Some masterpieces of art – whether created on canvas, paper or sound recording devices (or on a stage) – come quickly, with the initial sketch being as good as the work can possibly get without being over-thought or over-worked.  Others are long in the making – the idea is born, but the execution takes place over months, even years, before finally the end-product matches the artist’s conceptualisation of the piece.

The latter case proved to be true of Michael Jackson’s majestic anthem for the Earth, “Earth Song”, conceived in 1988 while the artist was on his Bad world tour, and not released until 1995, on his album “HIStory, Past, Present & Future. Book 1”.

EarthSong_cover-193x300In this 2nd revision (i.e. 3rd edition) of his monograph on the song, retitled “Earth Song: Michael Jackson and the Art of Compassion”, Joseph Vogel reveals in detail how all the elements eventually coalesced to form Jackson’s musical masterwork, which took so long to come together it had to cross formats, starting on 24-track, and then switching to digital.  Recording engineer Matt Forger recalls that “The detail and work that went into it was staggering.” [1]

And that was just the recording process.  There is a whole story in how Jackson conceived of “the Earth’s song” (as he referred to it) and of the environmental consciousness that was prominent in popular culture at the time of the song’s early development.  Vogel goes into the political and social climate of the late 80s and the shocking statistics that propelled the need for urgent action to combat deforestation, pollution, disappearing species and all the other elements that invariably impact our own existence on the planet.

When the mood changed to one of cynicism in the 90s, and people were less optimistic about their ability to have any impact on the state of the world (or just didn’t care), Jackson kept working away on “Earth Song”, believing it would, indeed, make a difference.

It was Jackson’s nature to feel compassion.  It was also in his nature to give of the fruits of his labour in terms of his time, his earnings, or both.  Much of the new content in this edition of Vogel’s book on “Earth Song” revolves around Jackson’s humanitarian activities.  This information, excerpted as an article in the Huffington Post, is a reminder to cynical critics and the unknowing public that Jackson led the charge when it came to helping others. [2]

While he enjoyed the attention of unprecedented world fame, “indeed, even thrived on it in certain ways” Vogel writes, “[Jackson] also felt a profound responsibility to use his celebrity for more than fame and fortune.  In 2000, The Guinness Book of World Records cited him as the most philanthropic pop star in history.”

In terms of dollars, Jackson’s philanthropy is known to have exceeded $300 million dollars; in terms of beneficiaries, they were hospitals and orphanages he visited when touring and organisations like the Make A Wish Foundation, Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, NAACP, UNICEF, the Red Cross and the United Negro College Fund which to this day offers a Michael Jackson scholarship. [3]

There are many more beneficiaries, both individuals and organisations, who benefited from the generosity of Michael Jackson; we’ll probably never know the full extent of his charitable acts.  Awareness of Jackson’s philanthropy makes for better understanding of how “Earth Song” became the pinnacle of the artist’s expression of compassion for humanity, the animals, the environment.  It is an anti-pollution, anti-poverty, anti-deforestation, anti-war message.  It comes with a holistic world view that acknowledges the interconnectedness of social and environmental health and the importance of maintaining a balanced ecology.

As Vogel reminds us, “Earth Song” – despite never being released as a single in the US – became the most successful environmental song every recorded, “topping the charts in over fifteen countries and eventually selling over seven million copies.”  Never mind that critics didn’t know what to make of it; as Vogel writes “Its unusual fusion of opera, rock, gospel, and blues sounded like nothing on the radio.  It defied almost every expectation of a traditional anthem… In place of simplistic propaganda for a cause, it was a genuine artistic expression.” [4]

Critical reaction to “Earth Song” and Jackson’s other cerebral tracks frequently highlights a failing of reviewers to step outside their preconceptions of Jackson as a person and expectations of him as an artist.  Often the same critics who laud his early works “Off the Wall” and “Thriller” as his supposed “peak” are the very same who would deny he could have anything relevant to say in the 1990s or later.  The truth is, they just aren’t listening.

