“Black dreams are not about utopia-how could they be?” (Elizabeth Chin qtd in Fast).
Since it has been so very long since my last post, and because all of the attention to this weekend’s Superbowl has (as it inevitably does this time of year) brought a resurgence of interest in Michael Jackson’s legendary Superbowl performance, this seemed an especially timely opportunity to turn the discussion to another of Michael’s most endearing yet often most maligned and misunderstood tracks-“Heal The World.” After all, no discussion of Michael’s 1993 Superbowl performance can be complete without also remembering that jaw dropping finale. And the fact that all of this Superbowl timeliness just happens to also coincide with my review of Susan Fast’s “Utopia” chapter from Dangerous is, well, too good and too convenient to pass up. So even though the post is not “as” complete as I would like it to be at this time, which will no doubt necessitate extending it to another post, I would at least like to get the topic rolling without further ado.
So, after six tracks of some of the hardest hitting, angriest, sexiest, and street savvy songs of Michael’s career, the pendulum abruptly takes a far right swing with “Heal The World.” Such an abrupt shift of tone, mood, and subject matter is exactly the very thing that led many critics, as well as a lot of fans, to label Dangerous as an uneven album. But this was a trend that Michael would continue to pursue-almost with a vengeance, it seemed-on every subsequent album thereafter. Since this seemed such a purposeful pattern, perhaps it is high time we stopped being so quick to rush to judgment (assuming this was all merely part of some ego-driven desire to stuff an album with everything but the kitchen sink) and take a closer look at the album’s overall concept; the master’s design, if you will.
Fast refers to “Heal The World” as the beginning of Michael’s “Utopia” segment of Dangerous. Whereas the album’s first six tracks hit like a harsh, brazen dose of reality, this track is a throwback to escapism, or what Fast refers to as a utopic desire for a better way. It is escapism in the sense that it is presenting an ideal, rather than “what is.” And this is true regardless of whether we are talking Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World” or John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I choose those two songs to juxtapose in particular because, while critics often praise the Lennon composition, Michael’s “Heal The World” has traditionally been derided as nothing more than sentimental pap. Yet they are both espousing the same idealistic and escapist view, asking the listener to envision what “could be” if we all worked together to make it so. In fact, I would go one better and say that Michael’s composition actually has the upper hand, since he is advocating real action (even if albeit non-specific action) rather than merely daydreaming, or “imagining” that better world.
But this goes right back to the point Fast is making, or at least the point that dominates much of this chapter’s opening. While critics often lambasted Michael’s music as serving no artistic purpose other than “escapism” they seem to have been conveniently forgetting just how deeply rooted those ideals of utopic escapism are in both pop culture and, indeed, our human psyche. The artificial divide between art and entertainment as an “either/or” (that it must provide either escapism on the one hand, or have a social conscious on the other, and that both must be somehow mutually exclusive) is, perhaps, the very barrier that Michael most sought to eradicate-and which, for that effort, he was most unforgiven. That the desire to be swept away to a “better place” is a basic fundamental human drive, perhaps one that is vitally necessary to our mental and spiritual health, is something Michael definitely recognized.
“Where would be without a dance, a song?”-Michael Jackson, Harlem speech, 2001
Of course, it’s not that I don’t entirely “get” why some critics may have had a hard time warming up to “Heal The World.” It’s straightforward earnestness and even simplistic (though purposely simplistic) structure immediatly put it at odds with a very jaded and cynical culture, and as Joe Vogel and other music critics have already pointed out, the 90’s in general was not a time openly receptive to earnest messages. Personally, I prefer the much darker, baroque, and dystopian vision of “Earth Song.” However, perhaps in keeping with the vision that Michael had for Dangerous, it becomes easier to understand why “Heal The World” ultimately became the album’s centerpiece, and not “Earth Song” which would eventually find its home on the much darker themed HIStory album instead.
I often find it somewhat puzzling, in both a sad and ironic kind of way, that as a Michael Jackson fan my probably least two favorite compositions by him are the ones he seemed most personally proud of-“Childhood” and “Heal The World.” As a critical music fan, I know that Michael composed songs that were far superior to these, both lyrically and musically, so sometimes it’s hard to fathom why Michael seemed to view these as superior to all the rest.
In that regard, Susan Fast and I are very much on the same page as she writes in this passage:
“…Jackson claimed in an internet chat with his fans in 2001 that if he could only perform one of his songs for the rest of his life, this [“Heal The World”] would be it. And the trouble is, it doesn’t sound like an ironic statement. Really, out of all the astonishingly good music, this takes pride of place? My take is that ‘Heal The World’ serves as an important thematic pivot point on Dangerous, moving the listener from the wordly, noisy complications of the opening tracks into a somewhat troubling vision of utopia.” (Fast 77-78).
But Michael did seem to feel that these kinds of songs came closest to capturing the essence of who he was, and that is no small thing to overlook. “Heal The World,” if anything, most represented Michael’s ideal of himself and of the world-the best of what both could be. It makes sense, then, that if he could only perform one song for the rest of his life, which would he prefer? Something that took him to some very dark and troubled place, or something that reminded him of everything he most yearned for, and that could likewise empower others to strive for a perfect world? Given the option of only one song to perform for eternity, would you prefer bliss or torment?
It reminds me of a very enlightening debate I once read between a Michael Jackson critic and a fan. The critic was going on and on about how, in his view, Michael was a hypocrite who didn’t exactly walk his talk. He went on about how Neverland was basically a carbon footprint on the land; how many resources were actually used in shooting the “Earth Song” video, how Michael was whisked around the world on private jets, and so forth. In other words, he didn’t exactly give up the superstar lifestyle to become a farmer grubbing in the dirt (but then again, could we not apply the same argument to all the celebrities who are involved in environmental causes?). Anyway, the fan managed to come back with a very good point, that while it may be easy to beat Michael up for his very human flaws (which, perhaps, sometimes did conflict with his idealistic, utopian views) what ultimately matters is not what Michael did or didn’t do. It was the ideals he set for himself-and the idealistic vision he strove to achieve for humanity-that defines who he was, and why he remains so universally loved, with millions of fans all over the world striving to live by his example. It’s not because he was perfect, or expected/demanded perfection in us, but rather, because he showed us the best in ourselves and what we are capable of being.
This was the message I took from his piece “That One In The Mirror,” in which he seems to recognize that the “one” in the mirror doesn’t always live up to his ideals. It is actually one of my favorite pieces by him because I think it is one of his most brutally honest:
“Wishing wouldn’t make it so-I knew that. When I woke up the next morning, that one in the mirror looked confused. ‘Maybe it’s hopeless,’ he whispered. Then a sly look came into his eyes, and he shrugged. ‘But you and I will survive. At least we are doing all right.'”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One In The Mirror.”
As the piece progresses, he acknowledges a kind of separate detachment from himself and the image in the mirror. One feels the problems that are “out there”; the other merely “sees” the problems that are “out there” but doesn’t wish to acknowledge them.
“That one in the mirror winced and squirmed. He hadn’t thought so much about love. Seeing “problems” was much easier, because love means complete self-honesty. Ouch!”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One in the Mirror.”
Here Michael seems to be facing and acknowledging multiple truths about himself. One seems to be a recognition that he has, perhaps, been more caught up in a faceless ideal-“I’m going to heal the world”-rather than honestly addressing his own needs for love, nurturing, and fulfillment. (You know the old adage: You can’t help others until you can help yourself. This seems to be a variation of that theme). Also, it appears to be an honest admonition of taking up causes, perhaps, for the wrong reasons, because it’s the “trendy” thing to do, perhaps, or enhances his own image. But that is only one side of the duality, as he is examining two halves of himself-one is an image that is being looked at from within; the other, an image that is being looked at from without. One acknowledges that what he feels for the world-its pain, its suffering, is all too real.
“He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way. Those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ not really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a sea gull struggling pathetically in an oil spill, a mountain gorilla being mercilessly hunted,a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One in the Mirror.”
Eventually, in the poem, the image and the man merge as one. This, too, of course, is a representation of an ideal. The reality is that, as human beings, it is a day to day struggle to live to our fullest potential, or even to those ideals we set for ourselves. But I think what we have to keep in mind is that this ideal is sincerely who Michael wanted to be; what he strove to be, and, ultimately, wanted to be remembered as-not as some deity, saint, or martyr; not as some perfect man who healed the world with a song and a dance (and a few generous checks), but as a human being who dug deep within, who suffered much and sacrificed much, to give the world the best part of himself, even if he occasionally fell short.
But to return to the topic of “Heal The World,” the Dangerous album and Fast’s book, it is interesting that she chooses to refer to the tracks analyzed in this chapter (“Heal The World” and “Black or White”) as Michael’s “somewhat troubling vision of utopia.” Within the larger context of the album, however, this description makes sense. These tracks are placed squarely at the center of the album, a jarring and disconcerting shift (especially “Heal The World”) from the six tracks that have gone before, and only a momentary respite before we are plunged again into soulful despair with “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” and the album’s coda which takes us back to the beginning. And, as we know, even the somewhat beguiling optimism of “Black or White” turns into a kind of false utopia, as it seems to acknowledge that racial harmony is really only an ideal (the catchy chorus aside, we know that by the time we get to the KKK references that this is no song about merely joining hands and singing “Kumbaya” but rather, a brutally honest statement about the ugly realities that will never allow this ideal to be fully realized).
Fast is probably correct, then, that “Heal The World” is meant to serve as both transition and respite. It is a momentary break from the world’s ugliness and reality, and also a momentary break from the more mundane and selfish concerns that have dominated much of the album-including love and sex, though one could certainly argue that even those themes could be utopic as well (for they are still representing a kind of escapism to some ideal place or state of being, at least in the “desire” songs that dominate much of the album’s first half).
Nevertheless, this transition represents the pattern, or motif, that will dominate most of Michael’s albums and all of his live performances thereafter, where the fun and good times eventually gives way to the serious, and where hard-bitten, human and personal emotions like anger and lust transcend to concern for the planet and humanity in general.
However, it is interesting that on Dangerous, at least, this transcendence is fleetingly brief. In performance, Michael often capped with “Heal The World” and “Man In The Mirror,” the tracks working together to create a kind of ultimate pinnacle for the audience, so that in the end, the concert becomes a truly uplifting and transitory experience. On record, however, Michael chose not to make “Heal The World” its closing track, but rather a song squarely in the middle. This would indicate that the intended arc of the Dangerous album is not one that is intended to take listeners to that pinnacle (as in the case of the live performances) but, rather, to offer it to them only as a kind of teasing interlude-a temporary oasis of hope in a world otherwise gone mad.
A pattern Fast establishes throughout her book is to begin every chapter with an appropriate quote. For this chapter, she chose the Elizabeth Chin quote which does seem fitting when we consider why Michael’s utopian segment of Dangerous also happens to be its shortest segment. After all, when John Lennon urged us to “Imagine” he had never lived a day in a black man’s shoes. Michael had-his entire life, in fact, and therein lies a crucial difference between the two artists that cannot be ignored, no matter how much modern scholars and revisionists may try to equate them. On Dangerous, at least, there emerges a somewhat disconcerting realization that any concept of “healing the world” may be a temporary and fleeting ideal, at best. It also raises an interesting question: Could it be that the pairing of “Heal The World” and “Black or White” are actually much more pessimistic representations of utopia than have been presumed?
To even raise the question is problematic because it seems that “Heal The World” is a track operating on two distinct levels of meaning-one as a separate track unto itself, and the other it may have as part of the overall context of the album and the album’s concept. A lot may depend, ultimately, on how one interprets the remaining tracks that follow “Heal The World.” However, with perhaps the exception of “Keep the Faith.” the remaining tracks, rather than offering the easy transcendence of having found “a better way,” instead plunge us back to the depths of individual despair. Even “Keep The Faith” seems to be a message about holding on and “keeping the faith” that things may turn out better, rather than expressing any idealistic belief that they are better or likely to be better. In both “Keep The Faith” and “Will You Be There” the theme seems to be more about coping than, as we say, “rising above.” Faith can indeed help us to cope with suffering; to become stronger so that the suffering doesn’t pull us under. But faith, in and of itself, can’t “fix” what the problem is.
So where does that leave us in regard to “Heal The World?” This is an interesting question that I will continue to delve into in the next installment.