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!