A Chat with Joe Vogel about Earth Song

Joie:  Willa and I are very happy to be joined by Joe Vogel this week. As you all know, his much-anticipated book Man in the Music will be released on November 1st, and now he’s just about to release a print version of his eBook, Earth Song. Thank you for joining us Joe!
Ok, here’s what I would like to know. Why did you choose to single out “Earth Song” and write a separate piece on it? Do you have a special affinity for the song yourself, or did you simply become intrigued by Michael’s process – or obsession – with the song as you were researching for Man in the Music?

Joe:  I’ve always loved “Earth Song.” The power and majesty and passion of the song always just struck a deep chord with me. When I was working on Man in the Music, though, I was listening to all of MJ’s work so closely that many songs made new impressions. “Earth Song” was one of them. The more I learned about it and the more I listened, the more convinced I became that this was Michael’s most important song. It encompassed so much. The call and response with the choir, to me, is one of the most powerful moments in the history of music. Yet there was so little recognition for the song among critics. Very little had been written about it that wasn’t condescending and dismissive. So I wanted to somehow write about it in a way that would communicate its power – and I was excited about the prospect of really being able to zoom in on one song and do all the interviews and research with that kind of focus and depth.

Willa:  I loved that! The level of detail you provide is wonderful, and I love the way your book provides insights both into “Earth Song” and into Michael Jackson’s creative process as well. You begin your book by discussing how our world is in peril, and with descriptions of him experiencing that peril as an almost physical, wordless pain – and then you show him beginning to channel and shape and express those profound feelings into music. Can you tell us more about this process, and some key moments for how “Earth Song” came to be what we experience today?

Joe:  Sure. I think, first of all, the process of “Earth Song” provides a great window into how Michael operated as an artist. That’s what made it so much fun to write. You start making connections, putting pieces together. For example, I spoke with Matt Forger about this original concept of “Earth Song” as a trilogy (with an orchestral part, the song, and a spoken poem); after learning that, I returned to Bill Bottrell to figure out who the composer was that Michael was collaborating with and what it sounded like; Bill led me to Jorge del Barrio, who I subsequently learned worked with Michael on songs like “Who Is It” and “Morphine” as well. Through del Barrio I learned some wonderful insights about the concept/feel Michael was aiming for and how it transformed. So you speak to different people and all kinds of new connections emerge:  new details, new angles. And you learn how carefully and thoughtfully Michael went about his work.
In interviews, Michael tended to be really vague about his creative process, but what Earth Song reveals is how obsessed he was with every detail of his work from inception all the way to the final mix. He surrounded himself with great talent, but it was his creative vision and perfectionism that drove his projects.

Willa:  You just highlighted something that really struck me when reading your book. You show that he was very knowledgeable and involved in the actual mechanics of creating “Earth Song” – that he was involved in every stage of the process. But in interviews he did tend to be vague about that, as you say, and kind of distanced himself from that aspect somewhat, focusing more on inspiration and being receptive to the song itself.  He said in a number of interviews that the music just came to him and “fell in his lap.” You write in your book that he often told himself to “Let the music create itself,” and you tie this back to a quotation from John Lennon that he kept on display as a reminder to himself while working on “Earth Song”:

 “When the real music comes to me,” it read, “the music of the spheres, the music that surpasseth understanding – that has nothing to do with me, ’cause I’m just the channel. The only joy for me is for it to be given to me, and to transcribe it like a medium…. Those moments are what I live for.” 

When I read this section of your book, I immediately thought of the Romantics. If we look at drafts of their poems, they did revise them and were in fact very knowledgeable and involved in the craft of creating poetry. They were skilled wordsmiths. But like Michael Jackson, they were reluctant to talk about that. They preferred to talk about creating poetry as an act of inspiration rather than craftsmanship, and tended to say they were merely scribes – writing down the words that some creative impulse larger than themselves expressed through them – rather than creators, which is an idea Michael Jackson frequently expressed. In fact, he kind of struggled to explain that during his deposition for the 1994 plagiarism case for “Dangerous,” saying that he did write all of his songs, but in a way he didn’t – they just came to him.

I know you’ve studied the Romantics, so you know a lot more about this than I do. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about this Romantic ideal of the artist as merely a receptive channel for creativity to flow through, rather than a creator, and how that’s reflected two centuries later in John Lennon and Michael Jackson.

Joe:  A common metaphor in Romantic poetry is the Aeolian harp: When the wind blows, the music comes. You don’t force it. You wait for it.

Willa:  That’s beautiful.

