The words “Silent Spring” conjure up an abysmal image—after the dark and cold months of winter, a pseudo spring erupts with a silent wind carrying no sound of songbirds, no chorus of frogs, no chirping of crickets, no bees to pollinate flowers and so no flowers or food… and no… life.
It’s hardly imaginable. But this very scenario was imagined by a writer who sounded the first environmental alarm around 1962, a Marine Biologist named Rachael Carson penned Silent Spring after she was alerted to a pesticide cocktail of fuel oil and DDT being sprayed on fields to protect crops from ravaging insects. The pesticide didn’t just eliminate insects; it killed birds and other wildlife. Carson’s book, which revealed the danger of spreading crops with a deadly agent killing both avian species and mammals, met with a backlash from the chemical companies that was swift and furious. Thus began the eco-crusades.
During that decade of the cold war, a nuclear test ban treaty is signed; a few begin looking into water and air quality and lobby for cleaner air and water; the Rhine River is contaminated by pesticide spills that kill millions of fish and create a deadly ecosystem that would take decades to reverse; the Coyahoga River, the most polluted river in the U.S., catches on fire and the incident gets little attention until Time Magazine picks up the story: the Coyahoga has no fish and instead of flowing—oozes. A tiny crack appears in human consciousness when Apollo 8 releases the “Earthrise” photo. The photo shows an eclipse-like view of the earth “rising” over the surface of the moon. Nature photographer Galen Rowell called it ‘the most important environmental picture ever taken.’
In the seventies David Suzuki hosts a television series titled "The Nature of Things," which examines the relationship of humans to the natural world; Earth Day is founded, the U.S. institutes the Environmental Protection Agency, Aldo Leopold publishes the Sand County Almanac; Greenpeace is organized; the Club of Rome, the United Nations and other agencies start holding environmental conferences all over the world beginning with Stockholm, Sweden; clean air and water and endangered species acts take form; three mile island nuclear plant has an accident spilling radiation into the atmosphere; and several major oil spills occur. These events are grouped under the heading “Conservation.” The most significant message about the vulnerability of the environment comes in a surprising package from an unlikely source: NASA releases photo AS 17-148-22727 nicknamed the “Blue Marble.” For the first time humanity views the whole of Earth as a beautiful and breathtaking island when it is looked back upon from space. The iconic photo drives home the idea that this is a self-contained and finite planet we are inhabiting with no dividing lines that separate one form of humanity from any other. The crack in consciousness gets wider.
The environmental movement heats up in the 1980s and the war of the woods begins in earnest: Greenpeace’s flagship Rainbow Warrior is destroyed in a French black ops mission as she is leaving port to protest France’s nuclear test; the ozone hole is discovered; there are chemical leaks and oil disasters including Exon Valdez and Bhopal, and Chernobyl—the largest nuclear meltdown disaster in history; environmental protection networks begin to spring up to guard the Rainforests, Oceans, Wetlands, and Rivers; world reports on the environmental state of affairs begin emerging including the first report cautioning about climate change. But in 1988 something truly remarkable happens- Time Magazine features, instead of their traditional person of the year, the “Planet of the Year” with a drop-line and feature article asking: “What in the World Are We Doing?”
The 90s marked a decade of research, education and accords, summits, conferences, congresses, protocols and the world begins instituting measures to clean up its act just as the planet’s population reaches 6 billion—having doubled since the first alarm sounded in the sixties.
The Twenty First Century
The first decade of the 21st century begins with the U.S. President George W. Bush rejecting the Koyoto Protocols and boycotting the United Nations Earth Summit in Johannesburg; the decade is marked by hurricanes including Hurricane Katrina in the U.S., earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis; in the United States, the FBI initiates “Operation Backfire” which begins surveillance and collects a list of animal activists and environmentalists whose activism is considered domestic terrorism and labels them “eco-terrorists;” Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore releases the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary about climate change and the damage done to earth’s environment which stuns a population and becomes one of the largest grossing documentaries in the world with tens of thousands of activists worldwide volunteer to show the film to audiences. It wins numerous film awards and results in a Nobel Prize for Gore.
We all know what has happened to the climate surrounding climate change since the film “An Inconvenient Truth” arrived along with other films about the environmental concerns from reckless enterprise and uncontrolled consumption without regard to the planetary consequences.
Well-funded corporate interests work to turn the public sentiment cynical, making scientific research and scientists the enemy. Some illustrious scientists are now saying the tipping point has either passed or is imminent because of damage done by past reckless behavior and indifference to the Earth, the Indigenous and the scientific community, that has brought us to the point of no return where our very existence is threatened.
When well-known and recognized environmentalists are listed, the list includes luminaries like Rachael Carson, Aldo Leopold, Jane Goodall, Julia Hill (who lived in a tree for 2 years,) Thoreau, Roosevelt, Chico Mendes, Gaylord Nelson (founder of Earth Day,) David Brower (Sierra Club,) John Muir, Joanna Macy, James Lovelock, Ansell Adams, Aldo Leopold, John Audubon, Al Gore and David Suzuki top the list.
But nobody ever mentions Michael Jackson.
Yes, that Michael Jackson.
The world’s most famous man and musical superstar was an environmentalist and viewed the whole planet as a village. He knew about ecosystems—both micro and macro. He understood the impact of environment on all forms of life—from the cellular to the stellar.
Jackson was a scholar and avid reader; Neverland’s library held ten thousand books, many with his personal notes in the margins. His interests included everything from Thoreau to Tagore, and music to medicine; he was particularly interested in metaphysics and healing. He read Patch Adams and Norman Cousins and understood that laughter is the best medicine. He played and he encouraged play to bring out the inner child in everyone—from kids to adults; he opened his ranch to friends, and busloads of inner city, sick and disadvantaged kids—even throughout the time he was absent or on tour. He understood brain chemicals and hormones and how they impacted the process of healing. He meditated, used affirmations and visualization and taught them to others.
An empath from childhood, Michael Jackson felt pain of the world as excruciatingly as he felt its beauty. He deeply experienced the ache and dichotomy of awe and sorrow. He was in awe of nature, loved animals, appreciated beauty and embraced all cultures of the world while at the same time brooding in the grips of despair of loss, fear, hunger, fear and war. His mother, Katherine, tells the story of how when he was just a tyke watching the public service announcements for childrens’ charities for hunger and famine relief, he cried at the sight of flies buzzing around the mouths of children with swollen bellies. He emphatically pronounced to his mother: “Someday I will do something to change that.” She relates how he said it with such startling conviction that she believed him. And indeed he dedicated much of his life to “making that change.” He sang it and role modeled it visiting orphanages in all the countries on his scheduled tour and he donated a large piece of medical equipment to a hospital in every city on that tour.
A childhood as a Jehovah Witness gave him great respect for God and Creation; as he got older, his worldview expanded as his beliefs met the definition of pantheist and cosmologist. He truly saw humanity as one. As early as his youth with the Jackson Five, he wrote lyrics that were a call for humanity to come together in unity. “Can You Feel It,” written by Michael and brother Jackie calls for an end to racism, war and indifference to “your brother”—one of his many biblical references.
“We Are the World,” written in that same spirit of humanity born of compassion, was an anthem for 1985 that came out of an idea by singer and activist Harry Belafonte, another champion of the downtrodden. Belafonte was disturbed by the famine in Africa that had claimed a million lives. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie were called to write the song that was to be recorded by some of the most well known musicians on the planet: Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Bono, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Kenny Loggins, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan and others besides Richie and Jackson. Richie, Jackson and company remind us that “we are the world/we are the children” and we can make choices that make the world brighter and make a better life for all peoples of the Earth.
“Heal the World” is another of Jackson’s songs about harnessing the power of the human heart and promotes love for the whole of humanity in service to humankind’s glaring social failures. He asks that the world come together to make this a better place—a place without fear or sorrow. He reminds that “people are dying/if you care enough for the living/make a little space/to make a better place.”
In “Cry” Jackson begins with a reminder about empathy: “Somebody shakes when the wind blows/somebody’s missing a friend/somebody’s lacking a hero…” and he foretells of a day when there will be no more war. His short films (music videos) showcase people from every background, age, ethnicity and color holding hands—as in “Hands Across America,” an event in 1986 which Jackson also participated in, that stretched across the continental U.S. and raised $34 million for poverty and homelessness.
