Black or White

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"Black or White"
Michael Jackson - Black or White.png
Single by Michael Jackson
from the album Dangerous
ReleasedNovember 11, 1991
Recorded1989–90[1]
Genre
Length3:22
LabelEpic
Songwriter(s)
Producer(s)
  • Michael Jackson
  • Bill Bottrell
Michael Jackson singles chronology
"Do the Bartman"
(1990)
"Black or White"
(1991)
"Remember the Time"
(1992)
Music video
"Black or White" on YouTube
Audio sample

"Black or White" is a single by American singer-songwriter Michael Jackson. The song was released by Epic Records on November 11, 1991, as the first single from his eighth studio album, Dangerous (1991). He co-wrote, composed, and produced it with Bill Bottrell. The song is a fusion of pop rock, dance and hip hop.[2] Epic Records described the song as "a rock 'n' roll dance song about racial harmony".

"Black or White" peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on December 7, 1991, making it the fastest chart topper, in the USA, since the Beatles' "Get Back". It stayed there for a total of seven weeks. Jackson became the first artist to have number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100, in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s with the song. It is certified 2x Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Around the world, "Black or White" hit number one in 20 countries, including the US, the UK, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the Eurochart Hot 100. It was the best-selling single worldwide of 1992.[3]

The music video for "Black or White" premiered on MTV, BET, VH1, and Fox, which gave them their highest Nielsen ratings ever at the time, as well as the BBC's Top of the Pops in the UK on November 14, 1991. The video was directed by John Landis, who previously directed Thriller. It was co-choreographed by Jackson and Vincent Paterson. It premiered simultaneously in 27 countries, with an audience of 500 million viewers, the most ever for a music video.

"Black or White" was honored with the first Billboard No. 1 World Single.[3] The music video of the song appears on the video albums: Dangerous: The Short Films (long version), Video Greatest Hits – HIStory (long version, without graffiti on VHS version but with graffiti on DVD version), Number Ones (short version), and Michael Jackson's Vision (long version without graffiti). In 2003, Q magazine ranked "Black or White" at number 84 in their list of the "1001 Best Songs Ever".[4]

Background[edit]

"Black or White" was written, composed and produced by Michael Jackson and Bill Bottrell,[5] and was picked as the first single from the album Dangerous. An alternate version was first heard by Sony executives on a plane trip to Neverland, as the third track of the promotional CD acetate. It began to be promoted on radio stations the first week of November 1991 in New York and Los Angeles.[5][6] "Black or White" was officially released one week later, on November 5, 1991.[6]

Composition[edit]

The song has elements of dance, hip hop and hard rock music such as Bill Bottrell's guitars and Jackson's vocal style. This song is played in the key of E major, at the end, was modulates to F major and again to A major, with Jackson's vocal spanning from E3 to E6, and its tempo is measured at 115 BPM.[2][7][8][9][10][11][12]

The song's main riff, played by Bill Bottrell, is often incorrectly attributed to Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash. Slash's guitar playing is actually heard in the skit that precedes the album version of the song[13][14] and he did play the main riff during live performances of the song.

Reception[edit]

Commercial reception[edit]

To prepare the audience for the special occasion of the televised premiere of the "Black or White" video, Epic records released the song (without the accompanying images) to radio stations just two days in advance. In a period of 24 hours, "Black or White", described by the record company as "a rock 'n' roll dance song about racial harmony", had been added to the playlists of 96 percent of 237 of the United States' Top 40 radio stations.[15]

"Black or White" entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 35.[16] A week later it shot up to number three and in its third week, December 7, 1991, it ascended to number one, making it the fastest chart topper since the Beatles' "Get Back", which also won the Hot 100 in just three weeks in 1969 and also his twelfth number-one entry.[16][17] It closed the year at number one, and remained at the top of the singles chart into 1992 for a total of seven weeks, making Michael Jackson the first artist to have number one popular hits in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.[17] In the UK, the single became the first single by an American to go into the singles chart at number one since 1960, when "It's Now or Never" by Elvis Presley did in the same manner.[16] Around the world, "Black or White" hit number one in 20 countries, including the US, the UK, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the Eurochart Hot 100, number two in Germany and Austria and number three in the Netherlands.[16][17][18] Previously, Billie Jean and I Just Can't Stop Loving You had each been number one in 9 countries. The single was certified platinum in the US, selling over one million copies and became the second-best-selling single of the year.[15][17] As of August 2018 the song further certified two-time platinum for the digital sales.[19]

