Abstract: In this column Kerry Hennigan looks at Michael Jackson’s performances of “Earth Song” on awards shows, and specifically the BRITs Awards in 1996 and the controversy that was generated by protests at what some thought of as his depiction of himself as a Christ-like figure.
Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, and administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group, Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts.
Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XXVII (14-03-2018).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 5, no. 2 (2018). http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xxvii/.
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Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”- the BRIT Awards controversy and performance iconography by Kerry Hennigan
Michael Jackson’s rare live performances of “Earth Song” on award shows were highly theatrical productions employing a chorus of actors, dancers and children all clustered around him at the finale as he transformed from a tattered petitioner to the heavens into a luminous being of healing and salvation.
Messianic? Some thought so when he performed the song at the British Phonographic Industry’s BRIT Awards in February 1996. Most famously, Jarvis Cocker jumped onto the stage with Peter Mansell, a former member of Cocker’s band Pulp, and dropped his drawers and waggled his backside at the audience to show his disgust.
Or, was it just a bit of self-serving theatre of his own at the expense of Jackson and his cast members? As the Pulp band’s entry in Wikipedia states, “This incident propelled Cocker into great controversy in the UK and elsewhere, and Pulp’s record sales soared as a result. The event also coincided with the beginning of their first arena tour…” 
The incident has gone down in pop culture history and, twenty-two years later, is still being talked about. As recently as February 2018, it was ranked at No. 1 on a list of “The top 10 most shocking Brit Awards moments of all time”. 
Following the performance, Jackson’s management issued a statement which read:
“Michael Jackson respects Pulp as artists but is totally shocked by their behaviour and utterly fails to understand their complete lack of respect for fellow artists and performers.
“He feels sickened, saddened, shocked, upset, cheated, angry, but is immensely proud that the cast remained professional and the show went on despite the disgusting and cowardly behavior of the two characters that tried to disrupt it. His main concern is for the people that worked for him and the fact that children should be attacked…” 
Cocker insisted he never touched any of the children and was insulted by such an accusation. He was released without charge after spending the night being questioned at the local police station.
Cocker’s protest had supposedly been “a spur of the moment decision brought on by boredom and frustration.”
“My actions were a form of protest at the way Michael Jackson sees himself as some kind of Christ-like figure with the power of healing,” he said. “The music industry allows him to indulge his fantasies because of his wealth and power. People go along with it even though they know it’s a bit sick. I just couldn’t go along with it anymore…All I was trying to do was make a point and do something that lots of other people would have loved to have done if only they’d dared.” 
However, an archived Pulp blog suggests that during Michael’s performance “Some of the audience, including the Island Records entourage who had seen the entire performance rehearsed earlier, found this all rather distasteful. Jarvis commented to his near neighbours that they could make some sort of protest, and Candida bet him that he wouldn’t dare to do it… Only Jarvis and Peter Mansell actually managed to get on the stage, but it is believed that others including Island artist Tricky also tried.” 
Predictably, while the official reaction was one of outrage, there were music critics and other artists who hailed Cocker’s behaviour. Melody Maker suggested he should be knighted , and Noel Gallagher of Oasis proclaimed, “Jarvis Cocker is a star” and deserving of an MBE.
Writing shortly after the incident, one critic opined that “it would appear that no stunt has been dismissed as too ludicrous in rebuilding [Jackson’s] squeaky clean image which was so damaged by the [Chandler] allegations” and that Michael’s performance of “Earth Song” at the BRITs could be viewed as “merely the latest stage in his rehabilitation”. 
Others weren’t even this considerate, with Brian Eno suggesting “unfortunately” Michael was “turning into a great prat.”
While no doubt there are some who still consider that Michael Jackson was equating himself with Jesus Christ, more recent – and better informed – analysis of his work reveals its multiple layers of meaning.
Visual artist Constance Pierce has written about Jackson’s influence on her allegorical drawings, and explains that, following his death, she found a cache of startling imagery embedded within his work. Her own art employs some of these “archetypal images [that] bear witness to the afflictions of the world, to the turmoil of interior anxieties, and to the ubiquitous consequences of conflict and greed.” 
Referencing Pierce’s revelations, Joseph Vogel, in his monograph on “Earth Song”, explains that, “Jackson was using messianic gestures and symbols not because he literally thought he was the messiah, but because of what tapping into that archetype could express and communicate artistically. As a dancer and performance artist, his body acted as his canvas. ‘Embodying’ the song meant becoming whatever the music and lyrics dictated to him.” 
Whether performed in concert or on stage at an awards show like the BRITs, “Earth Song” was designed to provoke powerful emotions. It was/is nothing less than a call to action in which the iconography employed by Jackson plays a vital role in delivering his message.
Viewed from this perspective, his performances of “Earth Song” take on a new depth of meaning, offering possibilities for further discourse and informed interpretation, whereas in retrospect, as suggested by Vogel, it is the “sanctimonious defence of Jesus” coming from the non-religious Cocker “that seems silly and egotistical.” 
 “Pulp (band)” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulp_(band)
 Laura Hannam “The top 10 most shocking Brit Awards moments of all time” http://tv.bt.com/tv/tv-news/the-top-10-most-shocking-brit-awards-moments-of-all-time-11364250323517
 Anthony “the Brits 1996” blog post https://web.archive.org/web/20090221215457/http://www.mlp.cz/space/opatrilp/Pulp/the_Brits_96.html
 Melody Maker magazine, March 2, 1996.
 John McKie “Cocker’s stage invasion strikes chord in Michael Jackson row” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/cockers-stage-invasion-strikes-chord-in-michael-jackson-row-1320473.html
 Constance Pierce: “RUACH HAKODESH: The Epiphanic and Cosmic Nature of Imagination in the Art of Michael Jackson” The Cosmos and the Creative Imagination, Springer International Publishing © 2016 | constance pierce – Academia.edu
 Joseph Vogel “Earth Song: Michael Jackson and the Art of Compassion” Blakevision Books, New York 2017. https://www.amazon.com/Earth-Song-Michael-Jackson-Compassion/dp/1976106478/
 Joseph Vogel “Earth Song: Michael Jackson and the Art of Compassion”.