In “Black or White” Jackson unites the races with something considered at the time, cutting edge technology—with the magic of film, he makes a montage of faces that morph from one ethnicity into another demonstrating every kind of race, heritage and feature in the human face. The irony of that classic for Jackson himself, lies in his own inherited illness of Vitiligo, a disease which destroys the pigmentation cells of the skin and his contraction of Lupus, another auto-immune disease which causes joint problems and destroys cartilage. He would himself, turn from black to white and change his appearance with surgery, diet and treatment for his illnesses after his epic and best-selling album of all time “Thriller” catapulted him to super-stardom. While many mocked him and accused him of bleaching his skin and changing his appearance in betrayal to his race, he was a proud black man who made his living on stage and in the public eye; nothing could have been more devastating to a public figure and performer than white splotches appearing on chocolate colored skin or losing cartilage holding bones and joints together on one's face and body.
A study of Jackson’s lyrics and particularly of his music videos, which he referred to as “short films” is revealing and loyal to its repetitive themes—humanity, love and unity. Every single short film is filled with metaphor, message and compassion—and the more-than-occasional double entendre. An exemplary and coy storyteller, Jackson’s message sneaks up on you and before you know it, you find yourself submerged in the pathos of whatever subject he tackles or showcases. Within the myriad themes of Jackson's films--change agents ensconced in art, were human failings, contemporary issues, or social problems with subtle, sometimes imperceptibly subliminal yet powerful references to other iconic works, archetypes and planetary and humanity-wide motifs.
But Jackson’s crowning jewel in the vault and the one he felt was his most significant achievement, is his opus “Earth Song” with its unusual fusion of opera, rock, pop, blues and gospel complete with choir and orchestra. His inspiration came from Time Magazine when in 1988, the publisher released its iconic annual issue that usually featured an influential figure making a significant impact on the world who would appear as “person of the year” on the cover. But that year, instead of an individual on the cover, Time featured the “Planet Of The Year” with a graphic depicting a hostaged world tied in chains with a drop line and feature story titled: “What on Earth Are We Doing?”
A believer in humanity’s potential to collectively solve its own social problems, a nature lover and advocate of husbandry and the human-animal bond, Jackson internalized the endangerment of all species and everything he loved and held dear as well as the planet itself. Friends close to him cite how while many people think in terms of times and places, Michael Jackson thought in terms of epochs and planets.
Not one to shrink from themes of personal responsibility ("Man In the Mirror,") and conscripting the power of the collective, Jackson set about writing an ode to the planet set to music that echoed his own poem written in a genre mimicking a Rumi love poem—“Earth my home my place/a capricious anomaly in the sea of space…”
He brooded over and coddled the anthem for seven years, the chords first arriving in a hotel room in Vienna, home to Mozart: A-flat minor to C-sharp triad; A- flat minor seventh to C-sharp triad; then modulating up B-flat minor to E-flat triad. Simple, elegant and powerful, the chords sounded plaintiff in their wailing for earth-justice. Written in Kirtan form with a call and response, Jackson performed the piece precisely that way from a sweeping platform on a cherry-picker crane high above his live audiences: “What about the crying man/what about Abraham/what about the Holy Land?”
He wails questions about bloodshed and war and children dying; about animals and nature and the oceans and the quality of air: "I can't even breathe!" He wants to know what will happen to sunshine and rain and the skies; he asks where we went wrong and he addresses rampant apathy and screams an incredulous question: "do we give a damn?" Do we understand the death and destruction humans bring to the planet and her kin?
Jackson used orchestra and the Andre Crouch Choir to build his epic and dramatic opus and ode to Earth. The chorus, consisting of only sounds echoes his artistic flair of vocalization instead of words to paint pain in feeling rather than confining it to words. The first hint of how pain is vocalized without definition can be seen in his "Smooth Criminal" short film. It’s a sound that says an encyclopedia of human experience in one long mournful vocalization. Jackson manages to wring despair from a few simple but powerful musical chords. It’s soul-speak. Human grief expressed in deep guttural sound has to be the most forlorn sound in existence—Jackson’s "Earth Song" wail is reminiscent of a mother who has just learned of the senseless the death of her only child.
Those at the control console certainly heard it that way while Jackson was in the booth recording it. He was, as was his custom, alone in the dark—he habitually sang, lights out. His engineers tell of the hairs standing up on their arms and the back of their necks as the vocals came roaring from that deep dark place-- far deeper and far beyond the walls of the booth. It was as if Jackson’s painful lamentation came roaring from the lungs of Mother Earth herself; as if he was channeling the very soul and breath of the planet.
His short film music video that was made to accompany his message conveys that same ethos in images that the music evokes in the mastery of composition. It begins with innocence and a child in a lush ecosystem reminiscent of the Garden of Eden and goes on to examine in pictures, most featuring children, experiencing famine, animal poaching, oceanic destruction, deforestation and war. It features Jackson walking through a burnt forest and withstanding a battering oracular wind that portends destruction, while later all the damage reverses itself as the planet’s ecosystem is re-birthed and restored.
"Earth Song" was the one performance at his live concerts where the whole drama unfolded for an audience complete with supersized screen featuring a spinning beautiful earth to the spectacle of a tank roaring onstage with soldiers, automatic weapons drawn, to depict war and man’s inhumanity to man. Costumed in torn and tattered clothes, Jackson’s live performance would literally wring his audiences. Hundreds fainted at Jackson’s concerts and none forgot the images and emotions invoked and evoked during a live performance that some have described as being immersed in a kind of baptismal sea of community, solidarity and a unique communal reality. His audiences describe leaving his venues feeling exhilarated and united in an unnamable spirit. That is the power people describe of being in his presence—he "was a Force."
He knew his earth’s song message had to be profound and epic and had to reach millions of people around the world in order to create the momentum for change, particularly for the next generation—taught ultimately by the youth who would hear and internalize the message: “What about us“ translating the question: Where is our stewardship for spaceship Earth; who is steering our home?” “Now I don’t know where we are/ I only know we’ve drifted far.” “Earth Song” became number one all over the Europe, was Jackson’s largest selling album in the U.K., and was heard by Michael Jackson fans who number 250 million worldwide.
Those who knew Jackson closely and worked with him for decades learned that he often heard music in his head that would just drop in from somewhere in the ethers. He always gave credit to the Creator for his music, saying it was first created in space, came from God, and he simply plucked it from its’ Source, downloaded it and worked to bring the final iteration close as he could to the original sound-- heard only by him and an inner ear. He was a perfectionist by all accounts; it took him 7 years to be satisfied that “Earth Song” was finished.
Few recognize Michael Jackson as a champion of humanity and its loudest and most prolific cheerleader and humanitarian. And many more do not recognize a staunch advocate for the planet and the environment. One of the reasons he wanted to include the performance of "Earth Song" in his last concert series “This is It” in London was because, as he told his cast during his customary prayer and gratitude circle at rehearsals and live performances, “We only have a couple years to get it right or it will all be gone. We have to do it; it’s up to us!”
And the crack of consciousness widens to swallow 250 million minds while the highest-grossing documentary of all time “This Is It” expands it to engulf a few more million and yet another generation...
Those who know the true Jackson story and not the tabloid caricature scripted by the media to depict and exploit his life for profit, know that he cared very deeply for life--all life, humanity and the Earth. It was the reason for most of his work with a few “pop” pieces thrown in to stay relevant in the world of pop culture and music. It was his life’s mission, however to leave a legacy for children and for the future and "Earth Song" was, in his own eyes, his greatest musical achievement.
“I'm committed to my art. I believe that all art has as its ultimate goal the union between the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine. And I believe that that is the very reason for the existence of art and what I do.
And I feel fortunate in being that instrument through which music flows…
Deep inside I feel that this world we live in is really a big, huge, monumental symphonic orchestra. I believe that in its primordial form all of creation is sound and that it’s not just random sound, that it’s music. You’ve heard the expression, music of the spheres? Well, that’s a very literal phrase. In the Gospels, we read, “And the Lord God made man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul.” That ‘breath of life’ to me is the music of life and it permeates every fiber of creation. ~Michael Jackson
“Earth Song” was in fact, the last song Michael Jackson sang on his last night of rehearsal in the last hours of his life.
© 2014 B. Kaufmann, Words and Violence Founder, Writer/Editor, Voices Education Project
Bruce Swedien, In The Studio with Michael Jackson, Hal*Leonard Books, New York, 2009.
Joe Vogel, Man In the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Sterling, New York, 2011.
Chris Cadman & Craig Halstead, Michael Jackson for the Record, Bright Pen, England, 2009
Lynton Guest, The Trials of Michael Jackson, Aureus Publishing, United Kingdom, 2006 Michael
Jackson, Dancing the Dream, Doubleday/Transworld, London, 1992.
Interview: David Nordahl, Santa Fe, MN U.S.A.; "Jackson: Artist, Collaborator, Friend."
Brad Sundberg, "In the Studio with MJ" Symposium, New York, 2013; Jackson: Sound Engineer and Collaborator- studio and Neverland.
Interviews and letters, Anonymous: Fans, biographers, guests.