Was Michael Jackson the World's Biggest Environmentalist?
Jackson's "Earth Song," His Biggest UK Chart-Topper, Wasn't Released As a Single in America
Michael Jackson was famous for his socially-conscious music, but "Earth Song," his big, bold environmental call-to-arms, is often overlooked. Still, by sheer dint of his reach, the song might have made Jackson (who bears no relation to U.S. EPA chief Lisa Jackson) a kind of super-sized Al Gore, a decade before An Inconvenient Truth.
"Earth Song" is indisputably the most popular green-themed tune ever. It remains Jackson's best-selling song in the U.K. (yes, bigger than "Thriller" or "Billie Jean"), and beat out the Beatles' first single in 25 years for the top spot on the British charts. But the song, and its lavish globe-trotting video, barely registered in the U.S.Record executives at Epic apparently didn't think it had much life stateside. Perhaps the themes of ecological destruction weren't suited to pop radio in the U.S. market, or the song's musical approach -- gospel, blues and opera -- was considered too offbeat for American audiences.
Whatever the reason, the song was never released as a single in Jackson's home country. And the dramatic music video -- shot in four different places and depicting man-made ecological devastation and renewal -- was only rarely played on American MTV.
Update: Jackson performed "Earth Song" at the 1996 World Music Awards in France, backed up by a choir of young children and cheered on by a crowd of crying fans.
(His robot was impeccable, but his facts weren't. It is sometimes estimated that rainforests are being lost at the rate of 300 football field sized patches per hour, not per minute. The UN Environment Program and the Nature Conservancy estimate that around 60 football fields of rainforest are lost per minute.)
The Whole Earth Catalog -- Except Global Warming
With its themes of drought, over-fishing, deforestation, pollution and war, the song and video speaks as loudly today as it did in 1996. And its image of smog being sucked back into a smokestack foreshadows the ambitious hopes of clean coal proponents.
Notably absent however was what has become the most talked-about environmental issue: climate change.
At the time, climate change was still a relative seedling of an ecological crisis to many (and the science of greenhouse gases doesn't lend itself easily to the pop form). Still, heard by millions, "Earth Song" was pop music's biggest environmental song, and probably the first ecological eye-opener for millions of young fans. The message was clear: we are the world indeed, and we need to take care of it accordingly.
In the epic music video, scenes of environmental destruction and war are cut with Jackson wandering across a landscape of drought and fire, before he does his yell-through-the-wind thing, undoing all of our ecological damage like magic.
It was named by MTV one of the top 40 most expensive music videos, and was also likely one of the most carbon-heavy, too: locations included the Amazon rainforest, Croatia, Tanzania, and Warwick, New York, where a safe forest fire was simulated in a corn field.
Since it was filmed, more than 38,600 square miles have been cleared for pasture in the Amazon, where deforested land now equals the size of Iceland.
Jarvis Wasn't a Fan
Jackson got some flak for what some saw as the song's grandiosity and pompousness. When he performed it at the BRIT Awards in 1996, portrayed as a Christ-like figure surrounded by adoring children, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker famously stormed the stage in protest.
Here's what Jackson said of 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.
R.I.P. Michael. Long Live Climate Action?
A day after the King of Pop's death, the U.S. House is readying to pass historic but weakened legislation on climate change. But it's hard not to wonder whether the Waxman-Markey bill mark the birth of a new global "We Are the World" moment to be advanced at talks in Copenhagen, or leave us stuck in the political mud.
Rather, will it be a step forward, or just more moonwalk?
In another of his famous socially-conscious songs, Jackson had some good advice for Washington politicians, and everyone really:
I'm gonna make a change...
I'm starting with the man in the mirror
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and
Then make that Change!
Just lift yourself
You know you've got to stop it.
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