Student Essays on “Earth Song” and “Black or White”

earth songLast fall brought a particularly strong crop of student essays on “Earth Song” and “Black or White” and I wanted to share with you some of the best essays I had the pleasure to read. These essays span three sections of English 102 and, with but one exception, were all written by students whose average age, eighteen, means they were not even born when Michael Jackson first released these songs over twenty years ago.  Yet I think you will find their views to be quite profound and enlightening. They are products of a new generation, one that has come of age in an era of increased environmental awareness and racial tensions, and in which the gradual deconstructive critical assessment of both of these great works continues to gain momentum.

Over the course of a semester, I read literally hundreds of essays. It’s easy for some to fade from memory after a few weeks, once the grading process is done. But then there are always those few that stick with me long afterwards. These are some of the best of those, and I hope you guys will enjoy them as much as I did.

It may be worth noting that  the first essay mistakenly identifies “Earth Song” as Jackson’s final work. It wasn’t, of course. Possibly Miss Woodard was confusing this fact with our class discussion of “Earth Song” as the last song that Jackson performed, an understandable point of confusion. This was a correction I noted when I returned her paper; nevertheless, as always, I present their pieces here with as few editorial corrections as possible, as I believe it is important to let these students’ voices speak for themselves, even if that includes the occasional, small factual or grammatical error.  In general, I do not think it would be fair to hold these kids accountable for facts that only seasoned Jackson aficionados would know. Also, I am not always in every case necessarily looking for only positive pieces. You will find below that there is the occasional more critical approach, but I think it is fair criticism that has been grounded in thoughtful reflection of the work. What I look for is overall evidence of critical thinking, profound reflection, and the degree of original  enlightenment they are able to bring to the piece. In some cases, the more critical pieces were able to lead to some very engaging class discussions and/or dialogues between myself and the writer, especially on the topic of Michael and spirituality. I hope you will enjoy these as much as I did. Many more will be forthcoming in the months ahead.

Jackson’s Powerful Love for the Earth by Emily Woodard

Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” was Jackson’s final work, expressing his passion and love for all creatures, bemoaning the evil and cruelty that mankind brought into the world.  It is a plea for people to break through their apathy and heal the planet. “Earth Song,” unlike most other of Jackson’s work, took seven years to produce, and during those seven years he was unable to consistently eat or sleep, plagued by the restless urgency he felt to convey this important message across the globe. Jackson grew up in the Jehovah Witness faith – encouraged by his devout mother, and he seems to address the Christian God many times in his final work.   Jackson still believed in helping others, and being a good person, although his faith at his time of death is not completely clear.  Jackson’s earnest “Earth Song,” sends a message of great anguish, and heartbreak, even as he committed himself to spreading the message of hope.  “Earth Song” is a powerful expression of the Earth’s tremendous grief, and sorrow, expressed through Jackson’s lament, and his addresses to God, and to mankind.

The first message- hope- is demonstrated by Jackson’s intense emotion, and puissant feelings for the earth and all living creatures on it. Eleanor Bowman exclaims in the blog entry “In my Veins I’ve Felt the Mystery” that “although there is so much anger and pain in Earth Song, there is also hope, but this hope really is only revealed in the film, which shows Michael singing the Earth and nature back to life (Bowman).  At this point in the film, Jackson expresses his devotion to the planet and asks the audience to care, and love the planet as he does, to gift Earth with hope.  The first biblical reference says, “The heavens are falling down, (What about us?), I can’t even breathe, (What about us?)” (Jackson).  Jackson uses this part to symbolize a world tragedy or great losses.  From Bowman, Eleanor says, “And, when he cries out “What about us?” he identifies not only himself, but all of us, his listeners, with the disempowered and dispossessed” (Bowman).  The magical intensity Jackson creates for the Earth involves caring for all living creatures by asking “what about us,” referring to himself, and everybody else watching these terrible tragedies around them.

He rails against the fact that the world has been “torn apart by creed” (Jackson). We have sacrificed the planet, justifying war, destruction and cruelty based on religious separatism. People of the planet have been cruelly apathetic to the tragedy, turning a blind eye to the pain. And God does not hear the cries of the Earth. He asks God, “What about all the peace, that you pledge your only son” and asks why He has failed to notice the dying planet, suffering children, and casualties of war (Jackson).  At the same time, he’s asking his listeners the same questions. How can we all turn a blind eye to the suffering?

