Michael Jackson (1958 – 2009): Mixed celebrity, entertainment and good causes

Did you ever stop to notice...The crying Earth the weeping shores?
Did you ever stop to notice...The crying Earth the weeping shores?

Read later blog post: 8 July 2009 – Michael Jackson: A Tale of Two Moonwalks

Michael Jackson, who has just died aged 50, has been called the Elvis Presley of our times. He certainly was a global cultural icon with an enormous following in the West and East, North and South. And he used this celebrity status for more than mere entertainment (which he did exceedingly well): he had a long-standing history of releasing socially conscious songs that spread public interest messages with great ease and power.

Mixing social messages with entertainment is a difficult and delicate art that only a few artistes manage to get right. Jackson was one of them — his mass appeal or sales didn’t suffer because he occasionally endorsed a worthy cause. He wasn’t overtly political like Pete Seeger, who turned 90 last month, but Jackson did it in his own unique way in songs like “We Are the World“, “Man in the Mirror” and “Heal the World“.

In fact, Michael Jackson’s biggest selling UK single ever was a song about the environment: Earth Song. Released in November 1995, it sold over a million copies and was at the top of the charts for six weeks.

Earth Song was the first of his songs that overtly dealt with the environment and animal welfare. Written and composed by Jackson himself, Earth Song opened with these words:
What about sunrise
What about rain
What about all the things
That you said we were to gain.. .
What about killing fields
Is there a time
What about all the things
That you said was yours and mine…
Did you ever stop to notice
All the blood we’ve shed before
Did you ever stop to notice
The crying Earth the weeping shores?

Jackson wanted to create a song that was lyrically deep yet melodically simple, so the whole world, particularly non-English-speaking fans, could sing along. He conceptualized a song that had an emotional message.

As he later recalled: “I remember writing Earth Song when I was in Austria, in a hotel. And I was feeling so much pain and so much suffering of the plight of the Planet Earth. And for me, this is Earth’s Song, because I think nature is trying so hard to compensate for man’s mismanagement of the Earth. And with the ecological unbalance going on, and a lot of the problems in the environment, I think earth feels the pain, and she has wounds, and it’s about some of the joys of the planet as well. But this is my chance to pretty much let people hear the voice of the planet. And this is ‘Earth Song’. And that’s what inspired it. And it just suddenly dropped into my lap when I was on tour in Austria.”

The video of the Earth Song was among the most expensive ever made – it was filmed in four geographic regions and involved scenes from the Amazon forest, Croatia, Tanzania and New York city, USA. It starts with a long tracking shot through a lush rain forest that then cuts to a scene showing Jackson walking through a scorched, desolate landscape. The environmental imagery then rolls on: dead elephants, evil loggers, belching smoke stacks, snared dolphins, seal clubbing, and hurricane winds. The video closes with a request for donations to Jackson’s Heal the World Foundation.

Watch Earth Song by Michael Jackson:

Although not as widely selling, ‘Will you be there‘ is my personal favourite among Jackson’s socially conscious songs. First released as a single in 1993, it was taken from the 1991 album Dangerous and also appeared on the soundtrack to Free Willy – the charming story of a boy befriending a killer whale.

The song won the MTV Movie Award for “Best Song in a Movie” in 1994. It was also included in the album All Time Greatest Movie Songs, released by Sony in 1999. Jackson also performed songs for the film’s two sequels.

Watch Michael Jackson’s ‘Will You Be There’ in Free Willy:

However, Earth Song had much wider and more lasting appeal, almost becoming an anthem for the global environmental movement in the past decade. But its real impact was not among the converted – with this song, Jackson took the green message to the heartland of the Facebook generation.

Few global figures commanded the audience he had – as the New York Times noted: “At the height of his career, he was indisputably the biggest star in the world; he has sold more than 750 million albums.”

“The song is a very rare thing: a hit record with a powerful message about our impact on the environment,” says Leo Hickman writing in The Guardian earlier today.

He adds: “What struck me today watching the video was how it is very much the product of an age before climate change had become a mainstream concern. The lyrics and imagery speak of over-fishing, deforestation, and smog. All of them are still huge and legitimate concerns, of course, but they have all now become somewhat dwarfed by climate change, the most compelling and over-arching environmental issue of our age.

“But that shouldn’t distract us from the song’s impact on its fans. Given its universal success and the repeated showing of its powerful video, it is highly likely that it was the spark that made many people – particularly young Michael Jackson fans, which, even in the mid-1990s, would have numbered many millions of people around the world – stop and think about environment for the first time.”

Talk about moving images moving people!

Peace...at last
Peace...at last

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

15 thoughts on “Michael Jackson (1958 – 2009): Mixed celebrity, entertainment and good causes”

  1. we regret the great loss of the King of Pop Michael Jackson!
    Leave also your last greeting at Michael Jackson on our site, thanks.
    a big and now sad fan

  2. Since writing the above post, others have published similar tributes online, looking at Michael Jackson’s support for humanitarian, social and environmental causes. Notable among these tributes:

    Was Michael Jackson the World’s Biggest Environmentalist?
    by Alex Pasternack on Tree Hugger

    Requiem for a Heavyweight: A force of – and for – Nature
    by Danny Schechter, News Dissector

  3. We appreciate the good causes he supported, and salute his memory. But there is a great deal of unfinished business. We are literally at war with ourselves and our planet. Peace, harmony, kindness to each other, tolerance, and caring for the environment are values we need now more than ever.

  4. michael i love yyou forever you are always in my heart
    and that you have been dead that i.am sad your so
    kind to me rest in peace thank you that you are the king of pop good luck in london.

  5. This is a wonderful article. Michael and his humanitarian efforts sometimes are forgotten and his wrongly accused Most people had no idea and still don’t on just how much money and time he gave to children’s hospitals, schools, orphanages and many other causes. Back then, the internet wasn’t popular therefore it wasn’t recorded as it happened, his visits and giving. Now, that he’s passed away people are really realizing just how much he “gave” due to a simple internet search. Who else has done so much? Did Elvis give his “whole life” like Michael did? no. I’m sure Elvis donated money – I searched, but not as consistent and dedicated to the cause like Michael was. What about those Beatles? Ringo, Paul, George and John – are ya up to a visit in a 3rd world country …year after year after year and give your concert earnings for and give out gifts personally to sick children? no. Elvis and the Beatles fail in comparison. The gave and that’s great. But the list of charities that Michael has – is something to look at. I think he even has GWR… anyway, I love him I’m an advocate for his legacy to not be left and studied and tainted like the media left it in “their sick and twisted ways” … at http://www.mjtruthnow.com we have a word for that group of media – it’s MediaLOID.


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