in colloquy with people who “got” him (Quincy Jones, for example).

    (QJ is such an *extraordinarily* interesting figure — he flashes across the screen of the Ray Charles biopic as a kind of a proto-Kanye, and yet who the fuck has ever discussed or described him in these terms, at least at any length?)

    The timing and the times were all wrong for this kind of response — who really at the time could have picked up on what MJ was so incredibly plainly saying, so repeatedly? — but I do sometimes wish his work could be judged in the same critical universe as Blackout or Yeezus. IT IS SO RIGOROUSLY WEIRD AND RONG: what happens if we assume that all the RONG is deliberate, and artistic? Bcz some of it clearly is. It means treating failures as failures of high if opaque ambition rather than failures of foolish inadequacy. He wasn’t stupid, I don’t think.

    (This is admittedly an absurd song to choose to make this pitch from.)

  24. 24
    Tom on 10 Jul 2013 #

    I was playing Yeezus a lot while making notes for the next Jackson #1, actually.

  25. 25
    Tom on 10 Jul 2013 #

    Though TBF I was also playing Yeezus a lot while making notes for the next Robson and Jerome #1 so don’t read too much into it.

  26. 26

    Robson and Jerome: the Jeff Koons years

  27. 27
    Matt DC on 10 Jul 2013 #

    I had no idea this was written by R. Kelly – even at the time its resemblance to ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ was kind of comical.

  28. 28
    JLucas on 10 Jul 2013 #

    R Kelly did a much better job of writing for a troubled superstar with I Look To You by Whitney Houston, one of the most affecting songs she ever recorded.

    http://youtu.be/5Pze_mdbOK8

  29. 29
    Cumbrian on 10 Jul 2013 #

    I’m really struggling to think of anything to say about this beyond what Tom has already written in the original review. It does sound more than a little sad but I don’t find it especially compelling for all that. It’s very difficult to divorce my view of this from my view of him. His best music, by sheer force, makes me forget about his complicated personality (and my complicated feelings about him), but this doesn’t rise to that level. What I will say though is that, unlike a forthcoming bunny, it doesn’t really piss me off – probably because it is more focused on him than us than said bunny, so it has that in its favour at least. 4 seems about right.

    Stranger in Moscow was pretty good and I might be alone in this, but I thought Scream was pretty good as well (a real howl at the circus that had built up around him).

  30. 30
    Chelovek na lune on 10 Jul 2013 #

    I can’t remember Stranger In Moscow at all! And I was living in (a Russian-speaking) part of Ukraine for most of that year, so really don’t know how it was taken there. It certainly wasn’t a “Wind Of Change” (much taken to the hearts of post-communist Eastern Europeans, throwing good taste to the wind: or several songs by DJ Bobo, many crap, but one less so*, including the word “Freedom” in the title) to le monde russophone, anyway. Certain other of his songs (the bunny, the aforementioned “They Don’t Care About Us”, and to a very much lesser extent that either of those, this) were inescapable there at this time, but Stranger in Moscow not at all.

    *The “when love is the price, freedom is the cost” one. Rather jolly and melodious in fact.

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