Friday, May 31, 2013

Michael Jackson -- "Black or White" (1991)

If you're thinking of being my brother
It don't matter if you're black or white

Quincy Jones, who produced several of Michael Jackson's albums, was asked after Jackson's death if it was disturbing to witness the strange evolution of his facial appearance over the years.

"It's ridiculous, man," he answered.  "Chemical peels and all of it.  And I don't understand it.  But he obviously didn't want to be black."

Before . . .
According to an affidavit filed in a lawsuit involving Jackson, he once told his maid "that he bleaches his skin because he does not like being black and he feels that blacks are not liked as much as people of other races."

So despite the lyrics quoted above, it appears that it did "matter if you're black or white" to Jackson.  He not only lightened his skin but underwent multiple cosmetic surgeries in an apparent attempt to look more Caucasian.

 . . . and after
Jackson and some of his siblings were physically and psychologically abused by their father, and it seems likely that his mental health suffered greatly from that abuse.  The overwhelming impression you have when you look back at the life of the "King of Pop" is that he was a tortured soul who was never truly happy.  

His bizarre appearance and strange behavior made him a butt of jokes.  In a kinder world, the response would have been sympathy.  

One thing that is inarguable about Jackson is that he was a hugely popular entertainer.  He wasn't yet 21 when his fifth solo album -- Off the Wall -- was released in 1979.  That album has sold an estimated 20 million copies worldwide.

 But that was nothing compared to his next album, 1982's Thriller, which sold approximately 65 million copies and remains the best-selling album of all time.

Jackson subsequently released four more studio albums between 1987 and 2001, which sold a total of 110 million copies.  Each succeeding album was less of a commercial success than the one before, but even his last album -- Invincible -- sold 13 million copies.

Jackson in the "Thriller" video
I'm not very familiar with Jackson's post-Thriller career, so I asked a friend of mine to help me pick out one of his songs to feature on 2 or 3 lines.  Given his enormous worldwide popularity, I probably should have featured one of his songs long before now -- after all, I've written about well over 500 songs at this point -- but better late than never.

My friend Catie is une femme d'un certain age (as the French would say) who lives in the north of England.  She's a big fan of Jackson's music, and it wasn't easy for her to single out one song.  

I have been thinking long and hard about my favourite Michael Jackson songs – it’s very hard because I tend to like the song I’m listening to the best, and then I hear another and like that one.  Also it depends what mood I’m in.  I like one song one day and then the next find it irritating. 

When I was growing up Michael was in the background.  I liked his music, but was much more interested in Donny Osmond.  As I grew older and became more addicted to music I started to appreciate Michael’s music more.  Yes, I did say "addicted."  I use music almost like a drug – it’s a good pick-me-up, or it can work the other way when listening to maudlin stuff.

Catie suggested three songs.  Two of them -- "You Are Not Alone" and "Speechless" -- might not be classified as maudlin, but they certainly aren't pick-me-up songs.  

I wasn't familiar with either one of them.  "Speechless" was not released as a single, but "You Are Not Alone" debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, which had never happened before.  (You would have thought that I would have heard it.)  

Looking back on Jackson's life and death, I found both songs to be very sad.  So I went with Catie's third suggestion, "Black or White," which was the first single from Jackson's 1991 album, Dangerous.

"Black or White" was a #1 single in the U.S., where it has sold four million copies.  It also hit #1 in the UK, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and just about every other country you've ever heard of -- with the exception of Germany, where it made it only to #2.  

The "Black or White" music video has a very peculiar beginning, featuring Macaulay Culkin (of Home Alone fame) as a loud-music-loving kid who is driving his father (George Wendt of Cheers fame) crazy.  Eventually the video takes us to Africa, where Jackson dances with West Africans, Thais, Native Americans, and Russians.  Jackson appears to be singing the last verse from the Statue of Liberty's torch.  

The aspect of the video that was jaw-dropping in 1991 was this morphing sequence:

The original music video didn't end when the song ended, but continued for another four minutes.  It depicted Jackson leaving the recording studio as a black panther that morphed back into Jackson, who does some sexually suggestive gestures before apparently smashing windows, destroying a car, and causing a building to explode.  

The unedited version of the video has rarely been aired.  It was replaced by a version that omitted those final four minutes: 

Here are the four minutes that were lopped off the original video:

Here's a link you can use to buy "Black or White" from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. There's a railroad connection to Mr. Jackson--I don't know all the details, but I recall reading about his "Neverland" property in Santa Barbara County and how it had all sorts of exotic animals and an operating narrow-gauge railway. Not sure if it was steam or diesel powered, but after he passed, there was speculation in about what would happed to the train. There were a number unkind comments about the behavior that got him tried and acquitted of some rather unpleasant charges, but following posts reminded everyone that this website is devoted to trains, not trials. I don't have any of his recordings; I realize that they have sold by the carload, but they never really rang my gong. Our local news here in LA has a lot of coverage of the civil trial regarding his death and whether AEG Entertainment owes his family big $$$$. And, AEG is part of the Philip Anschutz empire, which once included the Southern Pacific Transportation Co.