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Jul 13

MICHAEL JACKSON – “Earth Song”

FT + Popular131 comments • 11,359 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.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Mark G on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Re the ligging, I do believe Jarvis had performed with Pulp earlier on the show

  2. 32
    weej on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #23 He had, Sorted for Es & Wizz, I think he was actually lifted up on wires.
    That Brit awards would otherwise have been memorable just for some pretty awful acceptance speeches from Oasis.

  3. 33
    Tom on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Jackson brought it on himself by turning Jarvis’ water into wine.

  4. 34
    Ed on 31 Jul 2013 #

    @28 – “JC seems to be somewhere between embarrassed and mortified about the incident now”

    He does, and who can blame him?

    If you had written ‘Common People’, would you want to be best known to the British public for drunkenly waving your arse at Michael Jackson?

  5. 35
    thefatgit on 31 Jul 2013 #

    What I like about Earth Song: the bass. The final chord sounds like a question mark.

    What I don’t like about Earth Song: y’see, I can understand that it’s a fine pop song with a pretty neat arrangement. And it builds and builds to an almighty climax. Yeah, great, Michael. You care, we get it. Oh, by the way, here’s an award for pointing your finger and shouting really loudly. Everyone’s happy. The thing is, I know Sting is a bit of a tosspot, but at least he got his hands dirty (not just simply plunging them into a pile of dust in a promo video). And he’ll probably be remembered more for his environmental work than his post-Police output in the long run. And then there’s Sir Bob and Bono. But when MJ shuffled off this mortal coil in a fug of over-administered anaesthetics, “We Are The World” exempt, I heard virtually nothing about any charitable work or going out to Africa to actually save an elephant. This was never released as a single in the US, so perhaps that’s why he didn’t need to back up an album track with some sort of gesture, even a piddling one.

    So Earth Song, at least to me is empty-handed. In the past, I’ve railed against charity records, but Earth Song needed to be one, because it sure ain’t a protest song.

  6. 36
    Tom on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #35 this is why I think the track works best as an impotent howl rather than as a political program.

    He had a charitable foundation, though details of what it actually achieved are murky. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heal_the_World_Foundation

  7. 37

    What we need is a Top 100 of pop-star charities and movements and quasi-political gestures and their relative effectiveness: money raised, where money actually went, has the selected evil been averted or *gasp* actually ended, calculation of a vanity/impact index etc.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NO8h_uTkdU <-- anderson, howe, squire et al also walk on water

  8. 38

    With anything Bono-related at the top or the bottom or however we order the list

  9. 39
    Cumbrian on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #37: Sadly, I suspect that the main reason that pop stars/sports stars have charitable foundations is not included in your current list. It helps them avoid tax. It is unsurprising to the jaded cynic in me that the Heal The World Foundation, per Tom’s link, was suspended after failing to file its accounts and thus lost its tax exempt status.

    For me, this is the equivalent of someone reading the paper, getting massively worked up about an article therein, and then going on about their day having got the rage out of their system, assuming someone else will deal with the issue. I have no real problem with this as a method for dealing with feelings, but I don’t need to hear it – just as I don’t need to hear the man on the bus ranting about stuff either – though, admittedly, this does have a bit more thought and structure put into than you’d find in a “normal” person’s rant; there is still a spark of creativity from Jacko there.

    Best bit I remember hearing about the JC/MJ Brits incident was a, probably drunk, Bob Mortimer telling Jarvis “don’t worry mate, I trained as a lawyer – I’ll defend you”, only to realise that he was walking into a very real Lionel Hutz meets Blue Haired Lawyer scenario and quickly telling Jarvis he should find some proper legal representation.

  10. 40

    Isn’t the fact that it folded after just one year for not filing its accounts likely proof that it WASN’T formed mainly to evade tax? (On the assumption that MJ — if this was indeed his primary motivation — could at that point afford a reasonably competent accountant, to deal with such filings, and thus pursue such a strategy, effectively?)

    Obviously your point stands in general: the chart should certainly also have a column for status-exemption shenanigans

  11. 41
    Brendan F on 31 Jul 2013 #

    btw my mark keeps disappearing – is this happening to anyone else?

  12. 42
    Ed on 31 Jul 2013 #

    @38 What? First you run down Chuck D, now you’re having a go at *Bono*?

    ;-)

  13. 43
    Cumbrian on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #40: According to that link from Tom, the foundation was formed in 1992, so loads of time to cash in. There was a Heal The Kids element formed in 2001 prior to the suspension in 2002. I wonder whether Jacko’s rumoured money troubles meant he was no longer retaining a decent accountant at the point at which HTW stopped filing its accounts…

  14. 44

    Oh, sorry — yes you’re quite right, I read the (very short) piece too quickly. MJ was going seriously broke from c.2000 I think, so that would make sense.

  15. 45
    Ed on 31 Jul 2013 #

    From that Wikipedia entry: “The foundation also brought underprivileged children to Jackson’s Neverland Ranch”.

    :(

    Suggests mere tax avoidance may have been the least of the Heal the World Foundation’s problems.

  16. 46
    Rory on 31 Jul 2013 #

    @11 Ooo, good call.

    This was obscured by Jarvis’s stunt for me too, but when I YouTubed it yesterday (in a hidden tab so I could concentrate on the song rather than the video), it seemed one of the better MJ tracks – far more interesting than his other recent entry. A shaky beginning with its Tinkerbell fairy dust, but the second half saves it. As for the lyrics… well, lyrics are usually secondary for me unless they’re noticeably egregious, so I’ll forgive him his elephants. Not going into my iTunes library just yet, but a 6 for now.

  17. 47
    thefatgit on 31 Jul 2013 #

    We’re viewing all this through Martin Bashir’s skewed lens, which makes me feel a bit guilty for laying into MJ. The tax avoidance thing seems par for the course, but the Heal The world foundation seems to have suffered from not having a proper focus or leadership from the outset, let alone having a proper accountant keeping the finances in check. I remember when that documentary aired, it just seemed like an almighty yellow-hued hatchet job on the guy. And probably marked the beginning of the end.

  18. 48
    Billy Hicks on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Count me in the “love” category for this, age 7 I thought this song was good but silly. Even in infant school I thought I could have made a better chorus than “Aaaaaaahhh, ooooohhhhh”. But then it was MJ so he could get away with it – I find there’s a huge difference in people’s perception of Jacko whether they were born in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The former (just) remember him as a megastar, the latter only for the weird-looking guy who kept showing up on the news for court appearances in the mid-noughties. They know him as someone who ‘used’ to be famous but for them it’s ancient past history before their time. We’ll see him again on Popular but this for me is the end of his imperial phase. Hearing it the morning after he died in 2009, the “I used to dream, used to glance beyond the stars” made me unexpectedly tearful.

    Indeed I remember an astonishing amount of songs from that Christmas – more than any other year so far. My favourite was surely Bjork’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ (#4) which got a ton of play on kids TV, also very much enjoying the Mike Flowers version of Wonderwall, and, randomly, ‘Camden Town’ by Suggs, which seems to have ingrained from my Dad having Capital FM on in the car on the way to school every morning. Lovely snowy winter too.

  19. 49
    Kinitawowi on 31 Jul 2013 #

    This song will always be tied in my mind to a Smithdon High School assembly back in Norfolk where the teachers decided that it was a good idea to play the video to a group of fifteen-year-olds so we could all learn from The Message.

    It got about eight seconds in before we all – and I mean ALL – started ripping the shit out of it. In that moment, we really didn’t give a damn. The teachers were unimpressed. We didn’t care.

    I dunno, man. I mean, it’s clearly very worthy, with scattershot imagery all over the place – Environmentalism! Religious hatred! Cambodia! Rwanda (probably)! The Amazon! Israel! – but the way it all plays out gave the impression of one angry man who seemed to genuinely believe he could save the world by stamping on it and shouting a lot, rather than an attempt to rally the troops. But then, the guy wasn’t ever really all there. Still, musically at least, the coda is pretty cool. 5, I think.

    Mike Flowers’ Wonderwall would have been an amazing Chrimbo #1, though. It was noted a couple of tracks back that Weird Al never really gained much traction over here, but I can’t think of too many other parody records that were doing much around this time and Wonderwall’s desperation and sheer interminability needed skewering. And who better than Mike Flowers, who my slightly silly and ignorant head had conflated with whoever was responsible for covering Release Me for The Fast Show? (Flowers did do a version, but I don’t think that one was actually the Fast Show track…)

  20. 50
    Steve Williams on 31 Jul 2013 #

    I think this might be the last Christmas number one to have got there long before the festive season and just stayed there, pretty much every one after that having been released in Christmas week. The Christmas chart was announced on Christmas Eve that year and I recall foregoing Wallace And Gromit for it so I could hear if Mike Flowers had made it.

    This album must be Jackson’s most consistently successful LP, in terms of the singles released, with all of them going top five and two massive number ones. Possibly because they didn’t release virtually every single track off it like they did with Bad and Thriller.

  21. 51
    Lazarus on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #11 – favourite enviro-songs? I liked ‘Salt Water’ but my vote would go to this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32IBF_RHAV8

    # 14 I have an indelible image now of wrestling pandas.

    Not much mention of ‘Free as a Bird’ which was indeed much hyped at the time (world premier on Radio 1, who wouldn’t even play the follow-up), which I guess means most of you are either indifferent to it or dislike it. I wouldn’t claim the song is one of Lennon’s best but I got sucked into the whole ‘Beatles are back! (Q cover and all) thing, and didn’t care that it was basically a Jeff Lynne project. He was a fan, after all. I thought the video was wonderful. ‘Earth Song’ I liked too, although I never bought a MJ record after ‘Bad’ – was it really six and three quarter minutes? Longer than ‘Hey Jude’ isn’t it, must be a contender for the longest chart-topper (in seven-inch form) to date. And is this Jackson’s last appearance on ‘Popular?’ I think it might be.

  22. 52
    Tom on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #51 nope, one more to go.

  23. 53
    swanstep on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) deserves a mention, as does (indirectly) Lou Reed’s Last Great American Whale. Also, John Denver’s Calypso. It occurs to me that the idea Tom mentions, that environmental problems tend to seem too vast to be solvable by the likes of us as a species, is a pretty recent idea. Lots of environmental cleanup happened in the ’70s and ’80s and even collective action problems as tricky as acid rain and ozone layer depletion were essentially solved. The global warming problem and the decarbonizing of the whole world’s economy and the massive drop in western living standards (the end of cheap travel, the end of cheap food, you name it, it’s awful) that appears to be necessary to solve it is sui generis and has been quite a depressing turnaround. Hopeful, realistic enviro-tunes were much more possible back in the day is I guess what I’m saying, whereas now only full-on end-of-days hysteria feels proportionate.

    But I just don’t care for Earth Song. Timbrally and also structurally (albeit slowed down) ES reminds me of MJ’s Dirty Diana from the Bad album. Didn’t like that one either. 4 or 5 is all I can do.

  24. 54
    James BC on 31 Jul 2013 #

    One more criticism of this: the title is rubbish. Either it should have been called “What about it” or “Is there a time”, or the chorus should have gone:

    “Ea-ea-ea-eaaaaaarth, So-o-o-oooooong”

  25. 55
    Tom on 31 Jul 2013 #

    He was just following Blur’s latter-day naming convention.

  26. 56
    weej on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #52 There is! And I swear I could never have worked out what it was without looking. How things change in the next couple of years!

  27. 57
    Steve Mannion on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Other 90s environmental songs that spring to mind – Jamiroquai’s ‘Emergency On Planet Earth’ (and much of that LP) and Dubtribe’s ‘Mother Earth’ (“I want my planet baaaack!”). It stuck as a theme throughout 90s UK ambient/electronic stuff generally tho for obvious post-rave reasons.

    #51 re ‘indelible image now of wrestling pandas’ is it this?
    http://img3.etsystatic.com/008/0/5411277/il_fullxfull.401197415_f6zb.jpg

  28. 58
    Andrew Farrell on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #27 – Also there is imbedded in Cocker’s actions the criticism: what is the King of Pop doing playing somewhere where Jarvis Cocker can wander onstage?

  29. 59
    Billy Hicks on 31 Jul 2013 #

    #51 – The radio edit of Earth Song was just under five minutes long.

  30. 60
    Doctor Casino on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Whoooooooffff! Tom, a valiant effort, and you’ve made me like some things about it, but the conventional wisdom rings true for me on this one: it’s an overstuffed turkey, well-suited for 12-year-olds giving class presentations because it’s all sentiment and makes-you-think, no actual thinking. I buy the impotent, directionless rage and it’s the thing about this that does link the song to the performer in a productive way… but you have to listen through four minutes of formless whispered glop to get there! I’m reminded of your comments on “Mama Weer All Crazee Now” – it’s all about the triumphant climax, and if the buildup is necessary to make it a climax, it doesn’t make the buildup that much more enjoyable.

    “Bridge Over Troubled Water” might also make a fine comparison, or “Hey Jude” for that matter – it’s possible to do a pop song where the point is the crashing thunderous climax, and still have the rest be melodically, sonically, lyrically interesting. Of course, you didn’t much care for either of those, but come on, “Earth Song” is a chore even if I’ll also admit to looking forward to the big tidal-wave ahead.

    By the by, it has in fact been used in singing-contest shows, for reasons which escape me. It showed up in an American Idol episode in 2011 (with Lady Gaga mentoring the performer, to no avail), Cowell himself foisted it on an X-Factor USA contestant the same year, and in payback was subjected to it in the form of a horribly bad audition to X-Factor in 2013. Baffling.

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