Today is Earth Day. A day to celebrate the beauty and rich diversity of planet Earth. A day to raise public awareness about the pollution and destruction of the planet. A day that has become inextricably linked with Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, a song lamenting our often self-created paths of human suffering and environmental disaster. Twenty years after its first release Jackson’s song still rightfully asks: ‘Do we give a damn?’
Hearing the voice of the planet
It was in 1995, the same year that Earth Day celebrated its 25th anniversary, that Jackson released Earth Song. Jackson certainly took his time, as the song was born many years before, in the summer of 1988, when Jackson was staying in Vienna, Austria. Sitting in his hotel room, Jackson felt a distinct emotional pain that triggered the need to put his feelings down in a song.
“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,” Jackson said at the time.
Although Jackson had planned to put Earth Song on his Dangerous album in 1991, it never made it to the final selection of songs. Instead, he added the song to the album he released four years later, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I. Within no time at all, Earth Song skyrocketed in the European charts. In the UK it still remains his best-selling song ever, even before Thriller and Billie Jean.
Increasing the impact of the song
Realizing that visual images would increase the impact of his song, Jackson created a video in which he used footage from all over the world. It shows the beauty of the earth, its wildlife and its people. Yet destruction sets in with tropical rainforests being cut down, elephants being killed for their tusks, and people mourning and crying over the ravages of war. The latter scene was filmed in the town of Karlovac in Croatia. To this day, the small open-air Museum of Army Collections from the Croatian Homeland War, which was part of Jackson’s film location, can be visited.
Jackson, raging against the injustice, was filmed in a studio setting. Fighting a storm, with his clothes torn and his face twisted in despair, Jackson is seen crying out against God and humanity. It is not until all those affected by destruction cry and fall down on their knees that a miracle happens. At that moment, the process of destruction reverses. Trees that were cut down are raised. Tanks that entered a village are pushed back. Elephants that were slaughtered are restored to life and grow new tusks. In other words, the Earth returns to being the paradise it once was.
Jackson’s greatest work of art
The song itself – mixing gospel, blues and opera – is nowadays seen by some music critics as Jackson’s magnum opus, his greatest work of art. But back in the days when Earth Song was released, the reviews were not as favourable. Labelling the song as ‘pompous’, ‘grandiose’, ‘over the top’ and ‘whiny’, many critics were eager to overlook its message and preferred to focus on what they perceived as Jackson’s self-aggrandisement and messiah complex.
One instance in which this criticism became painfully clear was at the BRIT Awards in 1996, when Jackson performed Earth Song on stage with a group of children. Protesting Jackson’s performance, British musician Jarvis Cocker jumped on stage and waggled his bottom in Jackson’s direction. An action which he later justified to BBC1 by saying that: “Rock stars have got big enough egos without pretending to be Jesus.”
Yet Jackson’s song was not about pretending to be Jesus. If any biblical reference was to be made at all, it should rather be to John the Baptist, the one ‘crying in the wilderness’ – in Jackson’s case the wilderness of war, disaster and destruction. Moreover, in his song Jackson addresses not just God, but also himself and all those listening to his lament: “What have we done to the world, look what we’ve done…/ What about all the peace that you pledged your only son…”
But time changes perspectives. Despite Cocker’s protest, Jackson’s rendition of Earth Song was voted the top BRIT Awards performance of all time in 2014. Apparently, something in Jackson’s song stuck with the audience, and it was not just Cocker’s disruption. Earth Song had struck a chord that reverberated well beyond any criticism Jackson received as an artist. Even Cocker has since become an advocate for climate change action.
The tank, the soldier and the child
The BRIT Award incident never discouraged Jackson from performing his ‘green anthem’ live. In fact, it was considered one of the highlights of his concerts. At the end of the show, Jackson would transform the stage into a ruined and smoky warzone filled with the sounds of gunshots and helicopters.
A full-size military tank would eventually enter the scene, creating a confrontation between the soldier driving the tank and Jackson. With Jackson standing silently in front of the tank, the soldier would come out, at first threatening to shoot, but slowly realizing the absurdity of the situation. The song then poignantly ended with a small child offering the crying soldier a flower of peace. It was an image not soon to be forgotten by those attending Jackson’s concerts.
It starts with us
Today, twenty years after the release of Earth Song, its message is as relevant as ever. All of the problems Jackson addressed in his song still exist. Attempts to reverse processes such as global warming have proven to be insignificant compared to the urgency of the matter. And what is worse: people’s apathy regarding the plight of the planet seems to have grown.
Jackson understood this very well. Shortly before he passed away, he urged his team of musicians and dancers to make the This Is It concerts a mutual and pressing effort to raise awareness. “I really feel that nature is trying so hard to compensate for man’s mismanagement of the planet. ‘Cause the planet is sick, like a fever. If we don’t fix it now, it’s at the point of no return. This is our last chance to fix this problem that we have, where it’s like a runway train. And the time has come, This Is It. People are always saying: ‘Oh, they’ll take care of it. The government will. Don’t worry, they will…’ They who? It starts with us. It’s us. Or else it’ll never be done.”
Without a doubt, Jackson intended to drive his environmental message home. This Is It included brandnew 3D footage to further visualise Earth Song on stage. It turned out to be the last song that Jackson rehearsed before he passed away. Giving specific instructions on how to match the music to the actions on stage, Jackson showed his passion for Earth Song and all that it stands for.
Yet the one thing that remains unanswered is how the audience would have responded. After all, Earth Song, or Earth Day, is all about the five words with which Jackson concluded his lyrics: ‘Do we give a damn?’
© Annemarie Latour
Note: if you wish to support Michael Jackson’s lifelong dream of making this world a better place, please visit: www.michaeljacksonslegacy.org