Joe:  Michael believed strongly in that principle. That being said, Michael was without question a craftsman. He rarely released work in raw form. Another metaphor he liked to use to illustrate his creative process is Michelangelo’s philosophy that inside every piece of marble or stone is a “sleeping form.” His job as an artist, then, was to chip away, sculpt, polish, until he “freed” what was latent. So it requires a great deal of work. You might have a vision of what it should look like, but you have to be in tune throughout the process and you have to work hard to realize it.

Willa:  What a wonderful image! I love that idea of the “sleeping form,” and it really clarifies how creativity requires both inspiration and craftsmanship. The idea of the song reveals itself to you and creates itself, as Michael Jackson liked to say, yet it requires the skill and dedication of a craftsman to free it.

Joie:  Joe, in your book you talk about the absurdity of the fact that “Earth Song” was never released as a single in the U.S. even though Michael’s previous U.S. single, “You Are Not Alone,” debuted at number one. And yet, in other parts of the world, “Earth Song” was not only released as a single but went to number one in 15 countries. I agree with you when you say that decision was pretty telling – that the ‘powers that be’ didn’t feel the land of excess would tolerate a song with such an ‘in-your-face’ look at the human condition. But, I believe that decision was a huge mistake. I think, had it been released here, it would have done very well. Despite the dismissive reviews it received, it is a difficult song to ignore and I think it would have gotten significant radio play if it had been offered to the stations. 
Joe:  You could be right. It’s hard to know. On the one hand, Michael’s popularity had waned in the U.S. because of the 1993 allegations. But his first two singles reached the Top 5. It’s odd how quickly Sony seemed to bail on the album after that in terms of singles. It would have been nice to at least see the song given a chance with American audiences.

Joie:  I love the way you compared “Earth Song” to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” saying that they both ask the listener to care for the world we have rather than dreaming of an afterlife. But can you talk a little bit about your statement that “Imagine” is more palatable to the average music listener than “Earth Song” is?

Joe:  Well, “Imagine” is an absolutely beautiful song that also happens to be quite subversive. Because it is so pleasant to listen to, and evokes such nostalgia, however, many people don’t really catch on to what it’s actually saying. It calls for revolution, but plays amicably in dentist’s offices and department stores. So some of its impact can be blunted in that way. When it plays at Times Square on New Year’s Eve, it serves as a kind of feel-good anthem. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think “Man in the Mirror” is very similar in terms of tone and psychological effect. But “Earth Song” is different. It has a different urgency and intensity to it. Imagine “Earth Song” blaring out of the speakers at full blast on New Year’s. Better yet, imagine Michael performing it. Audiences would probably be stunned. The song wasn’t designed to make people feel good; it was designed to prick people’s consciences, to wake people up.

Joie:  Which only makes me wonder all the more how it might have been received had it been given proper promotion and radio play in the U.S.

Willa:  And if it didn’t do well here, that would say something important too, since it did do well in many other countries.

Joe:  Great, prophetic art is often neglected or misunderstood in its time. There are so many examples of this, from Blake to Van Gogh to Tchaikovsky to Picasso. Michael was a student of history and art and he understood this. He was confident that the work he created would hold up over time. “Earth Song” is a song that was, and continues to be, massively popular throughout the world. But ultimately it was a song that was going against the grain — so the resistance, from corporate executives, critics and other gatekeepers, makes sense. 
Joie:  Well, thank you for joining us and talking about “Earth Song.”
Joe:  Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure and I’m really pleased with the whole idea of Dancing with the Elephant as a space for thoughtful discussions on Michael Jackson.
Joie:  Thanks. Willa and I have been having a great time with it! I’m curious, now that the release date for Man in the Music is just around the corner and Earth Song is also on its way to being published in book form, what’s next for Joe Vogel? Do you have any plans for book signings coming up or other appearances?
Joe:  I’m working with my agent and publicist on all of the promotional plans for Man in the Music and I should have a clearer sense in the next few weeks. It’s going to be busy, but I’m excited for people to finally read what I spent all these years working on.
Joie:  Well, I pretty much devoured the advanced reading copy you gave to MJFC so, I know the fans are going to love it. It really is a wonderful book! Any new writing projects you’re currently working on?
Joe: Ummm…. I always have a bunch of projects in progress. I can’t say yet which ones will materialize. Man in the Music and Earth Song could be it for me in terms of Michael Jackson books. But we’ll see. There are a lot of practical considerations that make it difficult, but it’s hard to resist if/when the wind blows.

Willa:  Well, we’ve really enjoyed talking with you. And if anyone reading would like to join in the conversation, Joe will be dropping in on the comments page this week, so you can post questions or comments for him there.

About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on September 29, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Oh, I’m so glad that this post came to be! I am eagerly awaiting the release of Man in the Music and Earth Song!

