Michael Jackson – Black or White

First Hit #1: December 7, 1991

Message songs are probably the hardest to write, because you both have to make a song people want to listen to, and also make a song that actually conveys what you want to say. Michael Jackson has some experience with this, as he has written many message songs in the past, whether to make people think about Africa, or to make people improve themselves. Black or White is possibly his most direct message song yet, four minutes about how being hung up on race makes the world a worse place. It goes to great lengths to illustrate a world where people are able to get along would be a better place. The video goes to even greater lengths to prove the point, with Jackson dancing with a variety of world cultures, ending with a still impressive looking sequence where a number of dancers morph into other dancers of varying races, genders, and physical types.

Unlike most message songs, it actually works, because Jackson makes it fun above all else. It’s an upbeat dance record built on a catchy guitar riff. In spite of the serious subject matter, Jackson keeps it on a very personal level – it’s at least partially about who Jackson would want to date and hang out with – and while he does make trips in a more serious direction he still keeps it as a very quick dance track. Plus, that video, with the morphing dancers, is really fun above all else. That underlines the point – everyone getting along is plain fun, getting hung up on race is keeping us from having a good time with everyone. It’s a message song that’s acutely aware of its pop setting, but that makes it fun to listen to, even if we’ve absorbed the message already.

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One Response to Michael Jackson – Black or White

  1. RBerman says:

    MJ gives us a cake as good as the icing. All the cameos (Slash, Macauley Culkin, Bart Simpson, George Wendt) would have been jokey distractions if the song itself had not been so fundamentally well written and executed. Jackson is actually ahead of the curve by using producer/writer/guitarist Bill Bottrell, whose later country-rock work with Sheryl Crow would define one of the poles of 90s pop. Here, he gives us shimmering guitars with a simple Esus-E-E2-E hook (similar to the one in Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'”) and an in-out synth bass line. Jackson is firing on all cylinders, and his anger makes sense when directed at racism. (Much less sensible was the original choice to end the video with four full music-free minutes of him smashing up a car, zipping his pants, and stroking his groin, but happily that error was easily editable and didn’t affect radio in the first place.)

    This song also marked the end of Jackson’s peak career. The “Bad” album boasted five #1 singles; “Dangerous” had only this one, partly due to changing tastes but partly because the songs were simply not as awesome. Does anyone clamor to hear “Keep it in the Closet” the way they did “Billie Jean” or “The Way You Make Me Feel”? A Michael Jackson song without melody is like a sugar free cookie. What’s the point?

    Structurally, this simple song offers two verses, a bridge, and a half-verse before beginning a closing vamp with a different melody. The refrain is so short as to be best considered part of the verse.

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