“I used to dream
I used to glance beyond the stars
Now I don’t know where we are
Although I know we’ve drifted far”
Written by Michael Jackson
Produced by Michael Jackson/David Foster/Bill Bottrell
Taken from the album HIStory: Past, Present & Future – Book 1
Also released on Blood On The Dance Floor: HIStory In The Mix, Number Ones, The Essential Michael Jackson, Visionary: The Video Singles, King Of Pop and Michael Jackson’s This Is It: Original Soundtrack
UK #1, AUS #15
Last week, I was searching for Christina Aguilera’s new album Bionic on the day of release, going into every music store in Brisbane city, but none of them had their new releases in yet. I saw that the HMV on Queen Street looked different, and I realised that the outside was covered in signs saying “CLOSING DOWN SALE”, “EVERYTHING MUST GO”. Now HMV is mostly an overpriced store with very little variety, but it was also the only store left in Brisbane that sold CD singles, and over my last 12 years of music buying, I had still found a number of bargains and collectables there, not to mention the massive amount of music and movies I used to buy there in the days before JB Hi-Fi. Walking around slowly, I looked at the barren shelves where stock had either been returned or shoved into bargain bins, and it was like a kick in the face to my childhood. I spoke to the people at the front desk about how it seemed that every two weeks another music store was closing down, and they agreed it was depressing – not just because it’s likely they would lose their jobs or at least be split up and sent to other stores. As I walked out of there for the last time, I realised what was playing over the store speaker system: the one work that sums up my life as a music fan, the piece of music most important to me, my favourite artist singing my favourite song of all time. It was ‘Earth Song’.
The genesis of ‘Earth Song’ was a decade earlier, when Michael co-wrote one of the highest selling singles ever, ‘We Are The World’, the logical extension of themes explored in 1980’s ‘Can You Feel It?’. In the years that followed he continued to release songs of social justice and environmental concern. There was the classic (‘Man In The Mirror’, ‘Jam’) and the cringeworthy (but still good in some ways, ‘Heal The World’). In 1995, after getting the Janet collaboration ‘Scream’ and the big ballad ‘You Are Not Alone’ out of the way, ‘Earth Song’ was released as the third single from HIStory: Past, Present & Future – Book 1. Beginning with atmospheric “jungle sounds”, the song then moves into a beautiful piano loop, which is at once sad and hopeful.
“What about sunrise? What about rain?”
Michael’s voice starts off subdued, in mourning, and although the lyrics can sometimes look strange on paper – believe me, I’m aware that ‘Earth Song’ is not everyone’s favourite – he sells them completely like no other vocalist can. He makes the listener feel that pain in his vocals, just like he makes us feel the joy in ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’, and the paranoia in ‘Billie Jean’.
I suppose it’s ironic that I’ve gone on about choruses being so important, when ‘Earth Song’ barely has one at all. Well, it’s there, but it is just wordless sounds – supposedly composed so that non-English speaking fans could understand the message and sing along. I can’t imagine the song with a “real” chorus, I think the notion that no words could truly encapsulate the message of ‘Earth Song’ is much better. There are not one but two super-dramatic moments here – the first comes just before the second chorus, as the drums kick in for the first time, and the second comes after the verse quoted above, after the drums fall away and come crashing back with an almighty roar, harder and heavier than last time.
Speaking of almighty roaring sounds, here is where things really get going. Pushing all previous structure aside, Michael launches into a screaming tirade of questions beggining with “what about…” – it is the most intense section in any of his songs. As Michael gives his strongest, toughest vocal performance, a gospel choir behind him chants “What about us?”, and as the drums crash and the music soars, it all comes together to form a symphony of anger and hurt and desperation.
‘Earth Song’ was given one of the best music videos I’ve ever seen, featuring Michael and certain groups of people around the world turning back time, and washing away the sins of the world. They plunge their hands into the soil and scream and cry, and with Michael as their leader, they reverse the destruction of forests, end wars and bring people back from the dead. Pompous? Yes. Overbearing? Absolutely. But it’s Michael Jackson. Would we have expected anything less? The video still puts across the right message, and at the very least, the messiah complex is entertaining.
A top ten hit on the charts of almost every country it was released in, ‘Earth Song’ was radio-only in the United States but was number one in the UK for a massive six weeks, selling over one million copies and becoming Michael’s biggest UK hit, and the Christmas number one for 1995. It was to be a major part of his This Is It comeback, but after his death one year ago, that lives on only in the film version.
At the risk of sounding about forty years older than I am, in this age of incredibly low attention spans, albums and songs leaking unfinished or in a state obviously not ready for public consumption, I present to you a song that I got to know and came to love through repeated listens on a CD in a discman, back when I had about twenty-five CDs in total. As I look now over my 1000+ albums and singles, not one song from all those records has connected with me like ‘Earth Song’ did. Growing up the nineties, I’m part of that in-between generation – we remember life without the internet, we remember before iPods and iTunes and leaks and YouTube and the death of the HMV on Queen Street in Brisbane City. But at the same time we break out in a rash if we go without our phones or our Facebook for more than a few hours. I guess I’m lucky I got to experience the best of both worlds. On the one hand, I got to spend my childhood obsessing over just a few artists and albums, getting to know them intimately, because that’s all I had access to. And in my adulthood I have all the music in the world at my fingertips, just waiting to be discovered. Will I ever again have the time or the attention span to get to know and love a song as intensely as I did this one?
From the piano to the climax to the video to the message to the vocals to the chorus to the screams of the final section, in my opinion ‘Earth Song’ summarises everything great about Michael Jackson, about the power of music.
It is the best song I have ever heard. And that, my friends, is The Gospel According To Richard Croft. Amen.