Michael’s hit ‘Earth Song’ was at number one for seven weeks in the UK, including the much-sought after and contested position of Christmas Number One. It became his biggest-selling UK single.
The song was included on the HIStory album, which was much-maligned by a malicious press hell-bent on undermining Michael after the 1993 allegations. Michael chose to include ‘Earth Song’ on the HIStory album in spite of the inevitability of a cynical media reaction. Michael had faith that the ordinary people of the world cared about Mother Nature as much as he did. An instinct that was proven to be irrevocably correct.
Michael was dismissed as having a mindset far too disparate from the common man, what with most of his life having been one of financial security (as hard-earned as that was, and as mercilessly as that financial wealth was ultimately leached from him). Yet, the sensitivity Michael had for humanity, a congenital one galvanised by his unique position of having encountered more people than anyone else in history, meant that he felt the plight of the common man as intensely as anyone could.
Following the Brits ‘96 performance of ‘Earth Song’, fellow philanthropist Sir Bob Geldof introduced Michael to the stage, so that he could receive what Geldof described as the “one-off – like the man himself” Artist of a Generation award (albeit, “…what generation?” Geldof enquired, “…at least three have been listening to him already”). Geldof welcomed Michael using these words,
“…the most famous person on the planet, God help him… When Michael Jackson sings it is with the voice of angels. And when his feet move, you can see God dancing…”
Michael promoted ‘Earth Song’ with appearances on shows all over Europe, utilising notoriously provocative Christ-like imagery (most notably during his turn at the Brits ’96 – recently voted the greatest Brits performance of all time). As an erudite human being brought up in a Christian household, it’s impossible to consider that parallels between himself and Jesus Christ did not occur to him. Nevertheless, and much to his critical detriment, Michael decided to explicitly market Christ’s message to a vacuous capitalist society.
The controversy the performances evoked, with the consequential publicity, ensured Michael’s message of concern for the environment was relayed to as many people as possible.
The day after Jarvis Cocker’s infamous stage invasion of Michael’s performance of ‘Earth Song’ at The Brits ‘96, one newspaper headline read, “The Night Our Young Dreams Were Pulped”.
This surprising message of media support for Michael was ephemeral, however. Once it had been noted that young and trendy Brits were not in agreement with the media stance, the backlash began. The following week, Cocker was interviewed on cult TV programme, TFI Friday. The programme contained a live audience of young adults, who mocked Michael and championed Cocker throughout. The host, Chris Evans, concluded the interview with the words, “We all support you and know it was just a bit of a laugh.”
What it actually was, was a cultural watershed: a paradigm shift in the morality of a generation. Those children who had grown up entranced by Michael transforming into cars and robots in an effort to defeat a drug baron, suddenly became ‘Cool Britannia’ Blairites. But it was okay. At least they were all ‘Sorted for E’s and Wizz’.
(Never mind that Cocker’s finale at the conclusion to his band’s appearance on the show involved him ascending from the stage.)
The performance of ‘Earth Song’ on the ensuing HIStory tour made away with the religious iconography, though remained controversial. It is one particular set-piece of the HIStory tour that critics disdainfully discuss. At the conclusion to the song, Michael stands – Tiananmen Square-style – in front of an encroaching tank, before facing off the disembarked soldier, removing his gun, and replacing it with a sunflower: a gesture clearly referencing the iconic photograph of Jan Rose Kasmir at an anti-Vietnam war rally at the Pentagon, in 1967.
Michael chose to kick off the HIStory tour in the recently democratised countries of Eastern Europe. The significance of these visual symbols for the audiences, considering the contemporaneous events of that region, cannot be understated.
What people overlook, is that Michael – with his being a uniquely global figure – had to communicate his message without having to rely on spoken language. Something he did through creating dramatic, easily-interpreted visual statements. Michael wasn’t about to let the slight inconvenience of 6,500 extant languages become an obstacle in his mission for peace. The ‘Earth Song’ performance is the ‘Heal The World’ lyric, “turn their swords into ploughshares” made manifest. This Biblical concept formed part of the practical solution in the fulfilment of Michael’s dream: a common-sense notion as old as time, yet perpetually dismissed by greedy and fearful governments across the globe.
‘Earth Song’ in itself isn’t exactly devoid of ingenious musical and linguistic nuances – what with the chorus itself being a plaintive cry for the plight of the planet and her “weeping shores”. As well as its unmistakable melody, of course. Michael always said that melody is king, that melodies remain eternally unique, and are what people will still whistle in a hundred years’ time, regardless of progressions in technology and future production techniques. Melody knows no language barrier.
