"New" MJ Song Already Causing Controversy: Shedding Some Much Needed Light On "Abortion Papers"

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jobstaCAFeM[/tube]

Leave it to Michael: Three years gone and counting, and he is still keeping us talking! The best Michael Jackson songs have never been without controversy, and now we have a new jewel to add to that crown. You see, among the many goodies on the new Bad25 disc is a little track that never made the original Bad album, but is sure gaining a lot of attention now! But is it gaining attention for the “right” reasons?

What I’m quickly discovering, if the conversations posted on various blogs, forums, and social media sites are any indication, is that everyone seems to have an opinion of what this song “means” and the message Michael is conveying. But do they really know? Most, I am firmly convinced, are mistakenly assuming this to be a personal, pro-life statement from Michael. And indeed, if one only gives a superficial listening (as we so often do with pop songs, paying attention to mostly the chorus hook and very little else) this would seem to be the case. “Those abortion papers/signed in your name against the word of God,” he sneers, in that deeper register of his voice he always employed when he wanted us to know for sure that he meant business.

There Are Far Too Many Kneejerk Reactions Either Praising Or Condemning Him For Being “Pro-Life.” But They Are Forgetting That The Artist And His Art May Not Always Be One And The Same.

So far, I’ve seen far too many fans and haters alike jumping the gun on this, either praising Michael for his wholesome pro-life views, or condeming him likewise. “Michael Jackson Was Pro-life” proudly proclaims one headline, while “Who is Michael Jackson to tell women what to do with their bodies?” sneers a commentor elsewhere.

Well, not so fast. First of all, let’s not forget that this was the same guy who, in Wanna Be Starting Something plainly said, “If you can’t feed your baby/then don’t have a baby” and “don’t think maybe/if you can’t feed your baby.” Now, isn’t it interesting that Michael-now being both universally condemned and praised as a pro-lifer, depending on which publication you read- also gets routinely bashed in some circles as being an ADVOCATE for abortion, simply because of that one lyric in Wanna Be Starting Something!

Never mind that in actuality, the line in Wanna Be Starting Something probably has more to do with advising young women to think before they gap their legs. It would seem to me that the line has more to do with preaching abstinence than advocating abortion, but you get the idea. Apparently, however, this extreme contradiction hasn’t dawned yet on some, who continue to debate if Michael’s intention with Song Groove, aka Abortion Papers was to force his own pro-life views on his audience. (Well even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t be the first nor last artist to preach a personal political or religious agenda, now would he!). Here is an article, for example, that is very typical of what I have been seeing in the last few days:

Apparently Michael Jackson recorded an anti-abortion song 

From beyond the grave, Michael Jackson has let the world know that he was against abortion. The sort-of-revelation comes courtesy of the previously unreleased song “Song Groove (Abortion Papers),” which was released this week as part of the 25th anniversary remaster of Bad.

While he may have been progressive in the ways of plastic surgery, Jackson expressed some fairly conservative viewpoints in song before, taking somewhat-moralistic stances against things like slut-shaming (“Dirty Diana”) and stalking (“Smooth Criminal”). Those Jackson taboos are now joined by this pretty raw and uncomfortable song whose message—“Those abortion papers / Signed in your name against the words of God / Those abortion papers / Think about life—is unmistakably straightforward.

http://www.avclub.com/articles/michael-jackson-was-antiabortion-and-sang-a-song-a,85270/

As an aside, I have to laugh at all of these ignorant writers who seem shocked at the idea of Michael Jackson taking on such a deep and political subject. Apparently, these people slept through the entire HIStory era, but I digress. Anyway, Michael himself had a lot of doubts about how the song would be perceived, which was one reason why the song remained in the vault for a quarter of a century. Joe Vogel, as he always so excellently does, has revealed some interesting behind-the-scenes glimpses into the creative process behind this track. This was an excerpt from his article “Abortion, Fame, and Bad: Listening To Michael Jackson’s Unreleased Demos”:

Unreleased Michael Jackson Song “Abortion Papers” Surfaces 

Jackson isn’t the first recording artist to explore the controversial subject of abortion in song. It has also surfaced in the work of Neil Young, Madonna, Sinead O’Connor, and Lauryn Hill, among others.

In “Abortion Papers,” Jackson approaches the matter carefully (and ambiguously): rather than presenting a dogmatic political perspective, he personalizes it through the story of a conflicted girl raised in a deeply religious home and her Bible-admonishing father. In his notes for the track, Jackson wrote, “I have to do it in a way so I don’t offend girls who have gotten abortions or bring back guilt trips so it has to be done carefully…. I have to really think about it.”

Jackson narrates the track with a strong, passionate vocal. Ironically, the main drawback of the track is its catchiness. It feels a bit strange wanting to dance and sing along to a song about abortion, but that’s exactly what the addictive groove inspires.