    I too, wish that Earth Song had gotten a bit more attention, and I see what you’re saying about this not being a song that most of the US would take very well, “the land of excess” you called it, and I find this extraordinarily accurate. In my blog I often use a bit more of a blunt term, “spoiled, rich brats”. But Earth song is really the anthem for our times, and a lot more people need to see this, before it’s too late, because a lot of people don’t notice how good something was until it’s gone (here I’m talking about Michael), and I sincerely hope that that doesn’t happen with our beautiful Earth. A wonderful, yet brutally eye-opening example of what might happen to the earth in the near future is Exodus by Julie Bertagna, and it’s following books in the trilogy. It’s 2100, and nearly the entire planet is underwater because the ice caps melted. It was inspired by a news article in 1999 about an island that was swallowed by the sea. In the book, the Meta, or world change, occurred in the thirties and forties of the 2000s, which is really not that far away in terms of that kind of thing. Here’s the prologue, which I love because it’s so thought-provoking.

    “Once upon a time there was a world… a world full of miracles. From the whirl of the tiniest particles to its spinning orbit in the unthinkable vastness of space, this world danced with miraculous life. Ur, the first people called their beautiful world, and the sound of that early name would carry down all the years, until eons of time and tongues ripened Ur into Earth.

    “The people feasted on their ripe world. Endlessly, they harvested its lands and seas. They grew greedy, ravaging the planet’s bounty of miracles. Their waste and destruction spread like a plague until a day came when this plague struck at the very heart of the miraculous dance. And the people saw, too late, their savage destruction of the world.

    “The globe grew hot and fevered, battered by hurricanes and rain. Oceans and rivers rose to drown the cities and wasted lands. Earth raged with a century of storm. Then came a terrible calm. Imagine the vast, drowned ruin of a world washed clean. Imagine survivors scattered on lonely peaks, clinging to the tips of skyscrapers, to bridges and treetops.

    “Now backtrack to the dawn of the world’s drowning. Stand at the fragile moment before the devastation begins and wonder: is this where we stand? Right on the brink?”

    I sincerely hope not, but I’m going to act like it is, just so that other people will too and see that we need a change now, or it’s never going to happen.

    Peace and love,

    • Hi Emily. I love your posts! They are so interesting, and I’m especially intrigued how – in the passages you cited – the author refers to all the multitude of interactions between everything on Ur/Earth as a “dance.” She says, “From the whirl of the tiniest particles to its spinning orbit in the unthinkable vastness of space, this world danced with miraculous life,” and later, “Their waste and destruction spread like a plague until a day came when this plague struck at the very heart of the miraculous dance.”

      This idea of the “dance of life” was very important in Michael Jackson’s work also, something that influenced his own dance, and that he sometimes referenced in his poetry. Here’s one of his poems, called “Heaven is Here”:

      You and I were never separate
      It’s just an illusion
      Wrought by the magical lens of

      There is only one Wholeness
      Only one Mind
      We are like ripples
      In the vast Ocean of Consciousness

      Come, let us dance
      The Dance of Creation
      Let us celebrate
      The Joy of Life

      The birds, the bees
      The infinite galaxies
      Rivers, Mountains
      Clouds and Valleys
      Are all a pulsating pattern
      Living, breathing
      Alive with cosmic energy

      Full of Life, of Joy
      This Universe of Mine
      Don’t be afraid

      To know who you are
      You are much more
      Than you ever imagined

      You are the Sun
      You are the Moon
      You are the wildflower in bloom
      You are the Life-throb
      That pulsates, dances
      From a speck of dust
      To the most distant star

      And you and I
      Were never separate
      It’s just an illusion
      Wrought by the magical lens of

      Let us celebrate
      The Joy of Life
      Let us dance
      The Dance of Creation

      As in the book you were describing (Exodus, right?), this poem seems to be saying that we need to be in tune to the rhythm and dance of nature, and right now, we’re not. We’re disrupting that rhythm. (btw, after reading your description, I really want to read Exodus now, and I bet my son will too. He’s only a year younger than you are and is always looking for good books to read. I’ll be sure to tell him about it.)

    • Thanks for the response, Emily. Loved the “spoiled, rich brats” comment. One of the things I admire about Michael is his ambition in terms of the issues he was passionate about. He didn’t simply talk about it or stop at donating to charities. He wove these themes into his music. He was pumping a different energy into the universe

      Exodus sounds interesting. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. you really have no idea what michael is saying in this song, michael is asking God what happened to the promise he made to mankind for a new earth, and in the end God comes to the aid of all humanity and rights all the wrong wicked people have done to destroy the innocent and the earth and creates a new earth for the chosen ones

    • Hi Tiger. That’s an interesting interpretation. As I understand it – and I know very little about it – I believe what you’re saying roughly aligns with Jehovah’s Witness theology, and of course, Michael Jackson was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. But I’m not sure I see this idea expressed in “Earth Song.” Are there specific lyrics from the song or images from the video that lead you to interpret it this way? I’d really like to hear more about that.