In the music video, Jackson is portrayed in a Messianic pose, spread eagled between two burning trees and sacrificed to the violence of a healing storm. He faces down the fiery storm, stomping out his anger to the “What about us” lyrics. His sacrifice and bravery in the face of the storm brings about a global healing. Trees rise from destruction, oceans are teaming with life, animals and people are resurrected.

His lyrics and imagery ask the audience “Where did we go wrong” and “Do we give a damn?” Bowman insists that Jackson is rejecting the Christian God, explainin“… the themes of environmental degradation and man’s inhumanity to man, our wars  on nature and each other”- he is saying that these two tragedies are related, that they arise from a single source – the transcendent god of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose worldview and value system led his only son to the cross, whose worldview and value system brought Abraham to the brink of disaster, and whose worldview and value system are destroying the planet and leading us toward self-destruction. Earth Song is both an acknowledgement of the dire situation we find ourselves in and a recognition that we have all been betrayed” (Bowman).

In fact, his refrain “What about us” isn’t an infantile plea for attention, but a cry for people to take responsibility for the state of the world. Stop looking to a remote God for the answer – those promises have not been kept – and instead look to each other. “What about us” is a cry for personal responsibility and his music video images back up this interpretation. He is sacrificing himself to bring about change in the world. And everyone should do the same – take a stand against greedy consumption of Earth’s treasures and make a difference.  It’s a common theme in his later work, telling his listeners to be the change they want to see in the world. Open your eyes, see the pain and anguish, destruction and pollution, understand the part you play, and your power to make change. Heal the world.

Jackson seemed to have felt deeply the pain of others, and hoped to find a way for his art to help. His heartbreak is clear, as is his hope, and fear that we would continue to look the other way, even if the direction of our gaze is the heavens, as our Earth cries out in agony.

Michael Jackson’s Message of Racism and His Personal Fight by Octavia Gregory

black or whiteMichael Jackson was a musician who turned the tables in the music industry. Emerging in the early 1990’s, after releasing himself with his family’s band, “Jackson Five”, Michael became any woman’s dream and one of the most loved artists in his time, even until this very day. His experiences with racism, discrimination and hatred influenced a lot of his early music. The most pivoting, eye opening song of 1991 was Michael Jackson’s, “Black or White”. This song was so shell shocking, when the music video premiered on MTV, the world went wild. This song is still extremely prevalent in this day and age, especially with the new generation of race debates and political correctness.

Michael’s experiences with racism started at an early age. One of his most prevalent memories was when he went to visit his mother and stepfather in Mobile, Alabama in the early 1980’s. Him and his bodyguard went into a local store and his guard told him to stay put but he didn’t listen. He ended up going into the gas station and by the time his bodyguard came out, he found Michael on the floor being beaten by the gas station’s owner, a white male in his thirties, kicking him in his head and body. The store owner claimed that Michael was stealing a candy bar, but, from eye witnesses, it was said that he was just beating him because he was black. That is one of the many instances that shaped Michael’s views on racism.

He and his brothers, the Jackson 5, didn’t have a pleasant stay at Mobile, Alabama that year. When they arrived at the hotel, there was KKK paraphernalia left out to scare the brothers from being n Mobile. It frightened them but didn’t stop them from doing what they came there to do. This experience influenced the one line in Michael’s song, “Black or White”, saying “I ain’t scared of no sheets”, referring to the sheets the KKK wears. He’s not afraid because, the fact that the KKK feels the need to hide their face just express their hatred only shows that member of the KKK are cowards and live amongst us; they are our doctors, lawyers, and people we sit next to on the bus. This was Michael’s true message in his fight against the KKK and racism as a whole, that African Americans aren’t afraid of it because it seems to them that the KKK are more afraid of them and when it comes down to it, they will win the fight.

Jermaine Jackson wrote in his book, “You Are Not Alone: Michael: Through a Brother’s Eyes”, ​about the trip to Mobile, Alabama that, “It made us more determined to kick some butt onstage, because we soon recognized the importance of being black kids performing for black fans who could now identify with us. We were carrying the torch for our forefathers, winning respect for every black kid with a dream. The screams and cheers that night felt like a lot more than just Jackson mania: they felt like defiance and victory. As Sammy Davis Junior had said in 1965: ‘Being a star has made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Negro could never hope to go and get insulted.’” Michael’s whole purpose in his music career was to inspire the black youth of then and now and hope to make a difference, and he did just that.