Kudos to Jackson for attempting to tackle a sensitive issue in a thoughtful manner, though it appears even he wasn’t quite sure about how it would play to listeners.

http://www.lifenews.com/2012/09/14/unreleased-michael-jackson-song-abortion-papers-surfaces/

Well, exactly what is the story being told in Song Groove, or aka Abortion Papers? Here are the lyrics-at least, the pertinent lyrics important to our purpose (I think we can safely leave out all the “hee hees” and other various inflections in the last verse or so without missing anything):

Sister don’t read, she’ll never know

What about love? Living a Christian soul

What do we get, she runs away

What about love? What about all I pray

Don’t know the worst, she knows a atheist

What about God? Living is all I see What do you get, things she would say

What about love? That’s all I pray
Those abortion papers Signed in your name against the words of God

Those abortion papers Think about life, I’d like to have my child
Sister confused, she went alone

What about love? What about all I saw?

Biding a life, reading the words Singing a song, citing a Bible verse

Father’s confused, mother despair

Brother’s in curse What about all I’ve seen?

You know the lie, you keep it low What about heart?

That’s all I’ve known
Those abortion papers Signed in your name against the words of God

Those abortion papers Think about life, I’d like to have my child
Those abortion papers (Hoo!)

Signed in your name against the words of God

Those abortion papers Think about life, I’d like to have my child
Look at my words, what do they say?

Look at my heart, burning is all heartbreak  What do you get? What do you say? What about love? Feel my sin

Those abortion papers Signed in your name against the words of God Those abortion papers Think about life, I’d like to have my child

Those abortion papers (Hoo!) Think about life, I’d like to have my child
Who have the grateful? Where will she go? What will she do to see the world?

Sister don’t know, where would she go What about life?

What about all I saw? What would you do?

Don’t get so confuse Love all the things It’s just the things I do
Those abortion papers Signed in your name against the words of God

Those abortion papers

Think about life, I’d like to have my child

Well, here is another telling passage from the Vogel article that may reveal an actual glimpse into the truth of this song. The bolded passages are my emphasis:

Matt Forger: “This was a song that we initially missed during archiving. It was titled ‘Song Groove’ on the box so we overlooked it. Once we figured out what it was we started to put the pieces together. It was recorded by Brian Maloof and Gary O., a couple of engineers who worked with Michael for a brief time. When we heard it we knew it could be controversial, especially with what’s been going on politically. But when you listen to the song there’s a story being told. Michael really reflected on what the approach should be. He wasn’t sure how to narrate it. There were different variations with vocals—he didn’t want it to be judgmental. He was very clear about that. But he wanted to present a real, complicated situation.”

http://www.mjjcommunity.com/forum/threads/125082-Joe-Vogel-Articles-about-Bad-25-Album-Demos-Wembley/page2?p=3707081

In Dirty Diana, Michael “Becomes” The Story Onstage-And Thus The Persona. “Story.” “Narration.” How Much Are These Words Key To Our Understanding Of Michael’s Art?

Ah-ha! Notice the keywords boldfaced above. “Story.” “Narration.” These are all the key elements to really understanding where Michael was coming from. You see, whether it is admirers jumping the gun and praising him for being pro-life, or bashers jumping the gun and criticizing him for the same reason, or for being a hypocrite, they are all missing the most basic element of art-the role of the artist, and the artist’s ability to create personas and fictional narratives.

Yet as any writer, literary scholar, English major, teacher, or student fresh out of Composition 102 can tell you, it is one of the most basic fundamental principles of analyzing poems, stories-or lyrics, as the case may be. The idea that the voice and persona of a creative work should never, under any circumstances, be confused with that of the artist or author of the piece is simply a given in the world of critical and scholarly analysis. This is exactly the reason why one of the first things I teach my own students is how to make that all-important distinction between author/artist and narrator/speaker.  Although we can sometimes assume that the author and persona/speaker in a creative work are one and the same (such as William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey or John Lennon’s Just Like Starting Over) the fact is, we can never take for granted that it is, nor are we given any automatic rights or license as readers/listeners to assume such.

Always begin from the assumption that the narrator/speaker is not the author, but a “character” created by the author.

http://www.nd.edu/~cvandenb/author.class.htm

It seems easier said than done to assume that most reasonably intelligent and educated people would understand this very basic fundamental principle of art. Yet it was the exact, same overlooking of this principle that led, for example, to many of the kneejerk reactions against They Don’t Care About Us.

http://www.allforloveblog.com/?p=6477

This reminds me of the student I once had who came to me declaring that she was swearing off Langston Hughes for good. “I just can’t read him anymore,” she said. Knowing this student had really liked all of Langston Hughes’s work up to that point, I was curious as to why this sudden turnabout, and asked her. “He condones suicide,” she said. “I can’t feel the same about him anymore.”

I asked to see the poem she was referring to. It was the following poem entitled Suicide Note:

The calm, Cool face of the river

Asked me for a kiss.-Langston Hughes

It’s probably, without doubt, one of the shortest pieces Hughes ever wrote. It is simply the last minute thoughts of a man (or woman, perhaps, for the poem doesn’t really specify) who is standing above a river, contemplating the jump; the sweet release that he/she imagines death to be. Clearly Hughes was not writing the poem about himself, nor was he expressing his own views about suicide. In the first place, preaching a moral position really is not the artist’s place. Art-that is, good art-exists merely to give us a glimpse of a truth about life, or about ourselves. In Suicide Note, Hughes is adopting the persona of a suicidal individual to give us a brief glimpse into the fleeting thoughts of a person about to end his/her life. The poem itself is neither “pro” nor ‘anti” suicide. Rather, like life itself, it simply is.