To read such reviews, one is inclined to believe that Michael Jackson, the song and dance man, the Mr Bojangles of the late 20th early 21st century, needed to stay in his niche and replicate his work with each album subsequent to “Thriller”.  Yet, they too would doubtless be the first to decry his work as “stale” if his art didn’t evolve.  This is the conundrum with critics – you’re damned in their eyes if you do; and you’re damned if you don’t.  Best to follow your bliss, as Jackson might suggest, and get on with it.

From the engineers, technicians and musicians who worked with Jackson on “Earth Song” and other projects, we get a clear view of his artistic process, both technically and idealistically.  As Vogel explains “Jackson knew it took time and effort to achieve what he saw and heard in his head.  Some songs could be completed within weeks, while others took months, even years.  He sometimes compared the creative process to an artist chipping away at a sculpture.  ‘[You’re] just feeling it.  It’s already in there.  It’s already there.’” [5]   It was something he felt in common with one of his Renaissance idols, Michelangelo, who could perceive the fully-formed sculpture within a raw block of marble. [6]

Despite a lot of time and creative effort having been invested in “Earth Song” since his initial idea in 1988, it wasn’t included on Jackson’s “Dangerous” album, which was released in 1991.  When it did emerge – as though birthed by Gaia herself – “Earth Song” was “a six-and-a-half-minute tour de force that presented the human condition – and the condition of all life – in dramatic panorama.” [7]

Vogel provides a quote from Jackson which encapsulates his sonic vision as heard in “Earth Song”.  “I believe in its primordial form all of creation is sound and that it’s not just random sound, that it’s music.”  And what music.  Vogel examines the track from its opening sounds of nature through to the epic climax – “that pushes the song to new heights.”

“The chorus cries unfold with greater and greater intensity.  The air swirls with apocalyptic energy, ‘the tumult of mighty harmonies’… His call and response and the Andre Crouch Choir unleashes voices that have been smothered.  With each plight Jackson brings to our attention, the choir reinforces with the recurring chant, What about us!” [8]

There have been other notable songs of protest and Vogel explores examples by Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and John Lennon.  Though memorable – and remembered today – none quite have the power of “Earth Song” – a song that “seeks to shatter indifference, as it demands accountability.” [9]

Vogel goes on to explain that Jackson isn’t merely representing himself in “Earth Song”, but is “acting as the medium for a 21st century tragedy; the struggle of earth and its inhabitants for survival against increasingly overwhelming odds.” [10]

Any examination of “Earth Song” as a work of art cannot, and in Vogel’s monograph does not, end with the song itself.  The video for the track is indelibly linked to the song, as it should be, given what went in to making it.  This part of the book is both fascinating and illuminating, revealing the story of how young British director Nick Brandt came to direct the film and captured the necessary footage to tell the story.

The book’s narrative about filming “Earth Song” reveals much – not just about the process of making the video, but about the technique of the director and requirements of the performer, i.e. Jackson, who always wanted his face highly illuminated “in part to hide self-perceived flaws and in part as an aesthetic preference,” writes Vogel.  Even more demanding though, was the need for a wind machine capable of producing the effect required for the climatic scenes of the video, in which all sorts of dirt and debris is hitting Jackson’s face.

But he keeps on singing and performing.

This commitment of the artist, immersed in creating his art, lost in the performance, oblivious to everything being flung at him, is perhaps a suitable analogy for “Earth Song” itself, as well as for Michael Jackson.  Even after he has left us, (we hope, for a far better place), his anthem for the planet remains – powerful, pulsing and demanding.  “Do we give a damn?”

Jackson’s creative partner on “This Is It”, Kenny Ortega, who subsequently directed the movie of concert rehearsal footage, knew the importance of “Earth Song” as containing the artist’s message to his audience and the world in general.  “Michael Jackson expected ‘Earth Song’ to be the most important piece of his This Is It concert series in London” Vogel confirms.