The problems going on in America today of racism have been going on, even since before Michael’s time. Some would argue that racism doesn’t exist anymore, but professing that ignorantly diminishes the problems and discrimination that African Americans still face today or have ever faced. The blow up over the past two years of Black Lives Matter has affected and changed the views of many of our black youth and even other cultures. It has been a movement that has awakened many and I believe that this is what any black activist has been waiting for, for the black youth to wake up.

Michael Jackson was a big activist and if he was still alive he would be front and center in the news speaking out and being active with the black community. He was never afraid to speak his mind, even though some believe that he may have talked too much and that is what lead to his death. Nonetheless, Michael could never be silenced and his message lives on until today. In the article, “Messenger King: Michael Jackson and the politics of #BlackLivesMatter”, by D.B. Anderson, she speaks about Michaels song “They Don’t Care About Us” and how “The song was, in large part, a response to the failure to convict police officers of the videotaped 1992 Rodney King beating, but also to his own terribly degrading experience of police brutality in 1993. To re­read the criticism of the song today is to shake your head in disbelief at its disingenuousness. It’s obvious that for some in power at the time, this was a dangerous song, and the objections merely an attempt to deflect.” This is perfect evidence that Michael would’ve been on top of every police brutality incident to come forth, and would probably have a huge impact of change.

Michael had struggled with racism his entire life and it showed in his music. He was a very passionate man and is missed by many. His message will live on forever and he played an important role in the racial change that has gone on in this country. He stayed strong willed and unchanged by every racist and person who falsely accused him, whether it be about his unseen vitiligo or the message he spoke. Michael Jackson’s message to everyone will live on forever, “If you enter this world knowing you are loved and you leave this world knowing the same, then everything that happens in between can be dealt with.”

Good or Bad, Not Black or White by Eric Harrison

blackorwhite2It was 1991 and there were many problems going on in society dealing with race. Michael Jackson was in his 30’s and he too had already had to deal with many of those problems in society. He was able to take his frustration out in a positive way though. One of the most memorable songs he made about the racial tension going on during those times was Black or White. This song was so controversial because of the music video that people were missing the point he was making. It doesn’t matter if your black or white.

The music video starts out just like most of the popular videos in the early 90’s. Popular actors, family at home, and a whole lot of dancing. For the actor Michael Jackson got Macaulay Culkin who played the kid in all of the Home Alone movies. Like most young kids Culkin ends up getting into an argument with his parents and blows his dad into the Sahara Desert after bringing his amplifier downstairs and playing his guitar on max! You’re probably wondering what that has to do with racial tension, and the answer is simple. It isn’t about what race someone is. There is always going to be good and bad people regardless.

Once the song starts you can see Michael dancing with people of all different races. African, Asian, Native American, and Mexican to just name a few. What stuck out to me the most during this part of the video is the fact that everyone is getting along. These are all good people having a good time to a good song. Michael Jackson pulls off a couple of his dance moves and you start to get a sense of well being. It makes you start to wonder why can’t everyone just get along. Now there is nothing controversial at all with the first half of the music video. It changes tone quickly and so does Michael.

All of the sudden you see Michael dancing in front of pictures of fire. This is a drastic change from dancing in the middle of the street with the whole neighborhood. The mood really changes when you see tanks firing their rockets and you get a sense of  being on the edge. Macaulay Culkin is then seen rapping with some other kids that happen to be black. This is a strong message and he uses kids for a reason. Kids aren’t born being racist, and Michael wanted to make sure that parents know this. This is also why he has Culkin arguing with his dad rebelling in the first scene. Families play a big role in kids belief system. In Raven Wood’s article “The Seeds of Black or White: The Sub Theme of Parental Authority” she says, “ The role of a parent, after all, is to be a parent, not a best friend. Parents and children both have to realize this, and to accept the boundary.”

Michael goes on to show us what happens when parent’s aren’t that authority figure that kids need so much. To emphasize this he morphs into a panther which is a fierce animal that black activists have related to. They would call themselves The Black Panthers. When he morphs back into a human it has started storming outside and you get a bad vibe. This is where a lot of people were starting to get confused. They didn’t understand what this had to do with the racial conflicts going on at that time. Michael continues to do a more aggressive style dance than he was doing earlier in the first half of the video. He is playing the role of anyone who has been hated on because of their race. He not only dances in the middle of the street but he also jumps on top of a car and continues to dance all the while breaking out the windows of it. This is an extreme message that’s very strong. I can see why people would not like this part of the video because most people didn’t want to think that this is what the ignorance of racism is causing. A lot of people just wanted to sweep everything under the rug and continue living life like they have been even though there have been numerous riots and lives lost. People from all races have to deal with racism in one form or another.

Michael Jackson wrote this song to help bring awareness on racism and the problems that it causes. Black or White had one of the largest viewing crowds for the premiere of the video. It was shown on prime time television across the world. People weren’t expecting such a strong message to be shown in this music video and it really raised some eyebrows. Michael was ahead of his times with many of his songs and this was no exception.

There are many messages in the music video for Black or White by Michael Jackson. He is able to portray this message not only through lyrics, but also through the different themes of the scenes in the video. The main thing that stuck out in this video wasn’t the violence in it. It was what led up to the violence. The main thing to me was how powerful a parents influence is over their child. The fact that kids aren’t born racist, but there are so many racist people alive is appalling. Michael being so up front with this video notched him a spot in history for the right towards equal rights. Today things are a lot different than they were back then even though we still have issues. Videos like this have become more common place today, and it wouldn’t have been as big of a controversy now as it was then. Although times have changed one thing still remains the same. It’s about good or bad not black or white.

“Earth Song” by Shekeler Atchinson

Cd3IYdfXEAAuV5NMichael Jackson, one of the greatest song writers of all times, composed “Earth Song.” This song, “is indisputably the most popular green-themed tune ever. It remains Jackson’s best-selling song in the U.K.”(Pasternack) I feel like this song expressed his pain of not understanding why an all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving God would allow suffering and pain to exist. He saw God creations full of turmoil and destruction. Although, what a person have been taught to believe matters in their understanding about God and their own life. One article read, “Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, he was taught to believe in a God that was rigid and demanding (including the commandment not to celebrate holidays or birthdays).” (Vogel) “Earth Song,” clearly expresses Theodicy in Michael understanding.

Michael is not alone in not fully understanding why God would allow evil and suffering to exist in this world, especially when scripture teaches that God is love. I believe Michael would have understood better by pondering over the question, when did evil and suffering began? When God created the heavens and the earth, after each creation, the bible says, “Then God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.” (Bible) However, God did not make man as a robot, but to have a free will to choose.  Adam and Eve chose the one thing God told them they must not eat, the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Therefore, knowing good and evil were passed to all generations. Suffering and evil came into this world due to sin. “Let no one say when I am temped, I am tempted by God; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself temp anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is full grown, bring forth death.” (Bible) It seems like Michael’s religion had left him to believe that God was all about pain as quoted by one article, “Earth Song,” wasn’t about faith or triumph; it was about pain and indignation.” (Vogel) Michael seems to be walking in the dark, because he could not understand why God would allow bad things to happen. However, scriptures teaches, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Bible) Which simply means, God’s purpose and reasons for allowing suffering and evil to exist is so far beyond our understanding. What Michael needed to understand, so many times we have to trust God when what is happening do not make any sense. However, as a child of God, we have God’s promise that, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Bible) In the beginning of creation, God did not created evil and suffering, but because He is omniscient, He knew man would sin and evil and things would be a part of this world. Suffering or evil working by man did not surprise God.  God also had a plan in place to redeem mankind along with His creation of the heavens and earth.  It is so sad that with the gift of music God gave him, he had to express misunderstanding of the God he apparently wanted to know. It’s true no religion has all the answers, the bible say, “We only know in part and we prophesy in part.” (Bible)

Finally, I wonder before his life ended did he come to the knowledge of knowing that in God’s timing He would right all wrongs. I wonder did he know the scripture, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth has passed away. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There will be no more pain, for the former things has passed away.” (Bible). I wonder did he get to know the savior of the world, Jesus. In my opinion, the greatest evil and suffering done on earth is when Jesus Christ, God Son, was crucified. Yet, God allow it to happen because it was a part of God plan to save mankind. The people who were committing this evil act, did now realize they were right in line with the will of God. I believe that everything that happens in this life is not without reason and purpose. An all-powerful God, can prevent everything bad from happening, so why don’t He? Again, this is where your faith in God has to work. “Faith is the substance of things hope for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Bible) Michael’s life seems to have been a life of spiritual struggles. I hope that before he gave his last breath, he saw Jesus.