It Clearly Isn’t Just “Hers.” “I’d like to have MY child,” the song’s narrator states.

So where does that leave us in analyzing Abortion Papers? I believe that, in a fashion very similar to Langston Hughes’s Suicide Note, it may be possible that Michael as ARTIST is neither pro nor con here, but rather has become an invisible entity hidden behind the song’s persona. My first impression was that he was telling the story via the persona of the pregnant young woman, and I believed this was a simple case of narration in which he was simply putting himself into the head of this conflicted woman. But on closer listening, and closer inspection of the lyrics, it seems he may, in fact, be taking it from another angle, as the baby’s father. In this context, the song’s lyrics “Think about life/I’d like to have my child” certainly make more sense. The song’s narrator is making it very clear that there is some personal connection here. This isn’t just the girl’s baby, it is “my child,” too.

That alone should be enough to let us know that this is a purely fictionalized tale, unless you believe some of the “baby daddy” stories floating around. When I interviewed Theresa Gonsalves in 2010, she told me how Michael came to her with the idea for Billie Jean after having listened sympathetically to her story of being abandoned by the father of her son Todd. Depending on how much credence one wants to give Thereas’s story (I believe she was being sincere) then Michael’s creative impetus for writing Billie Jean was to simply take her story and re-write it from the perspective of the male who has abandoned the pregnant girl (because “the kid is not my son” he insists, thereby absolving himself of guilt).

Creating fictional personas and allowing their voices to tell the tale certainly wasn’t anything new to Michael by the time he wrote Abortion Papers. Or in other words, if you are too quick to assume Michael was a pro-lifer just because of a song lyric, then you must also assume he was a deadbeat boyfriend who refused to take responsibility for his own actions in Billie Jean, and a rehabilitated thug in Beat It. Why not just assume he really was a gangster in Smooth Criminal, or an alien in Scream?

Of course, I understand why many are quick to attribute this song to Michael’s own, personal values. Although Michael never publicly stated his personal views on abortion, it doesn’t take much convincing to believe that, as someone raised in the Jehovah’s Witness church, his personal views would have been pro-life. Just as he never publicly stated his feelings about homosexuality, but many of his closest friends have vouched that he personally felt it was a sin as per the religious views he had been taught, it’s easier to believe than not that his own views would have been decidedly pro-life. And also knowing how passionately he felt about children, and the rights of children, it would certainly make sense to me that he would have been pro-life. . At the very least, I believe this would have been true in his younger years. However, let’s not forget that Michael was also very adamant that children should not be brought into a world where they can not be properly loved or cared for. Also, as he matured I believe he became much more liberal in some of his views, especially in regards to women. I have always been honest in saying that I believe Michael and I would have clashed over some of his views regarding women, especially since he seemed to have a very ingrained whore/madonna complex. I personally believe this was most likely a result of his strict religious upbringing, compounded by the hypocrisy he witnessed very early in life with his father and brothers and their “conquests.” Although as a general rule I try to steer clear of of overly psychoanalyzing Michael, I believe he most likely did develop a sense, very early on, that all women must either be “saints” like Mother, or whores like the groupies he saw in the strip clubs and every night on the road. While he seemed to have an unusually sensitive respect for women, he also tended (so it seems) to narrowly categorize them. Many fans have long pointed out this dichotomy in his songs. Women are almost universally either idealized/romanticized (Liberian Girl; I Just Can’t Stop Loving You) or demonized (Dirty Diana; Billie Jean, etc). Of course, there are exceptions. In a few songs, such as Break Of Dawn, he actually seems to present a perfectly balanced, adult relationship in which the female is neither a romantic ideal nor a Bathsheba clone, but an equal. But for the most part, these would be the rare exceptions rather than the norm.

In MJ’s World-That Is, The World Of His Art-Women Are Almost Always Either Idealized Beings, Or Trampy Vixens. Yet His Songwriting Often Revealed A Surprising Depth Of Connection With The Moral Dilemmas That Women Face

In all of these songs, Michael is presenting for the most part fictional personas, yet the constant thematic motif’ of women as either romanticized ideals or whores is certainly too prevalent to be completely brushed off as coincidental. Clearly, either something very conscious or-perhaps-very subconscious was at stake.

Yet let’s not forget that Michael was also a very sensitive and powerful storyteller, and that presenting songs which portray female characters-often in very sad or tragic circumstances- was one of his underrated gifts.  In Little Susie, one of the most underrated tracks from HIStory, he very darkly and poignantly weaves the story of a little girl who is murdered. In both Slave To The Rythm and Hollywood Nights (two other unreleased songs that only came to light since his passing) he paints  moving tales of young women trying desperately to hang onto their dreams despite all odds against them. In Hollywood Nights, it is clear that child prostitution is one of the very real evils that this young woman must contend with (a subject also alluded to in Do You Know Where Your Children Are?).