I remember a discussion I once had with a friend in 1993, when I was a teenager. The friend asked me if I thought Michael had written his best song yet, to which I replied that I didn’t believe he had. I explained that I imagined his best was to come, because the grief he would feel when his mother died would stir in him an artistic expression at a level we hadn’t hitherto witnessed. He wouldn’t be able to help but write a song about it. As an artist – to try and manage the situation – it’s what he would have had to do. Of course, Michael didn’t live long enough to write that song about the bereavement of his mother. Though his sadness at the self-destructive nature of humanity towards Mother Nature provided us with an equivalent. It was a sad day indeed when Michael Jackson, of all people, was moved to record the words, “I used to dream / I used to glance beyond the stars / Now I don’t know where we are / Although I know / We’ve drifted far”.
The last time I saw Michael perform live was at the 1999 charity show Michael Jackson and Friends. (The event was subtitled ‘What More Can I Give’ after a song Michael had written before recording with a celebrity supergroup – the song was scuppered by Sony.) During the event’s rendition of ‘Earth Song’, the front part of the stage was elevated to create what Michael himself had titled ‘The Bridge of No Return’. No return, indeed. The dramatic prop suddenly and swiftly collapsed, falling into the orchestra pit. But being the consummate professional he was, Michael spontaneously leapt from the debris to continue performing.
The last performance Michael ever made of ‘Earth Song’ was his last performance ever – in a rehearsal the day before he died – meaning that some of his final utterances on stage were, “What about children dying? / Can’t you hear them cry?”
Though it is not only humankind that Michael laments for in the track.
The proposed This Is It concerts were heavily themed on environmental conservation, with a 3D reimagining of ‘Earth Song’ being created, which incorporated an impassioned voiceover from Michael, in which with palpable sincerity, he says,
“This is why I write these kinds of songs – to give some sense of awareness and awakening and hope to people. I love, I love the planet! I love trees, l have this thing for trees – and the colours and changing of leaves. I love it! I respect those kinds of things.”
Included in the subsequent posthumous This Is It album was a recording of Michael reading the poem ‘Planet Earth’ from his book Dancing The Dream, the words to which reinforce the idea of his relationship with Mother Nature being an exalted one, and of the gravity of his assumed responsibility for Her welfare being analogous to the position of the Greek God Atlas:
“You are my sweetheart gentle and blue
Do you care, have you a part
In the deepest emotions of my own heart
Tender with breezes caressing and whole
Alive with music, haunting my soul.
Planet Earth, gentle and blue
With all my heart, I love you.”
Michael had mastered the soulful evocation of romantic love by the time he was a teenager. It’s no wonder he evolved to write love letters to planet Earth.
I recently recorded an interview for an exciting new project for the Michael Jackson fan community. Podcasts concerning Michael are few and far between, so the creation of The MJCast (www.themjcast.com) is an important development that fills a niche woefully underrepresented. The conversation I had with the hosts was the inspiration for this blog post, as they asked me what I believed to be the most positive thing to have happened since Michael’s passing, as well as what I consider fans’ responsibilities to be in representing Michael’s legacy, and what I think the most important lesson that people could learn from Michael and his life is.
My answer for all three questions concerned Michael’s unprecedented humanitarianism. The importance Michael placed on this aspect of his life and career is intrinsic to the human being he was. It is why I chose the registered charity Michael Jackson’s Legacy (www.michaeljacksonslegacy.org) to be the recipient of a percentage of the proceeds from my book, The First Book of Michael.
After the charity’s phenomenal success in raising the money to build a school in Haiti – in Michael’s name – their new project is focussed on working alongside the International Elephant Foundation. In doing so, they aim to assist in the conservation of an animal totemic in its status for environmental protection, an animal of emotional intelligence that Michael identified with and was an advocate for. “What about elephants?” we heard Michael implore in ‘Earth Song’. And “The elephant is dying!” Michael incongruously exclaims in the intro to ‘Whatzupwitu’, his 1993 duet with Eddie Murphy.
Michael often said that he had to possess ‘rhinoceros skin’ in order to remain unaffected by the perpetual media-bashing he was the victim of. However, I’ve often thought that the elephant – the less-grumpy, more-gentle of the pachyderms – would perhaps have been a better metaphor.
In a further piece from his book Dancing The Dream, entitled ‘So the Elephants March’, Michael discusses the curious phenomenon of how in order to survive, elephants must stay upright.
As fans, we must similarly persist in standing proud and tall in defence of our hero’s true legacy.
This article includes edited extracts from the First Book of Michael by Syl Mortilla, available in paperback and on Kindle at http://amzn.to/1GycUw1 and for all other eBook devices at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/511371
On March 11, 9:30 EST, I will appearing on the King Jordan radio talk show to discuss the book. For details, please go here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/jordan-king