Song 34: Michael Jackson, “Black or White” (1991)


First things first: There are many Michael Jackson songs better than “Black or White.” It’s hamfisted, pandering, and quite possibly the least subtle work of art ever (aside from that cover art up there). It is dumb.

And yet… I absolutely love this song. It’s clear in retrospect that Jackson, even more than usual, was worried that his foothold on the global consciousness, so he was throwing everything he could into the first single from Dangerous. (This was even more the case with the insane “Black or White” video; more on that later.) I actually find this endearing, like Jackson was appealing for us to keep him around as long as we could. Things didn’t work out so well, but it’s rather heartening to consider.

Of course, that’s all speculation on my part. I have no idea how Jackson felt about this song. I just know that he was extremely insecure about success, and with the sales for Bad not up to par with those of Thriller (an insane expectation, to be sure, but it was Jackson’s obsession), I imagine Jackson was very concerned about making an album that cemented his icon status.

So why do I love this song? I love that catchy melody, of course, and that fun guitar riff. But I also love the arrangement. I don’t know whose idea it was to incorporate acoustic guitar (I’m guessing it was either Jackson or his co-writer and co-producer Bill Bottrell), but it’s a stroke of genius. Just listen closely to its entrance at 3:25 in the video below. Just when you’re getting used to the pattern of the song–and that happens fast, because the thing is so simple–the acoustic guitar grounds it, makes it sound a little more organic. I bought the CD single, which had an instrumental version, and the acoustic guitar really stands out without Jackson’s vocals.

Now, that video. First of all, it is the most early-nineties thing you will ever see. It starts with Macaulay Culkin at his Macaulay Culkin-est, jamming to some generic hair-metal in his room (which features a Bartman poster on the wall). His dad, George Wendt, at the height of his Cheers fame, storms in, and then gets blasted to the middle of an African savannah, where Michael Jackson is dancing around with some tribesmen. Then, in case we were wondering whether Jackson was a rich person, he brings us to a variety of countries and cultures, stops in on a rapping Culkin (dressed like he’s in an Another Bad Creation video), and culminates in Jackson singing on the Statue of Liberty’s torch. It also features Jackson beating the shit out of a car (a scene that was toned down after the videos’ primetime premiere) and faces morphing into each other (which, I’ll admit, still looks pretty amazing).

At the time, this video was seen as an epic event by an important pop star, but now it just like the ultimate insecure move. “Wait, don’t go!” Jackson seems to be saying. “I turn into a panther later on! And then some Russian guys dance in front of the Kremlin! And it turns out that it’s all inside a snowglobe held by two babies! Love me, please!”

Sigh. It works.


Song 1: The Jackson 5, “I Want You Back” (1969)


Is there a more perfect pop song than “I Want You Back”? Even the first few seconds are pure adrenaline: the piano slide, the guitar octaves, the handclaps. It’s solid through and through, but also airy and carefree. It’s unbridled confidence, which is amazing considering 1) it’s sung by a ten-year-old and 2) it’s about a person begging for forgiveness. Oblivious to obstacles, unwilling to accept no for an answer–that’s pop music for you.

The arrangement of “I Want You Back” is simple but brilliant. That immortal bassline snakes around, and that chiming guitar never stops playing G#, the song’s key, providing the foundation. Michael yells, the strings swell. It’s everything great about music, and it’s all over in exactly three minutes.