Michael Jackson breaks the pre-internet with 'Black or White' [Nov 17, 1991]
Plus: Michael Bolton, Extreme, Take That, and My Bloody Valentine
This week’s Number 1: ‘Black or White’ — Michael Jackson
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What did we know and when did we know it?
It’s a question that has come up repeatedly as we look back over 1991. Did we know that grunge was coming? Did we know Freddie was dying? Did we know Right Said Fred had it in them to become irritating anti-vaxxers?
Did we know Michael Jackson was an abuser?
The curse of knowledge makes it hard to say. We like to think we’re smart. We like to imagine that we saw the truth before everyone else did.
And, other times, we like to pretend that we knew nothing. We were innocent, naive little lambs, protected from the horrors of the world.
In 1991, Michael Jackson has plenty of rumours swirling about him. This was the age of Wacko Jacko, the guy who slept in an oxygen tent with a pet monkey on one side and the Elephant Man’s bones on the other.
I remember being a kid and watching his vanity movie project, Moonwalker, and thinking, “yeah, this guy is cuckoo bananas.”
What did we know and when did we know it?
Here is what most people in 1991 knew about Michael Jackson. Michael had been the breakout star of mega-group The Jackson Five. His first album had surpassed the band’s performance. His second album eclipsed every other album in existence, quickly becoming the best-selling record of all time.
Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll. Michael Jackson was now the King of Pop.
But naysayers said the Jackson was just a performing monkey, and Quincy Jones was the organ grinder. Without Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson would be nothing.
And so, Michael Jackson, who had conquered the entire world of pop culture, found that he still had one more thing to prove. He had to show that he could do it alone.
So, this was part of the insane hype in the build-up to ‘Black or White’. This song would be Michael’s first single in four years, and his first recording without Quincy since the mid-70s.
But the real hype was about the video. ‘Black or White’ was the broadcasting event of 1991. The 11-minute clip aired simultaneously on MTV, BBC, BET, and Fox, and stations in 27 countries. All-in-all, half a billion people tuned in to watch the debut.
Put this in context. The fastest-moving viral YouTube video of all time was ‘Dynamite’ by BTS, which acquired 500 million views in a little under two months.
Michael Jackson hit that number in under 15 minutes.
This was a genuine event. This was like the Berlin Wall coming down or Mandela walking free. The whole world was watching.
And it was… fine.
It’s a very good clip for a very good pop song. It was a little long. People were kind of baffled by a long sequence where Jackson vandalises a car while dancing and unzipping his trousers. That sequence seemed to last for hours.
Macauley Culkin is in it. So is Norm from Cheers and Bart Simpson. There’s a cool bit where lots of people’s faces morph into each other. It’s a great demo of early CGI technology.
And the song is… fine. Like the video, there’s a let’s-throw-everything-at-it-and-see-what-sticks vibe to it all. It’s got a very clunky rap in the middle eight, but at least it’s not Michael rapping. The lyrics have an “I don’t see colour” message that sounds really dated now, but felt progressive at the time.
As I recall it, the public reaction the following morning was a little underwhelmed. The video was good, but not as instantly iconic as the legendary clips for ‘Thriller’ or ‘Billie Jean’. The song was good, but not as unstoppably hooky as previous rock crossovers like ‘Beat It’ or ‘Smooth Criminal’.
In terms of primary historical sources, I can only offer my recollection of the conversations among a group of 14-year olds shivering in a playground at lunchtime. We talked about it, of course. Everyone had watched it the night before. Everyone.
And we had forgotten most of it by the next day. There was a general feeling that Michael Jackson was old hat. Cringe, as today’s kids would say.
One kid I knew really liked it, but he was the dorkiest in my entire bunch of dorks. Praise from him felt like savage condemnation from a cool kid.
And yeah, none of this ultimately mattered. ‘Black or White’ sold a bajillion copies and was number one in a thousand countries. Of course it did. It was the first Michael Jackson single since Bad. People were gagging.
