‘Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson’ (Sterling, 2011) was a huge and well-researched text, which will doubtless become a staple in schools, universities and colleges the world over when the level of Jackson’s genius is finally accepted on the international academic stage and given the respect and study it deserves. Vogel’s other book on Jackson, ‘Featuring Michael Jackson: Collected Writings on the King of Pop’ is targeted more towards lay-readers, giving a simple but effective series of published articles from publications like ‘The Atlantic’. ‘Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus’ completes the triumvirate of groundbreaking studies in Michael Jackson’s art by academic, Dr. Joseph Vogel.One of the most evident reasons that Michael Jackson’s art was so poorly reviewed by critics in the last decades of his career was because he often went ‘over their heads’ in terms of complexity, artistic influences, self-expression and sincerity while simultaneously reaching the “uneducated” masses, who in the eyes of many rock critics must have been in a shared delusion to buy into ‘Jacksonmania’.
Academic study of Michael Jackson’s art is always a fresh wind which blows away old prejudices and re-appreciates the artist. Vogel comes to ‘Earth Song’, possibly the single-most important and effective song of Jackson’s career, through the prism of intense research and study.
When Vogel writes about Jackson, one would do very well to listen. If there were a Professorship in Michael Jackson Studies, he would have been the first recipient. He is a veritable scientist, tackling Jackson study with the same focused tenacity as a Shakespeare scholar.
Several of Vogel’s sources are primary and ‘Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus’, at a short and easily readable 112 pages features first-hand interviews with Bill Bottrell, Matt Forger, and Brad Buxer, as well as secondary contextual sources that range from the King James Bible (1611) and Wordsworth to Bjork and Emmerson.
Even with the author’s wider knowledge in Jacksonism, Vogel uses the artist himself as his primary source: Jackson’s interviews, words, lyrics, harmonies, and personal convictions lie at the heart of this short but incisive book and this is where its key strength lies.
In 112 pages, the author takes the reader from the 1988 to 2009, charting with startling accuracy Jackson’s creative process, inspiration and visual representation of a single song, ‘Earth Song’ from his 1995 album, ‘HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1’. The various guises ‘Earth Song’ took, its varied reception throughout the world, its lack of an American release and its anachronistic nature are presented alongside Jackson’s own intentions.
Throughout the book, ‘Earth Song’ is also placed into the context of contemporary music as well as timeless artistic expression, placed in the context of prejudices against the artist and the artist’s struggle to present a new view to his listeners and truly change the world.
‘Earth Song’ is Michael Jackson and Michael Jackson, in many ways was ‘Earth Song’. It is widely known that this song was his last performance in 2009 and this fact gives it an ethereality which only adds to its urgency:
The messenger has gone but the message remains.
I really do hope that Dr. Vogel goes on to write a series of books like this on a range of songs that epitomise Jackson’s art and life. Songs that are only given a “light touch” in ‘Man in the Music’ could do with an entire book each. This would make such a great series to collect and own. Some of my particular favourites would be ‘Man in the Mirror’, ‘Morphine’ and ‘History’. It would be quite something to read how those songs metamorphosed and grew over the years into the tracks we know and love.
Whether you’re an academic, a fan or spectator this book will captivate and teach you things you never knew.
Elizabeth Amisu is a postgraduate scholar of Early Modern English Literature at King’s College London. It is her goal to bring wider attention to Michael Jackson as artist by creating an academic model for the study of his art. Find out more here.