A reading from the book of Jackson
I never cared for Michael Jackson. I’m just going to get that out of the way right now. He entered my fourth-grade consciousness as a zipper-sporting pop star burnt by Pepsi, and it just got weirder from there.
murilo campos via flickrBut now I find I can’t stop thinking about him. His impact. His astonishing role as global ambassador. Disturbingly thin, oddly hued, possibly pedophilic global ambassador — but global ambassador nonetheless. Look at those fifty shows in London that were supposed to kick off next month: they sold out in less than a day, at a rate of 40,000 tickets an hour. The man had impossible sway.
As the awesomly named Nekesa Mumbi Moody writes in an AP tribute today, “At the height of his fame, he was among the world’s most beloved figures. Heads of state clamored to meet him … and worldwide, simply the mention of his name could make people do the moonwalk, from Los Angeles to Laos.”
So this is the part where I pivot and talk about the environment or climate change or something, because it’s Grist and that’s what we’re supposed to do. And it’s doable: Jackson released a treacly number called “Earth Song” in 1995, in which he bemoans the fate of, among other things, elephants, crying whales, nature trails, and the bleeding Earth. Said Jackson of the song’s genesis:
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.
I must admit I had never heard the song until Grist Executive Editor Russ Walker earnestly pasted it on our home page last night. But it was apparently a number-one hit in the U.K. In a love-to-hate-to-love tribute today, Leo Hickman writes about the “cloying anthem” in The Guardian; he points out that it’s clearly a pre-climate change song, but gives it credit for opening eyes and minds: “Given its universal success and the repeated showing of its powerful video, it is highly likely that it was the spark that made many people — particularly young Michael Jackson fans, which, even in the mid-1990s, would have numbered many millions of people around the world — stop and think about environment for the first time.” [Emphasis added.]
Jackson was full of other uplifting messages for the world, too, when he wasn’t singing about smooth criminals and grizzly ghouls; his songs famously urged his skillions of fans to take action on behalf of their fellow global citizens. He co-wrote “We Are the World” and later released the imitative “Heal the World,” and he of course reminded us that “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.” Which … well. Truer words and all that.
Me, I find another song going through my head when I think of Jackson and his one-man global improvement crusade. To wit:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
No message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.
Oh, how I loathed that song when it was ceaselessly played on the school-bus radio. (How I loathed the school bus, too, but that’s another story.) And it’s still no “Billie Jean.” But Jackson’s most promising legacy may well be the fact that he successfully encouraged millions of people to think for one freakin’ second about their actions and their place in the world. We could do with a little more of that these days.
OK, that’s it, I’m done. Two days ago, if you’d asked me my thoughts about Michael Jackson, they’d have been … minimal at best. And right now my fourth-grade self is all like, “Gag me with a spoon! Did you just write a tribute to Michael Jackson? Barf me back to the stone age!”
And to her I say just one thing: mama se, mama sa, ma ma coo sa.
Watch “Earth Song”:
Get Grist in your inbox