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.