Had things gone differently, Michael Jackson would’ve turned 60 today. Every year on his birthday I like to write about one of his videos. This year I chose “Earth Song” because it seems like we need it – it sadly seems more and more relevant as time goes on – and because I think it’s one of his lesser known videos.
At least it was to me. It was the third single from the 1995 album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, which I didn’t actually buy when it first came out. I don’t know if it was wherever I was in life or the fact that it was half greatest hits, but I didn’t pay as much attention to that album as I had some of the other ones. I did really enjoy the weird promo they were showing on BET and MTV, where Michael leads a scary army and a giant statue of him is forged and unveiled to a crowd of screaming fans. And at the time I thought those were Rambo-style bullet straps on the statue. I still don’t know what the fuck he was trying to communicate with that short film, and also I still enjoy the audacity of it.
Many years later I bought the Michael Jackson HIStory On Film Volume II dvd and I’d seen some of the other videos from the album like “Scream” and “They Don’t Care About Us” (directed by Spike Lee), but I sure didn’t recognize the one for “Earth Song,” and it blew me away.
Director Nick Brandt also did Jackson’s “Childhood,” “Stranger in Moscow” and “Cry,” as well as videos for Moby and XTC. Maybe his most widely seen video would be Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” but he chose to be credited as Alan Smithee after Clive Davis re-edited it. (I wonder if that means adding the clips from THE BODYGUARD?) Brandt was also one of the directors on the Playboy video INSIDE OUT II, but he’s primarily known as a fine art photographer.
I’ve watched two different documentaries about Fred Rogers recently. One of them, MISTER ROGERS & ME, talked alot about his belief that “Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.” I thought about that while listening to “Earth Song” because the song is made more powerful by how uncomplicated it is. It’s basically two parts, the sorrowful pleading and then the righteous fury.
The video begins in sort of a paradise, what seems to be a rain forest in the Amazon where a camera cranes around to show toucans in trees, then some monkeys. It’s so picturesque that there’s a harp sound as sunbeams shine in from above. But wait, is that smoke? The shot eventually turns to reveal a bulldozer cutting through the trees just as the song’s opening piano riff begins. The camera zooms into the grill of the machine and then fades into a hellscape of tree stumps, flames and apocalyptic orange skies (filmed on a set built on a corn field in Warwick, New York). I didn’t even notice him at first, but Michael is in the middle, dressed in torn black and red clothes, walking through the wreckage with his head down as he sings “What about sunrise? What about rain? What about all the things that you said we were to gain?”
You can famously hear Michael sob at the end of “She’s Out of My Life.” He said it was real, and Quincy Jones said it happened on every take. Emotion seems to overwhelm his voice in this one too – he sounds completely heartbroken in the opening verses as he asks “What about sunrise, what about rain” and “Did you ever stop to notice this crying earth, these weeping shores.”
As he bows his head we see a number of other tragic scenes in different parts of the world:
The corpse of an elephant. A Masai family stands in mourning.
Another family watching a tree get chopped down in the Amazon.
Another walking through their war ravaged village in Croatia.
As the text explains at the end, the video was shot on four continents, “all of which are in some form of distress created by man and his technology.” The people featured in the video are not professional actors, but residents of each region.
So Michael is talking about pollution and wars, clear-cutting, poaching, selling ivory. The corporations and warlords have reaped their rewards from the Earth, but the regular people got a raw deal. “What about all the things that you said were yours and mine?” he asks, even though he knows the answer. For those who would claim Christianity but wage war, he pointedly asks “What about all the peace that you pledge your only son?”
As each of the families look upon their dying world, they remember better times: When elephants, zebras and giraffes were abundant; when you could reach out and touch a tree, before it got chainsawed; when the field was green and the man’s daughter was alive.
I love a song that builds, and this one sure does. The second part begins after first Michael, then each of the families drop to their knees like Furiosa when she found out the Green Place was gone. They rub their hands around in the dirt, run their fingers through it, pick up handfuls of it and let it pour out.
We see glimpses of documentary footage of outrages: a trapped dolphin, a starving child, a clubbed seal. Shit is bad. But then it happens: the dirt that they spilled begins to fly back into their hands. Pouring in reverse. And then there’s a powerful wind. It seems scary, but they know that it’s a good wind, because they look up and smile at it.
Some sort of magic has happened, and as far as we can tell it’s not some Michael Jackson magic like when the sidewalk lights up beneath his feet, or beams shoot out of his hands and turn a monster into Angelica Huston, or when he turns into a panther or a pile of sand or a robot. No, I think this is the magic of people in different cultures, different parts of the world, together believing that this has gone far enough and that something must be done. And/or touching a bunch of dirt. Whatever it is, it reverses everything like when Superman makes the earth spin backwards.
The music swells and Michael has an epic call and response with The Andraé Crouch Choir, who were also heard on “Man In the Mirror,” “Speechless” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” and who later performed at the public memorial service for Jackson. Michael looks pained as he leads them in reverently drawn out “aaaaaah”s and “ooooooh”s, and then Michael explodes. In contrast to the weepy lamenting earlier, he belts out a list of “what about” questions and bitter observations in an angry, sort of bluesy wail. He ditches the “please, haven’t you considered this?” sort of attitude and moves to angry shaming, beginning “Hey, what about yesterday? / What about the seas? The heavens are falling down / I can’t even breathe.” And in between each line the choir asks “What about us?” or sometimes “What about it?”
That variation makes me question how I always interpreted this choir. I’ve taken that “us” the same way as the “us” in “They Don’t Really Care About Us.” Michael asks about the animals, the burnt forest trails, the holy land, the common man, the children dying, and they agree with him. An “us” encompassing all of the victims of the environmental catastrophe and war, the rain forest natives, the Bosnians, the elephant, the “crying whales,” all united. “What about us?” Why don’t you care what you’re doing to us?
But now I wonder if maybe the chorus is arguing with him. Maybe he’s saying “what about the crying whale” and they’re all “what about us, it’s too expensive to find green energy for our factory” or whatever. This would be the selfish “us” of those who would say that regulations are anti-business, who would pretend that they don’t believe in climate change even as the storms get more extreme and the summers get hotter and motherfucker I gotta check the air quality index before I go jogging on my day off because every August now the sky is darkened by smoke from wildfires all the way up the west coast. I didn’t agree to this dystopia, “us.”
This is my favorite part of the video, when they all have to grab onto things to stop from being blown away. Michael rocks out while holding onto these two trees and there’s this amazing angle that looks like something out of an Aeon Flux cartoon or something.
He gets so into it, bending his knees inward, banging his head, stomping one foot to the beat. The holding on for dear life part is kind of effortless. There’s so much enthusiasm there that I never miss the elaborately choreographed dance numbers of most of his great videos.
The wind and the will of the people and the power of music blow back a tank and soldiers, undo a civilian’s bullet wound, push smog back into smokestacks, unchop the trees and even heal the elephant, growing its tusks back. Michael has a line that would make Tony Jaa proud: “What about elephants? Have we lost their trust?” I like that he didn’t consider that too corny. Many people would worry about the elephants being killed but wouldn’t go as far as questioning whether or not they can trust us anymore.
When you think of Michael Jackson’s trademarks, it’s a pretty long list. You’ve got the moonwalk and the glove and so many things. But somewhere on that list is the “woo.” He can do an “ow” or an “ooh” or a little grunt or a “woo” and nobody cares that it’s not a word. It’s a sound. It’s percussion. Or a battle cry. It’s his Bruce Lee noise. It’s what he does.
And at the end of “Earth Song” he lets out a woo and then another woo and then another woo and I am so very happy to say that he does twelve consecutive woos and it completely works. I wouldn’t mind if he did seven or eight more. But the twelve are exhilarating every time I hear them. I like to count them out.
For director Brandt, the mission of “Earth Song” never really ended. While filming in Tanzania he fell in love with the wildlife of East Africa, and it became his primary photography subject. From 2001-2014 he documented African animals and people in the trilogy of On This Earth / A Shadow Falls / Across the Ravaged Land and in Inherit the Dust. Check out nickbrandt.com – his photography is very much in line with “Earth Song”‘s themes of the nobility of animals and the tragedy of humans damaging the earth.
“Earth Song” was the last song Michael ever performed, having rehearsed it for the This Is It shows just after midnight the night he died. I’m not sure if that’s the rehearsal we see in the THIS IS IT movie (I kind of hope it’s not), but there we can see that they shot new footage of a little girl dancing with butterflies in the rain forest, but incorporated reinterpretations of the flaming tree stump field and the attacking bulldozer, which was going to come out from the screen and onto the stage at the end.
This is a great song and a great video. I wish we still had Michael’s power of woos in our arsenal, and I wish they really could reverse some of this damage, because we are in trouble.
other pieces on Michael Jackson videos:
Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour (Cirque du Soleil show)
Captain EO (Disneyland attraction)