‘Black or White’ confirmed unequivocally that Michael Jackson was still the King of Pop, monarch of a kingdom upon which the sun never set. He was the only show in town, but we already knew that about him.
And now, here in 1991, we know something else, something which we would never forget. Michael Jackson was good on his own, but could only be great when he worked with Quincy Jones.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 10 (↑ from 31): ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ — Michael Bolton
We like Michael Bolton now. He’s funny and delightful. He’s does raunchy comedy and pokes fun at his persona.
But honestly, this song is kind of a slog that drains all of the pain and horniness from the original. Percy Sledge’s version is irresistible, this one always feels like it’s trying to climb a hill.
Number 14 (New Entry): ‘Way of the World’ — Tina Turner
1991 was a strange time for Tina. ‘Way of the World’ was her only original single of the year, recorded to add some ballast to her greatest hits collection, Simply The Best. It’s a very decent mid-tempo soul ballad with a sax solo (bring back sax solos) and a spine-tingling vocal (bring back Tina Turner’s vocals).
1991 also saw Tina inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of fame. Or rather, it saw Ike and Tina inducted, five years after Tina’s autobiography revealed the horrific abuse she had suffered at the hands of her ex-husband.
Tina did not attend the ceremony due to exhaustion. Ike did not attend due to being in jail.
Guess who attended the ceremony on their behalf? Phil Spector, who would later go to jail for murdering a woman.
No wonder Tina was so tired.
Number 15 (New Entry): ‘Hole Hearted’ — Extreme
Underrated track and proof that timing is everything. If Extreme had been around in 1996, they would have had a decent career as folky singer-songwriters. They would have a dozen records and be twelfth on the bill at every music festival. We would remember them fondly, if vaguely.
Extreme’s undoing wasn’t that their songs were bad. It’s that they were packaged as a cheesy hair rock band and they often looked stupid. This song is great.
Number 21 (New Entry): ‘So Real ’ — Love Decade
A fairly blatant attempt to rip off The KLF, who are currently in the charts with their ‘It’s Grim Up North’ side project. (The KLF proper return to the charts soon.)
This video has one of my favourite YouTube comments ever:
Number 38 (New Entry): ‘Promises’ — Take That
Hey look, it’s Take That’s chart debut!
Not much else to say. It looks and sounds like every other boy band debut. Which is to say that it’s rubbish and clearly they are over-managed and over-styled.
Don’t worry though. They will figure it out. And Gary fixes his hair.
Album of the Week
Loveless — My Bloody Valentine
What do you call a My Bloody Valentine fan?
Whatever you want. He can’t hear you.
Officially, the loudest band in the world is Deep Purple. Guinness recorded one of their shows at 117 decibels, which is roughly as loud as a chainsaw next to your ear. Several people were knocked unconscious by the noise.
My Bloody Valentine gigs frequently clock in at over 130 dB.
They’re still not the loudest band in the world. Bands like Kiss, Manowar and Leftfield have all touched the 136 dB limit, which is the threshold where sound becomes torturously painful to the human ear.
All of these acts are trying to drive the audience into a kind of noise-induced frenzy. MBV’s noise is doing something different.
The opposite, in fact. My Bloody Valentine’s loudness is about trying to short-circuit the senses and create a kind of sensory immersion. Your mind wanders and you find a kind of peace.
That’s what listening to Loveless is like. Much of it is ugly, brutal, unforgiving. A hostile wall of sound that almost seems like it’s trying to drive you away.
But within each song, there’s a kind of beauty, whether it’s a soaring guitar line or a vocal that seems to float down from heaven. And some of it is quite easy to listen to in its own way. Closing track ‘soon’ almost sounds like Blur at times.
What’s really magical is that you don’t have to turn the speakers up to 11 to enjoy it. My old ears are feeling the strain of too much loud music, so I’ve been listening to Loveless at a more sedate volume. Instead of the frustration that normally comes form listening to loud music quietly, I’ve been finding rich musical textures that I never noticed before.
An honest to god masterpiece. But please, be careful with your ears.
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