Critical reception[edit]

Reviews of the song were generally favorable. Chris Lacy from Albumism stated that it "merges classic rock with soulful crooning in a call for racial unity."[20] Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic highlighted the song.[21] Larry Flick from Billboard described it as a "surprisingly sparse, but instantly gratifying pop/rocker that reveals his grittiest and most affecting performance in years." He noted further that the guitar appearance by Slash and rap cameo by Bill Bottrell is "purely incidental".[22] Randy Clark and Bryan DeVaney from Cashbox stated, "The unmistakeable voice and style are street-hip and slick, with a catchy melody and some untraditional acoustic guitar work. There is just a hint of both George Michael and Prince in the production."[23] David Browne from Entertainment Weekly praised the song, adding, "He still knows how to fashion a hook that will take up permanent residence in your brain (away from its video, Black or White is spare and effortless)"[24] Alan Jones from Music Week commented, "A bit of patchwork quilt, and something of a disappointment on first hearing, but ultimately it reveals itself as a killer, adding up to far more than sum of its parts. This will go all the way."[25] A reviewer from People magazine stated that "the simple, spry rock riffs" that power the song is "surprisingly effective".[26] Rolling Stone's Alan Light in his Dangerous review, compared the song unfavourably to "Beat It": "Neither this slow-burn solo nor the Stones-derived riff on 'Black or White' offers the catharsis of Eddie Van Halen's blazing break on 'Beat It'".[27] The Pazz & Jop critics' poll ranked "Black or White" at number 19.[28] In 1992, Larry Flick commented on the remixes of the song, "Thanks to deft postproduction by David Cole and Robert Clivillés, the cut kicks a potent groove that nicely complements the original tune's kinetic pop/rock nature."[29]

Remixes[edit]

The Clivillés & Cole remixes for "Black or White", released as a promotional single in 1992, also charted on many European countries. In the UK, it reached number 14, and in Ireland, number 11. The promotional single also surprisingly peaked at number 18 in Australia.[30] Despite the favourable European response to this remix, it was never included on a Michael Jackson album or compilation, except on the third disc of the French & UK versions of Jackson's greatest hits album King of Pop.

Music video[edit]

The music video for "Black or White" premiered on MTV, BET, VH1, and Fox (giving them their highest Nielsen ratings ever at the time)[31] as well as the BBC's Top of the Pops in the UK[32] on November 14, 1991.[33] Along with Jackson, it featured Macaulay Culkin, Tess Harper, Tyra Banks and George Wendt.[34] The video was directed by John Landis, who previously directed Thriller. The music video was filmed from late September to early October 1991.[35] The dance scene with the Native Americans shown in the video was filmed at Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park in Agua Dulce, California.[35] The Native American dancers were organized by Michael Jackson's school friend Joanelle Romero, founder of the Red Nation International Film Festival, featuring her daughter Sage as child dancer.[36] The Native American dancers used their own traditional wardrobe and became the first Native Americans in a non-Native American music video.[37] The production enabled Romero to become an established producer.[37] The scene where Michael Jackson and a dancer appear on the freeway was filmed at 11779 Sheldon Street in Sun Valley, Los Angeles.[35][38]

It was co-choreographed by Jackson and Vincent Paterson. It premiered simultaneously in 27 countries, with an audience of 500 million viewers, the most ever for a music video.[33]

The first few minutes of the video feature an extended version of the song's intro. During this interlude (somewhat similar to Marty Callner's 1984 "We're Not Gonna Take It" video for Twisted Sister[39]), an 11-year-old boy (Macaulay Culkin) is dancing to rock music in his bedroom late at night. His bad-tempered father (George Wendt) bursts into his room and yells at him to stop playing the music and go to sleep. After his father exits out and slams the door behind him (causing a Michael Jackson poster on the door to fall off and its glass frame to smash), the boy retaliates by setting up large speaker cabinets hooked up to an amplifier (with levels of "LOUD", "LOUDER", and "ARE YOU NUTS!?!", respectively; with the dial turned up all the way to "ARE YOU NUTS!?!") behind his father's reclining chair, wearing leather gloves and sunglasses, strapping on an Ernie Ball Music Man EVH signature model guitar and playing a power chord, and telling the father to "Eat this!".[31] The sound then shatters and destroys the house windows and sends his father (seated in the chair) through the roof and halfway around the world, where the actual song begins.[31] The boy's mother (Tess Harper), suggests that his father will be very upset when he gets back. The album version of the song features neither Culkin's nor Wendt's voices; they are replaced by voiceover artists performing a similar intro. The boy's father crashes in Africa, and Jackson sings "Black or White", surrounded by different cultures scene-by-scene.[33]

The video shows scenes in which African Zulu hunters begin dancing by using moves from Southern African dance,[dubious ] with Jackson following their moves and them mirroring his; as do, in sequence, traditional Thai dancers, Plains Native Americans (located at the Vasquez Rocks formation in California), a Sri Lankan Tamil Odissi dancer[40] and a group of Russians[31] (wearing Ukrainian clothing and dancing the Hopak), the final scene of which is contained in a snowglobe, which two babies (one white and one black) are playing with who then appear to be sitting on planet Earth in space. Jackson then walks defiantly through visual collages of fire (declaring "I ain't scared of no sheets; I ain't scared of nobody"), referring to KKK torch ceremonies before a mock rap scene joined with Culkin and other children (including Michael's niece Brandi and Wade Robson; as well as Mark Pugh and David Shelton of Another Bad Creation).[33] The group collectively states, "I'm not gonna spend my life being a color." The final verse is performed by Jackson on a large sculpted torch, which the camera pans out to reveal as the Statue of Liberty (New York). Jackson is seen singing on the Statue of Liberty's torch surrounded by other famous world structures including the Giza Sphinx (Egypt), Hagia Sophia (Turkey), Pamukkale (Turkey), the Parthenon (Greece), Taj Mahal (India), St. Basil's Cathedral (Russia), Pyramids of Giza (Egypt), Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco), Big Ben (London) and the Eiffel Tower (Paris).

At the end of the video, different people of different ethnicities and nationalities, including actor Glen Chin, model Tyra Banks, actress Khrystyne Haje, and actor Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter, dance as they morph into one another (shown as "talking heads"). This technique had been previously used only in movies such as Willow and Terminator 2. The morphing visual effects were created by Pacific Data Images.[16] In the extended version of the music video, after the song, a black panther walks out of the studio and emerges into Jackson, as he dances furiously in the street and destroys a glass beer bottle, a building window, and a parked car labeled with spray-painted racist words in a city street. He tears off his shirt and screams with grand drama as the hotel neon sign falls. After his damage and rampage, he re-emerges into a panther. Finally, Bart Simpson from The Simpsons jams to the song while watching it on the TV. Homer yells at him to "Turn off that noise!" Bart replies, "Chill out, Homeboy." Then, Homer angrily turns the TV off. The static then cuts to a close-up of Jackson with the tagline "prejudice is ignorance".

The music video of the song appears on the video albums: Dangerous: The Short Films (long version), Video Greatest Hits – HIStory (long version, without graffiti on VHS version but with graffiti on DVD version), Number Ones (short version), and Michael Jackson's Vision (long version without graffiti).

Controversy and censorship[edit]

Music video comparison
A comparison between the two versions of Michael Jackson's "Black or White" music video: the original version and the computer-altered racist graffiti version (with the messages reading "Hitler Lives" with swastika, "Nigger Go Home", "No More Wetbacks" and "KKK Rules")

Controversy was generated concerning the last four minutes of the original music video. A black panther walks out of the studio and then morphs into Jackson.[33] Then he walks outside to perform some of his most physically slick dance moves, in a similar way to "Billie Jean". The scene is also very similar to that of a commercial Jackson appeared in for L.A. Gear in 1989. This part contained sexually suggestive scenes when Jackson starts to grab his crotch,[31] and then zips his pants up. In the original version, Jackson is seen smashing windows,[31] destroying a car with his arm and a crowbar, destroying windows with a steering wheel and a trash can, and causing an inn (called the "Royal Arms Hotel") to explode. Jackson later apologized saying that the violent and suggestive behavior was an interpretation of the animalistic instincts of a panther into a dance, and MTV and other music video networks removed the last four minutes from subsequent broadcasts.[33] To make the vandalism and violence more understandable to viewers, an altered version was produced, with racial messages added via CGI graffiti to the windows Jackson breaks. The version included in the boxed set Michael Jackson's Vision is the aired, televised version without the graffiti, and does not include the "prejudice is ignorance" title card.

To date, the uncut version has generally been seen in the United States on MTV2 only between the hours of 1:00 and 4:00, as part of their special uncut airing of the "Most Controversial Music Videos" of all time. The extended version is also available on Michael's DVDs. The original version (without graffiti) is available on the DVD releases of Video Greatest Hits – HIStory with the VHS and LaserDisc release containing the aired version, and online at MTVMusic.com. It was still shown in its entirety for some years in Europe. Indeed, UK channel MTV Classic aired the full video at 14:00 on April 11, 2010, including the cameo appearance by Bart Simpson and Homer Simpson before the "prejudice is ignorance" image. MTV Classic have continued to air the full video post-watershed and recently aired in September 2012.

The uncut version was also shown in Australia at 11:45 pm AEST on Saturday June 2, 2012 as the first song on the weekly late-night, guest-programmed music video show Rage, on ABC1 and in Europe (except Italy, San Marino and the United Kingdom), on VH1 Classic at 21:30 CET on Saturday, September 29, 2018.

The first version made available in the iTunes Store contains neither the panther scene nor The Simpsons' cameo, and is cut after the morphing sequence. Since then, a new version has been released with the graffiti and The Simpsons cameo called "Black or White (Michael Jackson's Vision)."

Starting with the Dangerous Tour and continuing with the HIStory Tour, the "Panther Dance" from the video was played as an interlude. The clip is several seconds shorter than the original, omitting all the violence (Jackson destroying the car and windows) and the sexually suggestive scenes when Jackson starts to grab his crotch.[33] The scene of the trousers re-zipping was retained. In predominantly Muslim countries during the HIStory Tour, the scene was replaced with the Carmina Burana "Brace Yourself" montage originally used as the intro during the Dangerous Tour.

Track listings[edit]

Cultural impact[edit]

In 1991, "Weird Al" Yankovic recorded a parody of "Black or White" titled "Snack All Night", which was never released. Although Jackson was a long-time supporter of Yankovic's work and had approved past parodies, he told Yankovic that he was reluctant to approve a parody of "Black or White" because of the message of the song.[49] Yankovic believes that Jackson's rejection of the parody was ultimately for the best, because he was unsatisfied with the quality of the song and its scrapping left room on his next album for "Smells Like Nirvana", one of his biggest hits.[49] As with other rejected parodies, Yankovic has performed "Snack All Night" during his concerts.[50]

The music video, particularly the "Panther Segment", have been referenced or parodied by television shows and artists. In 1991, English rock band Genesis parodied the "Black or White" video in the ending of their video for "I Can't Dance", in which member Phil Collins imitates Michael Jackson's "panther" fit in front of a stark white background.[51] In 2012, the television show Glee covered the song in the episode "Michael", it features primary voices from Kevin McHale, Lea Michele, Chris Colfer, Amber Riley and Naya Rivera, and backing vocals from the rest of the cast. Jenna Ushkowitz and Darren Criss are not featured in the song or the performance. This cover debuted and peaked at number 64 on the Billboard Hot 100, number 42 at Billboard Digital Songs, and number 69 at Billboard Canadian Hot 100 chart at the week of February 18, 2012.[52]

Charts and certifications[edit]

Personnel[edit]

  • Written and composed by Michael Jackson
  • Rap lyrics by Bill "L.T.B." Bottrell
  • Produced by Michael Jackson and Bill Bottrell
  • Recorded and mixed by Bill Bottrell
  • Bryan Loren: Drums
  • Brad Buxer and Bill Bottrell: Percussion
  • Bryan Loren (moog) and Terry Jackson (bass guitar): Bass
  • Brad Buxer, John Barnes and Jasun Martz: Keyboards
  • Bill Bottrell: Guitar
  • Tim Pierce: Heavy metal guitar
  • Michael Boddicker, Kevin Gilbert: Speed sequencer
  • Morphing Sound Effect: Scott Frankfurt
  • Rap performance by L.T.B. (pseudonym for Bill Bottrell)[119]
  • "Intro":
    • Composed by Bill Bottrell
    • Directed by Michael Jackson
    • Engineering and sound design: Matt Forger
    • Guitars by Slash

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