    • This was the JW worldview MJ was moving beyond in the late 80s. Of course, people can now interpret “Earth Song” any way they want to, but there is no question in my mind MJ was moving toward a different worldview (as demonstrated in Dancing the Dream, among numerous other sources).

  3. Willa, thanks. I just love the prologue that I cited. I’m considering using it for an upcoming post for my blog. The dance of life that you, the author, and Michael speak of is the very core of our being, and if it gets thrown out of whack, so do we. That’s why we need to fix it.

    I just love that poem, I think it tops my list of favorite poems, currently. It is a long, ever-growing, ever-changing list. I really like when he mentions “the magical lens of perception” How we see everything is simply our perception. In fact, there can be multiple perceptions for just one single thing. A perception can be wrong in some cases, can be right, and can be neither, depending on the situation. He describes that we are so much in the world, and yet so little. We mean so much, and then again, so little. But our actions, staying in tune with the rhythm and dance of nature, can have the biggest impact of all when it comes to our Earth. He describes it as this, we are all one, and we need to know that and get back into the rhythm and dance of this world, or there is really no hope.

    Joe, I like the way you talk about how, while Imagine (another of my many favorite songs) is a great song, and an anthem much like Earth Song for our times, its use in the dentist’s office and workplaces have muted its effect. You can’t exactly play Earth Song in a dentist’s office, because it’s not a calm song, like you said. You can’t have your patient all worked up, or you may end up doing some unintentional damage. It’s a song about calling to action, and making a change. So is Imagine, and so is Man in the Mirror, but they’re a bit softer in tonality, and some people may have missed the point. Man, oh man, would I have loved to see Michael performing Earth Song on New Year’s Eve. That would have been something to see!

    Willa, I’m glad you want to read Exodus, Zenith (the second book) and Aurora (the third book, whenever it’s supposed to come out.) And I’m glad your son wants to too. In my opinion, the more people read it, the better because it will open people’s eyes to what may happen to our world if we don’t take better care of it. There’s a bit of sci-fi thrown in, like– oops, that would be a bit of a spoiler, never mind. But anyway, I’m not sure if what the author is talking about could actually happen, but you never know.

    tiger, I understand your point of view as well. Everything has more than one meaning.

    • “I really like when he mentions “the magical lens of perception.” How we see everything is simply our perception. … He describes that we are so much in the world, and yet so little. We mean so much, and then again, so little. But our actions, staying in tune with the rhythm and dance of nature, can have the biggest impact of all when it comes to our Earth.”

      Hi Emily. I love that line about “the magical lens of Perception,” and I love the way you interpreted this poem. I’ve been thinking about this idea of the dance of life all week, trying to figure out why it resonates with me so much, and you captured it perfectly when you said “our actions, staying in tune with the rhythm and dance of nature, can have the biggest impact of all when it comes to our Earth.”

      When you’re dancing, you’re expressing yourself and your emotions, but you also have to be sensitive to everything going on around you – the music, the space, the other dancers. And that sensitivity to our surroundings and other “dancers” is what’s missing when we try to impose our will on our environment. I keep imagining a meadow with light and warmth flowing down from the sun, and bees pollinating the plants, and earthworms nourishing the soil, and they’re all part of the dance of life. And then we come in with a bulldozer and destroy everything and build a zippy mart that sells soda and cigarettes and cheese doodles. That’s not in harmony with anything – not with the natural environment, not with our social environment, not even with our own bodies. It’s “dis-harmonic,” and disrupts the dance of life.

      p.s. They have Exodus and Zenith at the local library, so planning to go by and pick those up this afternoon. Thanks again for recommending them.

      • aldebaranredstar

        Hi, Willa–yes, I think you have tapped into something that the dance is all about–that spacial awareness, the physicality–that is in harmony with the dance of life. And yes, I agree so much with the post you made earlier to the lyrics of Earth Song being in line with Oren Lyons’ speech to the UN about where is the representative of the earth, the water, the bear, the wolf? The indigenous peoples are calling for this awareness–there is a good article by Noam Chomsky about ‘the commons’ and how in The Charter of the Forest it was protected (it’s in Huffpost today). There is a poem by Yeats that asks “how can we know the dancer from the dance.” So many conncetions. I tthink dancing is also connected to the brain, as is music, in a way that awakens the artistic, wholistic side of us.

  4. Hey!! This is an unbelievably smart blog! Damn.

  5. I just read more. Thank god someone listens. Cheers, ladies!

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