MJ Studies Today XCV

Abstract: This month’s MJ Studies Today, (#95) continues the discussion on Michael Jackson as an advocate for social change. In Part 2, our columnist Kerry Hennigan focuses on “Earth Song” as performed on Jackson’s HIStory world tour, and on the artist’s association with politicians and other public figures in soliciting support for social issues about which he felt strongly or with whom he felt an affinity.

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the free monthly newsletter A Candle for Michael, administrator of the fan group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film Ghosts” on Facebook, and an MJ blogger on WordPress. Kerry is a student of Ancient, Early Medieval and Medieval History, Anthropology and Religious Studies and has Certificates in the Archaeology of the Ancient World and the Archaeology of Ancient Britain from Cambridge University in the UK. Her current studies are focused on the Viking Age.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XCV: From the killing fields and burning forests of ‘Earth Song:’ Michael Jackson as an advocate for social change Part 2.“ (14-11-2023).The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies Vol 10, No. 2 (2023). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xcv/

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From the killing fields and burning forests of ‘Earth Song’- Michael Jackson as an advocate for social change Part 2.  By Kerry Hennigan

Photo montage © Kerry Hennigan

At a time when the Bosnian War (1992-1995) with its acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing was still fresh in people’s minds, Michael Jackson’s performances of “Earth Song” on his HIStory world tour (1996-1997) concluded with the artist standing in front of a tank that came rumbling onto the stage. His actions recalled the iconic image of “Tank Man” from 1989, when a lone protester stood unarmed in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, during China’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations. The anonymous “Tank Man” had subsequently become a symbol of non-violent protest. [1]

When replicating “Tank Man’s” actions for “Earth Song,” Jackson added what was, for him, a crucial element: a child dressed as a war refugee walked on stage to present a sunflower to the armed soldier who had emerged from the tank. Today’s audiences might view this piece of theatre as overly dramatic, and may not even be familiar with “Tank Man.” But, in the context of what had recently been happening in Bosnia, it represented Jackson’s belief that the innocence of children was the means for the salvation of the world. It was also important to Michael that his audiences were reminded that it wasn’t the machines but people, like the soldier from the tank, who were destroying the world. [2] Behind all these acts of aggression were people just like us – people whose lives might be changed by the innocent actions of a child.

If some critics failed to appreciate the archetypal iconography embodied by Jackson in his “Earth Song” performances, accusing him of having messianic delusions, it did not deter Michael. [3] In planning the This Is It O2 residency concerts in 2009, his focus was on the destruction of the rainforest, an issue that had also been addressed in the “Earth Song” lyrics and short film. This time around, the tank was to be replaced by a land-clearing machine ripping up the rainforest, and the refugee child was to be replaced by a girl of the forest, cradling a seedling tree in her hands. Whether it was a war on humanity, or a war on the natural world, in presenting “Earth Song,” Jackson would put himself in front of the machines of destruction, appealing to those controlling the machines to stop, “before it becomes a travesty.” [4]

In an article published in 2020 on the 11th anniversary of Jackson’s death, and titled “The death of public order: On Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ and our changing political, cultural landscape,” Suharsh Sinha noted that Jackson’s short films “like ‘Bad’ and ‘Beat It’ touched on race and class conflict in urban America in the 1980s.” However, Sinha continues: “in the early 90s his videos went beyond domestic strife and addressed a global audience. Revisiting the ‘Black or White’ video in 2020, it is difficult to ignore its benign yet strong political undertones. It serves as an accurate reflection of the liberal world view of the tectonic shifts taking place in global affairs.”[5]

While Jackson himself should probably be described as apolitical when it comes to party politics, his songs showed “a clear political arc” according to Sinha. He would stand with show business friends to support political change, perform at Bill Clinton’s inaugural gala in 1993 and call for the new administration to join the fight against AIDS, and give what would turn out to be his final performance for a live audience at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in 2002. Yet his interest was less about the political party concerned than it was about calling for positive change on issues that concerned him, as were expressed in aspects of his art.

Jackson’s association with politicians was as individuals. Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr hosted him at the White House, First Ladies adored him and Bill Clinton counted him a friend even after his terms in the Oval Office were over. Former President Jimmy Carter stood side by side with Michael in 1993 for the campaign to promote the immunization of children in Los Angeles and Atlanta, Georgia (Carter’s home state) against preventable childhood diseases. This was at a time when UNICEF estimated that vaccinations could prevent two-to-three million deaths a year. [6][7]

Jackson could lend his face, his name, a song or a performance to aid a cause. He recorded charity singles, performed concerts dedicated to humanitarian causes, funded his Heal the World Foundation from his Dangerous tour earnings, and courted sponsors like Pepsi Cola and Frito-Lay who would support his foundation with large donations. [8][9] Being named by Guinness World Records in 2000 for supporting the most charities of any pop star was one of Jackson’s proudest achievements.[10]

Embraced in his lifetime by political and religious peacemakers like Nelson Mandella and the Dalai Lama and humanitarians like Jimmy Carter, Michael Jackson attempted all of his adult life to put Christ’s Sermon on the Mount into daily practice. While this can be attributed to his upbringing, one does not have to be a Christian to appreciate Jackson’s values, or his persistence in the face of ridicule from increasingly cynical writers and publications that had once sang his praises but who subsequently considered him no longer relevant or embarrassing.

Treating life as sacred is what makes humanity human. Brave is the individual, especially a public figure, who acts accordingly and openly proclaims that the answer is love, even spelling it out for us to make sure we understand – “L.O.V.E.” [11] Michael Jackson, off-stage a humble, peace-loving, shy individual, dared to do exactly that with his art, in accordance with his beliefs, and his heart.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

- Matthew 5 14-16 [12]

Kerry Hennigan
11 November 2023


[1] The Guardian. “Thirty years on, the Tiananmen Square image that shocked the world.” Published digitally 12 May 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/11/tank-man-photograph-tiananmen-square-30-years-jeff-widener. Retrieved 11 Nov 2023.

[2]  Vogel, Joseph. Vogel, Joseph. Earth Song. Michael Jackson and the Art of Compassion. Blakevision Books. 2017, page 73.

[3]  Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XXVII – Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’ – the BRIT Awards controversy and performance iconography. (14-03-2018).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 4, no. 3 (2018). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xxvii/ Retrieved 11 November 2023.

[4]  Vogel, Joseph. Earth Song. Michael Jackson and the Art of Compassion. Blakevision Books. 2017, page 73.

[5]   Sinha, Suharsh. “The death of liberal order: On Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or white’ and our changing political, cultural landscape.” www.firstpost.com/entertainment/the-death-of-liberal-order-on-michael-jacksons-black-or-white-and-our-changing-political-cultural-landscape-8488171.html

[6]  michaeljackson.com official website https://www.michaeljackson.com/news/in-1993-mj-worked-with-president-carter-to-help-immunize-children-in-los-angeles-atlanta/. Retrieved 11 Nov 2023.

[7]  Ibid. https://www.michaeljackson.com/news/mj-promoted-atlanta-child-immunization-drive-in-1993/. Retrieved 11 Nov 2023.

[8]  Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XXXIV. Sponsoring Michael Jackson – the matter of Pepsi Cola and their association with the King of Pop (14-10-2018).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 5, No. 2 (2018). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xxxiv/ Retrieved 11 November 2023.

[9]  Hennigan, Kerry. “The Songs that Made the Show that Made History – revisiting Michael Jackson’s performance at Super Bowl XXVII on its 25th anniversary.” Published digitally 9 Feb 2018. https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2018/02/09/the-songs-that-made-the-show-that-made-history-revisiting-michael-jacksons-performance-at-super-bowl-xxvii-on-its-25th-anniversary/. Retrieved 11 November 2023.

[10]  Guinnessworldrecords.com/ “Most charities supported by a pop star.” https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/105188-most-charities-supported-by-a-pop-star. Retrieved 11 Nov 2023.

[11]  Michael Jackson’s This Is It. Columbia Pictures, 2009.

[12]  New Testament. New International Version. Matthew, Chapter 5. Verses 14-16.

Illustration: “what about killing fields?” photo montage created by Kerry Hennigan. Tank Man photograph by Jeff Widener. No infringement of original photographic copyright is intended in this not for profit, educational exercise.