Michael Jackson and his Earth Song by Thomas George

earth song2Michael Jackson was a famous pop artist known for his ridiculously catchy songs and intense dance moves. Among some of his works are Thriller, Bad, and Billie Jean. He was however, more than an artist that could pump out catchy tunes and moonwalk. He was very active in civil rights and concerned about the Earth’s environment and how humanity has effected it. Jackson wrote Earth Song as a way to try to open the eyes of the many people that could here his message and inspire healing.

In a quick analysis of Earth song, it is deeply rooted with both antiwar and environmental aspects. Both of which are still hot topics today and as attempts grow to improve upon these aspects, one line that stands out is, “what have we done to the world.” This small lyric means that all are to blame for the conditions of the Earth. And even as Jackson sings the song, he sings it with more of a grieving, guilty voice.

It took Jackson seven years to create Earth Song and the song itself was different from other songs of its type as Joseph Vogel writes in his book Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus:

Social anthems and protest songs had long been part of the heritage of rock-but  not like this. ‘Earth Song’ was something more epic, dramatic, and primal. Its roots were deeper; its vision more panoramic. It was a modern-day “sorrow song”                       haunted by voices of the past; a lamentation torn from the pages of the Old Testament; an apocalyptic prophecy in the tradition of Blake, Yeats, and Eliot. (4).

Earth Song eventually became the most popular environmental anthem ever and reached the top of the charts in over fifteen countries. Earth Song sold over ten million copies. Even with its success the critics did not know what to make of it. It was completely different from what was normally heard on the radio. It was rock, opera, gospel, and blues. It was not a traditional anthem by any means. The song proposed a world with out division and wanted balance and harmony. (Vogel 5)

Jackson was raised Jehova’s Witness and believed in a very strict God. He did not celebrate birthdays or holidays. Jehova’s Witnesses believed that Armageddon was an upcoming event that could not be stopped and only prepared for. As well only few Jehova’s Witnesses will survive the Armageddon as the religion calls for only 144,000. (Vogel 25) Jackson spent years devoted to understanding his faith, he would reach out to church leaders for advice. But in 1987 Jackson decided that he could no longer stay with the church and resigned. (Vogel 25-26)

With the Jehova’s Witness religion behind him, he had a new outlook on the way he viewed himself, the world, and God. In Vogel’s book Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, he quotes Jackson on his new views on God:

“It’s strange that God doesn’t mind expressing Himself/Herself in all the religions of the world, while people still cling to the notion that their way is the only right  way,” he wrote in his 1992 book Dancing the Dream. In another piece, in place of                his prior conception of the afterlife, he writes: “Heaven is here/Right now is the moment of eternity/Don’t fool yourself/Reclaim your bliss.”(26)

Jackson’s new views helped him artistically. It further inspired him to view God not as strict but more as an inspiration to try and heal the Earth and not focus on an inevitable unstoppable Armageddon like he believed in the past. (Vogel 26)

Although Jackson was known more for his catchy songs and wild dance moves, he was deeply moved by the conditions of the Earth. He created Earth Song in the hopes that it would inspire healing of the Earth itself. Earth Song may have opened up many people’s eyes as to what humanity is doing to the Earth which was Jackson’s intent.

4 thoughts on “Student Essays on “Earth Song” and “Black or White””

  1. Hi, Raven–have been deep into resisting doing taxes–but finally got them done (whew). Very much enjoyed these essays. You are doing great work. Congratulations to you and your fine students!!

    1. I hear you; I have been knee deep in grading final research projects for the spring term and looking forward to summer when I can slow down a bit and do more “Michael-ing” lol.

  2. Love your exposition on the Bible theme. It shows that you really know and understand the Bible.

    And this is also my angst and hope about Michael´s eternal life:
    “Faith is the substance of things hope for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Bible) Michael’s life seems to have been a life of spiritual struggles. I hope that before he gave his last breath, he saw Jesus.

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