In Abortion Papers, this is clearly a young woman who has been raised in a very fundamental, religious environment; hence, the confusion and guilt she must face over her decision. Whether it is peer pressure, or the demands of her boyfriend (whom I believe is the narrator/persona of the song, represented by Michael) or the demands of her parents, it is not going to be an easy path for this young woman, regardless of her ultimate decision.

I never had an abortion, and by the grace of God, was never put into the position of having to make that choice. But I can say that I know for the millions of women who have been there, that it’s not a decision one makes lightly or without consequence. I don’t care how liberal you are; how much of a pro-choice advocate you are. If you ever abort a child, it’s a decision that will haunt you for the rest of your life. And that is not being judgemental. That is simply being honest and telling it like it is. Well, unless you are one cold-hearted b___, we’ll just leave it at that. I guess there are some like that, but I would register to guess that they are in a very small minority.

Michael was clearly attuned to the moral dilemma that many, many young women are facing every day. It was true in 1987; it is even more true today. Abortion is not an easy answer. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation, either way.

Abortion Papers isn’t about judgement. It isn’t even about being pro-choice or pro-life.

Like all good art, it is simply about reality.

 

 

34 thoughts on “"New" MJ Song Already Causing Controversy: Shedding Some Much Needed Light On "Abortion Papers"”

  1. First, I want to compliment you on your honest and thought-provoking take on this song. Second, I am listening to Bad 25 now and I will freely admit that this song has moved into my Top Ten Michael songs. I think it’s that good. The beat is awesome and it really gets into your head–one of those songs you just can’t stop singing or humming. Third, I am continually awed by his writing and story-telling ability. He was a true artist in every aspect of the word. I won’t even attempt a guess about his true feelings, or opinion, about abortion, pro-life. One cannot deny, however, his abiding and profound love of children. I believe he was a very liberal-minded person in the sense that he refrained from judging others, but let’s say he was involved with a woman who became pregnant and either couldn’t, or wasn’t ready to have a child and decided to abort the baby. I believe he would have been affected deeply by her decision. My youngest sister had an abortion when she was sixteen. Back in the early ’70’s, you couldn’t find a doctor in my state who would perform an abortion. Our own doctor sympathized with her dilemma and put us in contact with a clinic in Washington, DC. and I accompanied her. To this day I believe she lives with regret. It’s like you say, the decision haunted her. Personally, I’m pro-life. The lyrics in Wanna Be Startin’ Something really resonate with me. But, I also believe that the ultimate decision should be left up to the woman. It is her body and no government should dictate the outcome of something so intensely personal. I beyond thrilled with Bad 25. I haven’t watched the Wembley concert yet, but will this weekend. I simply can’t wait for Spike Lee’s documentary.

    Oh by the way….Willa Stillwater and Joie Collins of Dancing With The Elephant website do a fantastic job of analyzing Michael’s songs. I can’t wait to hear what they think of this one.

    One more thing–the photos you included here are dreamy. I especially love the last one. I love the chemistry between Michael and Tatiana. Much has been written about her being an airhead, but on film they were hot together!

    This was awesome, Raven. Thanks!

    1. I am pro-choice and still able to appreciate the beauty and powerful message of this song. That is it’s appeal. Yes, I do believe that women who have abortions are haunted by the experience for the rest of their lives, regardless of whether they may ultimately feel they made the right decision.

      I love Willa and Joie’s blog! I’m sure they will have an excellent take on this song.

      I have watched the first half or so of Wembley. Like the girl in Dangerous, I’ve had to go at it in sections, lol. Most nights now it is so late by the time I get in, there just isn’t enough time to set up for an entire concert. I watched the first half the other night. Tonight, since it’s the weekend, I should be able to finish it. It’s very mesmerizing to watch. I really had a hard time forcing myself to cut it off so I could go to bed!I’ll do a full review of the concert as well as soon as I’ve watched it and have had time to digest it a little. You may notice I’ve added a whole new category just for discussing Bad25!!!

  2. What I am about to say isn’t new, that Michael used his powerful iconic image and influence, his music, his songs, his lyrics, to get his important social messages across, whatever topic they may have been about. I feel that this is no exception; but he did it in a subtle way. As you said, you heard the tune first, then the story’s words; and that was his idea so as to attract as many people as he possibly could to hear his messages in a non-preaching way.

    1. Yes, exactly. Even if the song is pro-life, and intended as a political message, it isn’t preaching. It is getting the message across via story and narration. I think there is a huge difference between presenting a character’s situation and actually pointing a finger at the listener. I believe he struck the balance well here.

  3. Michael was an amazing story teller! His way of commanding your attention with controversial issues in society is a testament to his artistic depth and genius! I thank God for him! Michael Jackson=the most amazing and incredibly dynamic depth defying artist/story teller of all time!!

  4. I always thought those lines from Wanna Be Starting Something, “If you can’t feed a baby, then don’t have a baby”, were directed to MJ’s brothers, not to young women! After all, MJ found himself feeding and educating Randy, Jermaine, and Tito’s kids, directly and indirectly, for years.

    1. That could be a valid interpretation as well. When you think about it, there isn’t any real reason to automatically assume he is addressing that lyric to women. It could apply just as easily to males-a warning to “keep it zipped” if you’re not going to feed or clothe it.

  5. Hi Raven!
    Honestly, listening to this song, I didn’t ask myself if he was pro or against abortion. I listened to it and then searched its lyrics somewhere on the web (thanks for posting them too) and, well, I still didn’t ask myself that question until I read your post. The first impression to me was to consider it actually a story told by him. This because among his songs there are some very biographic and others that are exactly stories. And I think this is one of them.
    About Little Susie I’d say this: the first time I heard it, it really got me scared. Then I discovered much more about it and now I simply adore that song. That’s a story well narrated, though I have to say that I find a little biographic element: when he sings about “the man from next door” I can’t help but think that he’s singing about himself, exactly to create a sort of emphatic connection with that girl.
    He was an excellent narrator, also in Dancing the Dream there are examples of that. I think that in the case of Abortion Papers he’s trying to imagine himself in that girl’s shoes, trying to find a solution for a so complex issue like that.
    By the way, do you like that little part in the bridge with piano and strings? It’s wonderful, but unfortunately too short. Love also the final part.
    Bye!

    1. Actually, for some reason, the bridge is the only part of the song I don’t like. It didn’t feel well developed yet or something. I don’t know how to explain it exactly since I’m not that technical when it comes to music, but something about it feels off to me, as if it wasn’t quite finished or polished enough. With most songs that don’t quite make the cut to the album, there is usually a reason for it and for this track, that may have been part of it. With Michael being the perfectionist that he was, I doubt he would allow a song with a weak bridge to see light of day. It did feel like it needed to be extended more, or better developed, or something.

  6. This was a very brave subject to tackle 25 years ago by a man not yet 30 years of age.

    Whatever Michael’s personal view was, he must have been much more aware than most of us of the plight of unwanted children, through his many visits to “orphanages” when he was on tour. He may have lived a very different life to the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean he was sheltered from the realities of the big issues of humankind.

    He probably witnessed much of it first hand from an early age, and his constant thirst for knowledge and interest in people and the world around him ,may have enabled him to retain a non-judgemental view of others, even if he didn’t like what they were doing.

    I think that there were a lot of subjects he was very “streetwise” about and feel he just wanted us all to think about things more deeply before rushing to judgement. He did this through his songs… and sometimes they were story telling and other times they had an (auto)biographical element.( He was also probably frequently expecting knee-jerk reations too!)

    It becomes more and more frustrating that many belittled and ridiculed his art during his lifetime.. all part and parcel of his character assassination I suppose…far too “clever” for many to tolerate..

    ( By the way I’m getting BAD 25 as a belated birthday gift..my family always forget the actual day… LOL… and this track is a winner in my book!! )

    1. I also believe that some of the current criticism being generated about this song is just more of the same old character assassination continued. People who have allowed themselves to become so anti-MJ can’t seem to get past anything regarding his personal life (or what they “think” they know about it, all from the tabloids, usually) to allow themselves an unbiased appreciation of his art. Thus, I think there are a lot of kneejerk reactions from people who: A. Don’t even bother really listening to the lyrics, and: B. Would think nothing of it if this was any other recording artist with strong religious or political views singing about abortion. And, of course, a lot of the negative comments are just the usual troll comments and sick jokes that are inevitable with anything regarding MJ.

      Of course, Loretta Lynn took a lot of heat back in the day for her song “The Pill” which condoned birth control. It was considered kind of a risque subject back then, but also, country music in general has always been more conservative than rock or pop (and that is still true, even today).

      I think it is always going to be a somewhat sticky and sensitive area anytime a male artist does a song about abortion, regardless of the position he takes or even if he is narrating from the girl’s point of view. I think the reactions of listeners is almost universally the same kind of uncomfortable feeling we would have if a guy was singing about pregnancy or having a period. The natural human response is usually going to be, “And how does HE know what it’s like? And who is HE to judge women?” Again, this is part of the criticism the song is getting and that Michael, I’m sure, was well aware it would get more than 25 years ago; hence his concerns and perhaps, ultimately, why it was shelved.

      I was discussing that very thing yesterday and joked that maybe this was one of those songs he should have given to Janet. Audiences are usually just more receptive to a song about abortion (whether pro or anti) when the message is coming from a female artist.

      Interestingly enough, he also wrote the song “Muscles” which Diana Ross recorded. That was a pretty big hit for her, and shows again that Michael had the intuitive ability to write from the female perspective. Could you just imagine the controversy that would have erupted had Michael recorded the song Muscles, rather than giving it to Diana Ross? Lol. (Prince, too, has had many songs recorded by female artists which he would never have sung himself. Could you imagine if Prince-rather than Sheena Easton-had recorded Sugar Walls? Lol again!).

      That being said, I’m so very glad he DIDN’T give it to Janet and that we are now getting to hear this very powerful song from Michael.

  7. Raven thank you for a great article on another controversial posthumous release.
    I prefer a discourse over the meaning of Michaels lyrics anytime to one about songs with no trace of Michaels involvement. If I may add.
    The controversy now I think is mostly an American thing because of the strong division over this subject up to the radicalism of pro life activists(attacks on abortion clinics and doctors etc.) Most secular countries overall have a much more liberal approach, free choice for women and facilitate abortion in health care programs,with China as the oher extreme with its one child policy.
    Hence I don’t see a controversy over this song happening soon elsewhere.
    But first lets not forget it was not Michael who released the song, and it was not him who explained the meaning of the lyrics. The song was released because of its marketability, to supply the demand for new or never heard material.

    The lyrics to me come across as a neutral observation and not judgmental at all, he does not take a stance. But the subject I don’t think was randomly chosen. I agree with you Raven, that Michaels view on abortion would be influenced by his religious beliefs to be pro-life, but as with many other issues it could also have been a huge dilemma for him.
    Michael wrote great songs but ( in his own words) was not so good at explaining them. He said that his songs are not necessarily autobiographic and that’s why the artist uses his imagination.But he insisted that a song creates itself or comes from ‘above’. He even went as far as to say he had nothing to do with how his songs came to exist and didn’t want to take credit for it .(see his EbonyJet interview 1987, the best from the Bad era)
    That of course leaves much room for interpretation, which is happening now by pro life vs pro choice advocates, but also, though from a more loving, indepth and Michael centered pov in Dancing with the elephant blog.
    But its still interpretation and not necessarily reflects Michaels own intentions or pov.
    I think its unfair to look at AP and the whole BAD album with todays knowledge and views, disregarding 25 yrs inbetween. Moonwalker is a great time capsule at that, it was published shortly after BAD was released and it ends with Michael talking about the making of the album and about the songs. Its imo the most authentic context to explain the album and the lyrics and why Michael probably choose not to release the song. He didn’t even talk about it in his first and only biography.
    Sadly by then he was already so much on the defense against media attacks and was probably reluctant to use the immense platform he had with this book to explain more about his internal drive and his stance on these social issues. I understand his decision not to release it, once it was out it would start to live a life of its own and as he said why add more fuel to a thing. Being the business that he had become I think his consultants would also have adviced against its release. So unless there is a diary somewhere, we will never know what really was Michaels point of view on this subject.

    1. So unless there is a diary somewhere, we will never know what really was Michaels point of view on this subject.

      Exactly, Sina. Hence, all the more reason why I think we should refrain from being too quick to accept a song like this as indicative of his personal views one way or the other. Critical analysis, at best, is always a guessing game. As I teach my students, the tricky balance in writing analysis is to be able to walk that fine line between presenting a debatable opinion about a work (and one that is understood to be your opinion) while at the same time stating your interpretation assertively enough to make it credible to your readers. In other words, as the old adage of writing effective criticism goes-state your opinion as fact, even though the reader understands it is your opinion, of course, and NOT fact. Lol, is it any wonder students sometimes get confused? In most cases, we DON’T know the artist’s actual intent. Wouldn’t it be great if, for example, we could sit down with Shakespeare and pick his brains? Or Milton? Or Mozart? Artists today are more accessible than ever, and the art of the interview has been partly instrumental in making that possible. But still, I believe all good artists probably SHOULD keep some things for themselves, and not give too much away. Let the reader/listener/viewer do the work.

      Every time that I teach Black or White in the classroom, I use Barbara Kaufmann’s essay “Black or White And Proud.” The essay alone always generates a lot of student debate. Some have a problem with the authoritative tone that Kaufmann asserts in the article. As one student asked, “Who is this woman to say what Michael Jackson meant in that video? Did she interview him? Did he tell her what he meant? No.”

      That was a very good point. But it was also a good springboard to discuss exactly what critical analysis is and its purpose. Kaufmann never makes it any secret that her opinions of the song and video are her own, but as with all good critical analysis, she is assertive in her interpretation. The whole idea of analysis is that the reader is perfectly free to accept, agree with, or to disgaree with and debate the writer’s views. In the end, we are all simply interpreting, forming our opinions based on the work and sometimes our own life experiences that we are bringing to it.

      So interpretations are never “fixed” but are always malleable and fluid depending on what we-the readers or listeners-bring to them. The purpose, I think more than anything, is to invite discussion and debate. But as for knowing exactly what the artist intended us to take from it-well, the best of them know the power of a little mystique. And I think Michael knew that better than anyone.

      And as you say, Michael was savvy enough to understand the importance of maintaining a neutral perspective on most social issues. Sure, he was an advocate for children’s welfare, for the envionment, for AIDS awareness, and so many others. But these are all, for the most part, commendable social issues that are non-controversial (for example, many celebs embrace the cause of the environment, AIDS research, etc., and most people are not going to argue that these are worthy issues). But deeply controversial, political, and polarizing issues such as abortion, gay rights (and whether it is an “immoral lifestyle”) and other such deeply divided issues are different. Celebrities that have been forthright on these issues have often paid the price, by ending up with divided fanbases and even loss of fans. After all, once you have offended a sizeable portion of your fanbase, there is no way to ever regain that lost ground. I think Michael wisely knew that it was best to remain publicly neutral on some issues, and to let his music do the talking for him.

      1. Great lecture! your students are lucky to have you as their teacher.

        I said: Moonwalker is a timecapsule, meanning ofcourse Moonwalk, Michaels biography.
        Reading it again after a long time, its interesting that you see some of Michaels statement in a different light now . But thats another discussion.

        1. Moonwalk is a lot more revealing in many crucial ways than a lot of people think. I’ve heard so many dismiss the book as a fluff piece but there is actually some pretty hard hitting stuff in there if you know how to look for it.

    1. I saw it thanks to your link on Vindicating Michael. It is, of course, another very interesting take on this song. I did not know any of that about Justin Bieber’s mom.

  8. Here are slightly different lyrics. I prefer ‘she knows a priest’ to ‘she knows a atheist.’ I don’t think Michael would write’ a atheist.’ In any case, some are jumping all over this song. I see it as about confusion–where will she go? There are a lot of questions in the song, questions in the minds of the pregnant woman and her friends and family. I think this is often the case with abortion–it is a really tough and confusing decision for a woman to make and I think this song reflects the situation and its many layers, esp. in that time period of the 80’s. Thanks for addressing this and speaking out for the difference between the narrative, the artist, the story, and real people.
    Arts reflect life but the characters in a movie, play, song, etc. are not real people.

    Sister don’t read, she’ll never know
    What about love, living a Christian soul
    What do we get, she runs away
    What about love, what about all I pray
    Don’t know the worst, she knows a priest
    What about God, living is all I see
    What do you get, things she would say
    What about love, that’s all I pray
    Those abortion papers
    Signed in your name against the words of God
    Those abortion papers
    Think about life, I’d like to have my child
    Sister’s confused, she went alone
    What about love, what about all I saw
    Biding a life, reading the words
    Singing a song, citing a Bible verse
    Father’s confused, mother despair
    Brother’s in curse, what about all I’ve seen
    You know the lie, you keep it low
    What about heart, that’s all I’ve known
    Those abortion papers
    Signed in your name against the words of God
    Those abortion papers
    Think about life, I’d like to have my child
    Those abortion papers (whoo)
    Signed in your name against the words of God
    Those abortion papers
    Think about life, I’d like to have my child
    Look at my words, what do they say
    Look at my heart, burning is all heartbreak
    What do you get, what do you say
    What about love, I feel my sin
    Those abortion papers
    Signed in your name against the words of God
    Those abortion papers
    Think about life, I’d like to have my child
    Those abortion papers (whoo)
    Think about life, I’d like to have my child (whoo)
    Who have the grateful, where will she go
    What will she do to see the world
    Sister don’t know, where would she go
    What about love, what about all I saw
    What would you get, don’t get so confuse
    Love all the things, it’s just the things I do
    Those abortion papers
    Signed in your name against the words of God
    Those abortion papers
    Think about life, I’d like to have my child

    1. I like that line better, too. At the very least, it flows better. There are some words that, no matter what, simply don’t work poetically. “Atheist” is one of them. Hard to get it to rhyme or to flow rhythmically with anything. And the grammatically correct article with “atheist” would be “an,” not “a.” That was another thing that was bugging me.

  9. I am staunchly pro-life and I only wish Michael would have been brave enough to release this song. I think of the countless lives of unborn babies…who would have grown into the children that he loved..that could have been saved..even just within his fanbase.

    I believe it is far more important to save the life of a human being than that of a tree and was very disappointed in the imagery in his videos that left out the imagery of aborted fetuses, but left in the ‘brutality’ of a tree being cut down.

    1. I guess the image of a tree being cut down isn’t as disturbing to most as that of an aborted fetus, but for sure, it would have been a powerful message.

    2. I hear you when you say ‘it is far more important to save the life of a human being than that of a tree.” It would seem to be a no-brainer–humans are much more valuable and important than trees. However, trees are actually necessary for life on earth and we can’t have the planet we now have without them (although the planet could survive without humans). Here is a quote from Wikipedia about the importance of trees.

      “Trees have been in existence on the Earth for 370 million years and are found growing worldwide wherever the climate permits. Trees are an important component of the natural landscape. They play a significant part in reducing erosion and moderating the climate. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store large quantities of carbon in their tissues. Trees and forests provide a habitat for many species of animals and plants. Tropical rainforests are one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world. Trees provide shade and shelter, timber for construction, fuel for cooking and heating, and fruit for food as well as having many other uses. In parts of the world, forests are shrinking as trees are cleared to increase the amount of land available for agriculture.”

      Without trees to anchor the soil, we would lose topsoil to erosion and deserts would be created. Without trees to absorb the carbon, our atmosphere would become toxic. I think Michael was not focusing on a single tree but the forests of the world, which are being cut down and the loss of forests has dire effects on our planet. So when you see the tree being cut down in ‘Earth Song” it is representing all trees, not just a single tree.

      We actually don’t need to choose between trees and humans beings, at least I don’t think Michael meant us to do that. I think he valued both–trees and humans, especially children. The children of the world need and deserve trees, trees that keep the planet and its ecosystems alive.

      1. This is an interesting post which reminds me. I had a very good friend-someone I had known since I was a teenager-who died last spring as a result of having a tree fall on him. He had been a logger for years. It was an occupation he enjoyed because he loved being outdoors. I still don’t know the whole story of exactly how it happened, but evidently there was an accident while felling a tree and a very large branch fell and struck him. He was in a coma for several days and his family finally made the decision to take him off life support. I couldn’t help but think of all of the irony in my friend’s death. Trees make it possible for us to live. Yet they also have the power and strength to kill. It is a reminder of how much mightier things they are than us-mere humans. And yet another way to look at is that if my friend had left the tree alone (instead of working for an industry that kills them) both he and it would still be alive today. Most importantly, he would still be here with his family. As much as I loved my friend and grieved for his family, there was a part of me that could not help thinking of this as the trees’ revenge against an injustice. When that tree began as a seedling-who knows how many hundreds of years ago-who could have known that its ultimate fate would be to take a human life? Yet as long as the demand for lumber remains, the logging industry will prevail. God intended trees to be something that would serve us and help make human life possible. I don’t think we were ever meant to be at physical war with them. Put enough humans against a single tree, and the humans CAN win (as we see in Earth Song) but at what cost? Ultimately, we are the ones who lose.

  10. The short film for “Earth Song” contained a closeup shot of a chain saw encroaching on a tree trunk, and (if my memory serves me correctly) several shots of trees being felled. “Earth Song” was a song that was released on the HIStory album—please see Joe Vogel’s excellent book, “Earth Song,” for the story of its genesis and development (the song, as Vogel reveals, was many years in the making). It stands to reason, then, that this song would have had an accompanying short video, while “Abortion Papers”—which Michael didn’t release—would not.

    To my way of thinking, the images of aborted fetuses that have antichoice groups have circulated are a kind of pornography, the sole purpose of which is to get adherents all the more riled up against the perceived evils of abortion.

    Which sometimes ends up in clinic shootings.
    “What about love?” indeed.

    Are these images disturbing? Certainly. And many of us who haven’t worked in the medical profession and have had little exposure to surgical imagery find the photographs difficult and painful to behold, as we would if we saw photographs depicting, say, autosy or even open-heart surgery.

    Raven, thank you for your lucid and thorough explanation of what should be obvious: this song, as it stands, reveals a deep ambiguity on the part of the author toward the underlying issues. This is principally true because Michael chooses to “speak” through the voice of a narrator who is herself — as the lyrics repeatedly state — “confused.”

    To not appreciate this narrational choice as an *artistic decision* is to do an injustice to Michael Jackson’s artistic legacy.

    1. I have Joe Vogel’s book on Earth Song but lord knows, the way my schedule is right now, when I will ever get a chance to read it-or anything else that is for pleasure, lol. Maybe during Christmas break. It will be something to look forward to, anyway.

      1. Whatever we believe Michaels thoughts on abortion were, one thing we can agree one , abusing a fetus for a shock effect just to make a point is so insensitive and gross it couldnt be further from the emphatic ,caring way in which Michael used to send HIS message to the world.

        Assuming that an artists work is by definition autobiographical or always reflects his personal beliefs is as simple as thinking that an actor cant play Hannibal Lecter unless he is a very disturbed person himself.

      2. Raven, put Joe’s book on Earth Song at the top of your list. It’s a marvelous. He has such an incredible talent for explaining technical aspects of music and he brings the creative process of MIchael alive to the point where you can imagine what it was like in the studio. Joe has been a god-send where Michael Jackson is concerned. I love everything Joe writes about Michael.

  11. Thank you so much for this sane and informed coverage of this song/topic. This is my first time on this site because there are so many sites about Michael that try to keep up with. I’m glad to find you though and really appreciate the studied and intelligent approach of both Raven and the commenters.

    I would just like share my immediate reaction to AP before I read any of the loaded political and social commentary. Michael never shied away from tackling many difficult and sensitive topics – racism, unwanted children, domestic abuse, betrayal, starvation, war, etc, etc -in his 40 years of song writing. This is no different – just more jarring for our queasy sensibilities. And for the record, I don’t feel he was espousing a pro-life or pro-choice stand Read his notes. He was too sensitive to the plights of others to judge anyone but he knew there was a lot of pain involved with a woman having to make such a decision and a potential father losing his child.

    He wrote this song in his mid to late 20s when he was still very involved with the Jehovah Witness church and probably heard a lot of judgment re abortion. Even if he was pro-life, why doesn’t he have the right to his own feelings and opinions like everyone else? Of course, because it’s Michael Jackson – according to some so called “experts” – he’s a misogynist, a sexist, a destroyer of women’s rights, blah, blah, blah. More tabloid journalism… More sheep.

    Thank you for giving Michael the respect he’s due.

    1. Of course, because it’s Michael Jackson – according to some so called “experts” – he’s a misogynist, a sexist, a destroyer of women’s rights, blah, blah, blah. More tabloid journalism… More sheep

      My point exactly. Far too many kneejerk reactions, just because it’s Michael Jackson. Thanks for your input, corlista.

  12. We all know the extent of tabloid journalism that leveled all kinds of accusations against Michael. But somehow, “sexist,” “anti- women’s rights,” misogynist,” etc. doesn’t fit in with the kind of narratives the tabloids produced, which were much more concerned with portraying Michael as a “strange,” if not deeply pathological, figure.

    So those accusations (“sexist”, etc.) would have been a lot more plausibly directed to a man who was perceived as more “normal.” Because they do, in fact, define the contours of “normal” masculinity in this culture.

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