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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.