Live performances of “Earth Song” in the 90s were often misinterpreted as the artist acting out some messianic complex.  Rather, Vogel explains, “Jackson was using messianic gestures and symbols not because he literally thought he was the messiah, but because of what tapping into that archetype could express and communicate artistically.” [11]

Vogel quotes another academic, writer and visual artist Constance Pierce, who explains how the “gesture of passion embodied in Jackson’s performance of ‘Earth Song,’ both iconic and transcendent, burns itself into the collective consciousness of the 20th century.” [12]

“Earth Song” remains (to this writer, at least) the highlight of many concert videos and certainly the most dramatic moment in the “This Is It” movie, impressing on audiences the importance of the message Jackson was determined to impart, and its urgency.  Tragically, unbeknownst to everyone present in the Staples Centre auditorium that night of 24 June 2009, it was to be the final song the 50 years-old music legend rehearsed before his passing the next day.  In that lamentable context, as the parting performance of Jackson’s long career, it becomes an even more powerful testament of his deep compassion.

But the legacy of “Earth Song” like that of Michael Jackson, did not, and does not stop with the physical demise of the artist.  Like all great works of art, it has taken on a life of its own and been performed by others ranging from Andre Reu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra to Tony Succar’s “Unity – Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson”. [13] [14]

Returning to Michael’s performance of “Earth Song” in the video, director Nick Brandt explained to Vogel in an interview that the intention in the climax of the film, where Jackson hangs on to two trees in a cruciform pose, was never intended as a messianic gesture.  He was instead “the voice crying in the wilderness”. [15]

Bear with my flight of fancy here: as a one-time student of Aboriginal Studies, I am familiar with the concept of songlines, and stories of Aboriginal elders “singing up the country” through which they are travelling.  They are following ancient routes (often indiscernible to non-native sensibilities) that were created by ancestral spirits as they laid down the landscape, animals and lore.  “[T]he elders or the trained Indigenous people will sing the landscape and therefore be able to move from location to location through it, and teach each other… but at the same time, they are singing the country into being as they cross it.” [16]

A variation of this concept of singing the country into being is what I imagine when Michael howls into the wind and debris in the “Earth Song” video, and we see the death and devastation reversing itself.  It’s like he is urging us to join him in singing the world – not into being, since it already exists, though in an abused, devastated form – but rather “singing” it back to life.  No lone voice can do it, he can’t do it by himself (as he later reminded us in the Invincible album track “Cry”). [17]    This is not messianic, but rather an act of compassion and self-sacrifice in which we are all called to take part.

Michael Jackson knew that.  “People are always saying, ‘Oh, they’ll take care of it, the government will do it.’  They?  They who?  It starts with us.  It’s us!  Or it will never be done.” [18]

Kerry Hennigan
September 2017

Sources:

[1] Joseph Vogel “Earth Song: Michael Jackson and the Art of Compassion” Blakevision Books, New York 2017.  https://www.amazon.com/Earth-Song-Michael-Jackson-Compassion/dp/1976106478/

[2] Joseph Vogel “Michael Jackson’s Forgotten Humanitarian Legacy” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/michael-jacksons-forgotten-humanitarian-legacy_us_59c7c8d3e4b08d661550436a

[3] http://www.scholarshipsonline.org/2015/05/michael-jackson-uncf-scholarship.html

[4] Joseph Vogel “Earth Song” 2017

[5] Ibid

[6] Kerry Hennigan “The Pop Art of Michelangelo and Michael Jackson as defined by LaChapelle”  https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2017/03/16/the-pop-art-of-michelangelo-and-michael-jackson-as-defined-by-lachapelle

[7] Joseph Vogel “Earth Song” 2017

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Constance Pierce “Lacrymae Rerum: Reflections of a Visual Artist Informed and Inspired by Gestures of Transcendence in the Passionate Art of Michael Joseph Jackson.” Passions of the Skies in Fine Arts Expression.  International Society of Phenomenology.  Fine Arts and Aesthetics 16th Annual Conference.  Harvard University.  May 18, 2011.

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khBs7K42ICQ

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytOIVrqUpYo

[15] Joseph Vogel “Earth Song” 2017

[16] http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/songlines-indigenous-memory-code/7581788

[17] Kerry Hennigan “World Cry and the case for “Cry” https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2017/01/14/world-cry-and-the-case-for-cry/

[18] Michael Jackson quoted in Vogel, “Earth Song” 2017.

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Photo collage “what about Us?” compiled by Kerry Hennigan using Pixlr software, Sept 2017.  No infringement of copyright ownership of the photograph of Michael Jackson is intended for this not-for-profit, educational exercise.

 

 

 

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