Like most people whose musical influences were formed in the 1970s, I admired Michael Jackson as a musician, especially his 1979 solo album, Off the Wall. In the early to mid-1980s, he moved from pop star to icon, selling hundreds of millions of albums along the way. As his career blossomed, his personal life seemed to unfold.
The facts of his life in showbusiness from the age of five (when he should have been having a childhood) are well known, as of course are the sordid details of his sad decline and untimely death. What is less well remembered is that Jackson made a powerful contribution to environmentalism with his 1996 hit, ‘Earth Song’.
It is without doubt the most successful green-themed song in music history –and all this nearly a decade ahead of ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘. Tellingly, it was never released in the US – perhaps the record company reckoned that wasn’t what his American fans wanted to hear about. Here is what Jackson himself said inspired the 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”.
The themes powerfully explored in ‘Earth Song’ and its extremely expensive video (filmed in four countries) included deforestation, drought, over-fishing and displacement of native peoples by corporate agriculture. Climate change hardly gets a look in. Then again, in 1996, who outside of the scientific community was talking about it?
I remember the powerful visceral effect of seeing the video to ‘Earth Song’. The finale, as Jackson single-handedly tries to undo mankind’s damage is almost operatic. It’s easy to mock, but to my mind, his heart was in the right place. He certainly didn’t take it on as a cheap, populist stunt, especially given how misrepresented and misunderstood environmental issues are – like Jackson himself, come to think of it.
Enough of the editorial. Time to let the music and the video do the talking: