This may be an interesting exercise in extremes. My previous post, featuring the interview with Lisa D. Campbell, promoted a book of over 700 pages that took me almost three months to read; a book that fully encompasses the entire epic scope of Michael Jackson’s life. From that, I went to a very slim volume of about 56 pages, a book whose scope is considerably more narrow. Yet no less important. Veronica Bassil’s Michael Jackson’s Love For Planet Earth joins the ever growing list of volumes and critical voices that are creating the current revisionism of Michael Jackson’s post-Thriller work. This book makes an excellent companion piece to Joe Vogel’s Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus (a source Bassil acknowledges liberally, along with Armond White’s Keep Moving, The Michael Jackson Chronicles and Michael’s own Dancing The Dream). But Bassil’s book also deserves to stand alone, apart from these works, as she expands on all of the above to create a work that completely encompasses the scope of Michael’s planetary vision, focusing primarily on the trilogy of his poem “Planet Earth,” his great epic masterpiece “Earth Song” (both of which were originally intended to be part of one complete work) and his 1992 book of poems and reflections, Dancing The Dream, of which his poems and thoughts on ecology and the state of the earth were a major theme.
This passage, taken from her prologue, sets the stage for what the reader may expect:
Standing midst the betrayals, accusations, and rumors that encircled Michael Jackson, his art shines like a purecolumn of life and light. Here is the creativity of the master, undefiled by the ruinous handiwork of those he sang about in “Money”and “2Bad,” the “idle-jabbers” and “backstabbers”who “tried to bring me to my knees.”–
Steven Spielberg once described Michael as “a fawn in a burning forest,” yet this fawn was able to create enduring, staggering beauty in the face of that conflagration. For this reason, for his dignity, his courage, his great heart, and most of all for his artistic achievements, Jackson will always be one of the most beloved and honored of artists.
It has been over three years since his death, and the re-visioning of his art and contribution is well underway. Books and articles flood out because there is so much “depth and complexity,” as Dick Gregory said, to this artist and person.
I wanted to write about Michael, but this same depth and complexity were daunting obstacles. I needed a tight focus because he covered so much ground—a global figure transcending and yet encompassing almost every category one could imagine. Trying to cover it all would take volumes. I decided to focus on an area of vital importance to Jackson: his concern for Planet Earth, its ecosystems and life forms, human and nonhuman, its flora and fauna. In rehearsals for his This Is It, he defined the purpose of his planned tour as spreading a two-fold message: the importance of love and protecting the environment. Because he made his love and concern for the planet central to his art, including in his last tour, and because it is a deep concern of mine as well, my focus here is to explore Michael Jackson’s love for Planet Earth.- excerpted from the prologue to Michael Jackson’s Love For Planet Earth.
Regardless of whatever bad blood may have existed between Michael and Steven Spielberg at some point, I love that quote from him of Michael as a “fawn in a burning forest.” In many ways, that quote is true. But there is also one flaw, for all its lovely poetics. It conjures an image of an innocent, passive victim, one who (if the quote is to be taken at full face value) lost control of his life in a world surrounded by corruption and vultures. As anyone knows, that is certainly part of Michael’s story. But hardly the whole picture. It does not take into account that other side of Michael Jackson-the pro-activist whose voice became a powerful, rallying “El Grito” (read the book to discover why Bassil specifically chooses that term in relation to Earth Song!). Or, in other words, if Michael was going to be consumed by the flames of that “burning forest,” he wasn’t going to go out without a fight; without having been heard.
Perhaps those shouts to be heard were best exemplified by the three works discussed here. Bassil takes on a thorough, microscopic examination and analysis of this important trilogy. “Planet Earth” and “Earth Song”, as well as the entire collection of Dancing The Dream, cannot really be separated, as they all form an essential part of the fabric whole. Michael was in the same “place,” as they say-mentally, spiritually, and physically-at the time that all of these works had their genesis and reached their fruition. As I mentioned in my own recent presentation of Dancing The Dream, it was a time in which Michael-having recently broken away from the Jehovah’s Witness church-was doing a lot of crucial self-examination. It was a time in which his own religious views and values were being redefined; a time in which he was becoming more enlightened by Transcendentalism and was breaking away from the rigid ideas of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who preached of a wrathful God and that all life was only a preparation for Armageddon. In light of his more liberated views, Michael came to embrace the importance of our relationship to the earth, and to understand our role as its stewards rather than its conquerors.
Recently one of my students did a class presentation of “Man In the Mirror”. This was none of my bidding; the students were allowed to present on any work of their own choosing. But this student, inspired by my own lectures on Black or White, had taken it on his own to dig deeper into the meaning of Michael Jackson’s work. While I cannot quote his words exactly, the gist of what he said was that he believed that Michael Jackson, by the late 1980’s, must have been looking around him and saying, “There has to be more than this. I have achieved everything that anyone could possibly want; I have everything that anyone could possibly desire. Where do I go from here? I have this amazing platform, which I can use for the good and betterment of the world, or I can simply add to its meaningless noise and clutter. Which path do I choose?” We don’t know if Michael spoke those exact words, or formulated those exact thoughts. But we do know, as evidenced from works such as “That One in the Mirror” from Dancing The Dream, that Michael did ask himself these very questions-and from that point forward, his life and art became about fulfilling that promise. He told us many times that he was human; that he might stumble along the way (that heartbreaking plea from Will You Be There comes to mind immediatly, a work that was also born out of this period) but that his ultimate goal was to live up to the ideals he had set. It would not, however, be an easy path.
In one of my personal favorite sections of the book, “Michael’s Fans,” Bassil addresses an important issue which I think is crucial to understanding both Michael’s art and, ultimately, what made him a great artist. While most critics would agree that Michael was a musical genius (at least, most are in agreement when it comes to praising his Off The Wall/Thriller-era work) the critical reception to his published poetry was, let’s just say, a lot less kind. Perhaps there is something to be said for those criticisms. I believe Michael was probably a greater lyricist than a poet (and despite what some say, there is a difference between the two art forms; they are not simply one and the same). I can’t say I’ve never cringed at some of Michael’s more trite and/or mawkish lines. Michael Jackson was, if anything, an artist of great extremes-one capable of writing some of the most searingly profound lyrics of our time, yet also capable of extremes in sentimentality and cliches. But even at his occasional most mawkish extremes, the biggest compensating quality he had was sincerity. It was this sincerity that touched people on such profound levels, and it was partly what made him such a great performer. He had that ability to “connect” with people on an intensely emotional and visceral level-which is precisely why there is a vast world of difference between reading a poem like “Planet Earth” on the written page, and actually hearing Michael’s voice reciting it. I am so grateful that we do, at least, have this one recorded selection from Dancing The Dream, for it is in the performance of this piece that all the difference is made.
Also, as Bassil points out, it is ignorant of those critics who fail to recognize that Michael’s poetry was actually part of a long and ancient tradition of art, in which the role of the poet/singer/songwriter was not that of a coldly calculated and academic craftsman, but as seers, prophets, and troubadours whose purpose was to reach the masses on a spiritual level. No, perhaps we can safely say Michael Jackson was no T.S. Eliot. Aesthetically, he was more in line with artists like Orpheus, harkening back to a much more primal tradition before art and poetry got all cerebral and climbed into that Ivory Tower from which, sadly, it has never been allowed to entirely return. In other words, there was a time when it was okay-even expected, for our artists to not only make us think, but to make us feel.
In this passage, Bassil quotes from a fan, which appeared in the comments section of a Huffington Post article:
“Michael, like the ancient mythical character of Orpheus, is one of the greatest musicians ever blessed with the gift of making music. Like Orpheus, his art has the power to raise the human spirit above the mundane, cross boundaries, and break down taboos.
Michael mastered the physical with his unique dance moves, rhythms and timing. He was able to inspire, enchant, and move people emotionally with his clear, sweet voice as peacemaker, environmentalist, and revealer of the earth’s realities and mysteries.
Michael was a masterful and gentle soul with great empathy and feeling for transcendent realities that few have and expressed this through his music on a broad cultural basis.
I am grateful for all he has given us from his highest dharma in We Are the World to his simple ability to make us feel the beat, move, and dance. MJ had the ability through his own sensitivity, sensibility, and raw creative talent to make a great ‘feeling’ (both sadness and happiness) impact on culture.”-Excerpted from Michael Jackson’s Love For Planet Earth, p. 19.
Bassil also links Michael’s art to the seminal works of important Transcendentalist authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In doing so, she further strengthens the argument that Michael Jackson’s best work is certainly deserving of a place in our literary-as well as musical-canon.
The book expertly breaks down and analyzes Michael’s great ecological trilogy. I don’t wish to give too much away, but I will just say that for the analysis of Planet Earth alone, it is well worth the time of any serious scholar of Jackson’s work. I came away with a whole new perspective of the poem (have you ever seriously contemplated just what Michael meant by referring to the planet as his “sweetheart?” The answers here might surprise and enlighten you!).
The analysis of Earth Song, as I noted earlier, makes a great companion piece to Joe Vogel’s Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, as both Bassil’s and Vogel’s analysis dovetail each other nicely. While Vogel’s book is dedicated more to the actual genesis and composition of Earth Song, as well as its critical reception both then and now, Bassil places it more firmly in the context of the urgency of its message, as well as offering up a very thorough analysis of the video. While much of this section quotes heavily from Armond White, Bassil also provides a fascinating historical context for Earth Song with the ancient Greek story of Erysichton, who was punished by Demeter as a destroyer of the Earth.
In the legends of ancient Greece there are tales of punishment for those who reject being earth’s loving children and instead become earth’s destroyers. In one tale, a wealthy man cuts down the trees in a grove sacred to Demeter, the Earth Mother, in order to build a hall for his feasting. His name is Erysichthon, which means “one who tears up the earth.” Demeter punishes him by giving him an insatiable appetite. He even eats the food intended for his children, and so they starve.In our desire to have a “feast hall” for ourselves, we too are literally starving our children, stripping the nourishing capacity of the planet for profit, destroying ecosystems and species, and hoarding the wealth of the planet for a select few. As Jackson knew so well, thousands of children die of starvation every day. In fact, 25,000 people, including 16,000 children, die of starvation-related illnesses every single day.
Jackson confronts us in Earth Song with the great damage the Erysichthons of the world have done.-Excerpted from Michael Jackson’s Love For Planet Earth, pp. 38-39.
The fascinating in-depth analysis of Earth Song continues in a chapter titled “The Prophet,” in which Bassil expands upon critic Armond White’s interpretation of Michael’s performance of Earth Song as a “jeremiad.”
The prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament is the basis for this term“jeremiad.” Jeremiah, a voice in the wilderness, known as “the weeping prophet,”cries out to the people to change their apostasy and return to God.-excerpted from Michael Jackson’s Love of Planet Earth, p. 41.
Although focused primarily on Michael’s great ecological works of the 90’s, the book concludes with a chapter on This Is It, which is fitting since we know that Michael had intended for his message on environmentalism and saving the planet “before it’s too late” to be at the forefront of his This Is It shows.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the last song Michael Jackson ever sang was not Thriller, or Billie Jean, or Beat It, but Earth Song-his masterpiece that was the culmination of his lifelong love affair with his “sweetheart.” As he wrote in one of his best pieces from Dancing The Dream, “We have been treating the earth the way some people treat a rental apartment. Just trash it and move on. But there’s no place to move on now…”
Michael Jackson’s Love For Planet Earth is a book that, undoubtedly, will never be touted on the national talk show circuit. It is not a book for anyone whose only interest regarding Michael Jackson is in sordid gossip. But for those who are seriously interested in the study of Jackson’s craft and his inspiration-and especially those who desire a more serious, in-depth study of Michael’s ecological philanthropy-it is a must have.
Michael Jackson’s Love For Planet Earth can be purchased as an e-book on Amazon.com: