The Number Ones

December 7, 1991

The Number Ones: Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White”

Stayed at #1:

7 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


Normal people are not cut out to be pop stars. To truly capture hearts and imaginations around the planet, you have to be an outsized figure, a wild outlier. Once upon a time, Michael Jackson was one of the strangest people on earth — a former baby star who’d tenaciously clung to the trappings of a childhood that he’d never had a chance to live. But that strangeness only helped Michael Jackson become galactically famous. People constantly made fun of Michael Jackson; he was a running cultural punchline by 1991. At the same time, though, people kept paying attention, and they kept buying records.

To people like me, kids in the ’80s and the early ’90s, Michael Jackson might as well have been Bart Simpson or Michelangelo. (Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle, not Michelangelo the artist.) Jackson was a flesh-and-blood human being who’d willed himself into a cartoon-character status. The world’s biggest pop star was still making music, but he’d transcended pop and become the changing face of popular culture. This couldn’t last, and it didn’t. But you won’t find a better example of Jackson’s pop-culture centrality than the night that his “Black Or White” video had its triumphant debut.

“Black Or White” was the first single from Dangerous, Jackson’s follow-up to Bad, the 1987 album that had spawned five different #1 hits. But calling “Black Or White” a “single” feels oddly reductive. “Black Or White” might have been a song, but it was more of a cultural event. Jackson was used to making cultural events. Nearly a decade earlier, his album Thriller had redefined the limits of pop stardom, transforming him into one of the most recognizable people on the planet. After that, Jackson spent the next decade-plus chasing the dominance of Thriller, pushing pop into the realm of bigger, louder spectacle — a process that reached its apotheosis with that “Black Or White” video.

For the “Black Or White” video, Michael Jackson worked once again with John Landis, the Hollywood A-lister who’d directed his boundary-shattering “Thriller” video. (“Thriller” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) Once again, Landis turned a Michael Jackson video into a big-budget short film, surrounding the star with props and costumes and backup dancers and cutting-edge special effects. At this point, Landis was past his prime as a big-studio filmmaker, and he was coming off of Oscar, a Sylvester Stallone screwball comedy that had flopped badly earlier in 1991. But if that failure affected Landis’ confidence, it didn’t show in “Black Or White,” an unhinged 11-minute cinematic bugout.

The “Black Or White” video isn’t really a music video, just as “Black Or White” itself is really only barely a song. Instead, “Black Or White” was conceived and executed as a major cultural event, and that’s how the world took it. The video debuted before a global audience in prime time one Thursday night in November. In the US, its premiere was simulcast on MTV, VH1, BET, and the fledgling Fox network, and it debuted just after the soapbox derby episode of The Simpsons, Fox’s massive animated hit. (Two months earlier, Jackson himself has done an uncredited guest-voice role on The Simpsons. He played Leon Kompowsky, a psychiatric-hospital inmate who was convinced that he was really Michael Jackson. Even in a cartoon world as heightened as The Simpsons, it didn’t make sense that an average American family would come into contact with the real Michael Jackson.) An estimated 500 million people around the world watched the “Black Or White” premiere, and the event gave Fox its biggest ratings ever to that point.

The song “Black Or White” doesn’t start until about two minutes into the video. Instead, the video’s open has a camera hurtling through clouds and down suburban streets, right into the bedroom of 11-year-old Macaulay Culkin. A year earlier, Culkin had starred in the surprise monster hit Home Alone, and he’d become the only figure who loomed larger in brat culture than Bart Simpson himself. George Wendt, star of NBC’s own Thursday-night blockbuster Cheers, stands in for grumpy white American middle-class dads everywhere. He hears Culkin jamming out to some rock guitars — recorded by Slash, from previous Number Ones artists Guns N’ Roses — and yells at him to turn that garbage off, dramatically slamming a door and shattering a Michael Jackson poster.

Culkin retaliates by plugging in a giant Spinal Tap amp, cranking the volume into “are you nuts?!?” territory, and blasting Wendt through his roof, thus meting out the same sort of slapstick vengeance that he’d already visited upon bumbling burglars Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Tessa Harper, nominated for an Oscar for Crimes Of The Heart five years earlier, says that dad will be very upset when he gets back.

Wendt and his recliner then land in, I guess, Africa, where a group of Zulu tribesmen stalk lions across a veldt. Suddenly, they abandon their hunting mission to dance with Michael Jackson. Wendt leans forward, confused, but Michael Jackson isn’t there to explain things to him. From that moment on, Michael Jackson will go jumping through time and space, and George Wendt will no longer be a part of his narrative. Watching at home with my family, I’d already decided that this was the best music video I’d ever seen before the song even started. When Jackson’s Dangerous album came out a couple of weeks later, “Black Or White” included that whole George Wendt/Macaulay Culkin intro skit — essentially admitting to the world that the music-video theatrics were part of the song.

From that opening, the “Black Or White” video gets even weirder. Jackson dances with an Epcot Center’s worth of vaguely sketched-out cultural figures, from Thailand and Russia and Sri Lanka and the American plains. When the song gets loud, cannons explode and crosses burn, but Michael Jackson is unbowed, strutting toward the camera and reasserting that he’s not scared. There’s a quick interlude, where Macaulay Culkin reappears, all decked out in circa-’91 hip-hop fashion and lip-syncing a rap verse written and recorded by Bill Bottrell, the middle-aged white guy who co-wrote and co-produced “Black Or White.” Culkin is on a stoop, surrounded by Michael Jackson and fellow kids, including future Michael Jackson sexual-abuse accuser Wade Robson and two members of kiddie-rap sensations Another Bad Creation. (Another Bad Creation’s highest-charting single, 1990’s “Iesha,” peaked at #9. It’s a 6.)

After Macaulay Culkin’s big rap showcase, Michael Jackson is dancing on the torch of the Statue Of Liberty while various other global landmarks loom in the near distance, the whole world shrunken to include only its most famous buildings. Then we get the utopian-nightmare sequence where a whole bunch of different faces, including that of budding supermodel Tyra Banks, melt into one another, showcasing the morphing technology that was still new at the time. (Terminator 2 had just come out a few months earlier.) Even today, though, watching that morphing sequence makes me feel like I’m on angel dust. Then John Landis yells cut, and a black panther wanders off the film set and into a backlot street. There, the panther morphs into Michael Jackson, who starts screaming and smashing shit and grabbing his dick.

The extended post-song street sequence from the “Black Or White” video was truly confounding in my living room in 1991, and it caused a vast freakout of its own. That scene is a deeply strange work of pop-star indulgence. There’s no music, just Michael Jackson’s grunts and howls and kung-fu-movie sound effects as he poses his way across this seemingly-abandoned street. He grabs his crotch a lot, and Landis gives it a loving close-up. He also throws a trash can through a plate glass window like Spike Lee in Do The Right Thing and shatters a car’s windows. When Jackson morphs back into a panther, he leaves sparking wreckage behind him. Then, it’s a quick cameo from Bart and Homer Simpson, there to recreate that Macaulay Culkin/George Wendt energy.

It was jarring, transitioning from the post-racial CGI hyper-reality of the main video to the strange, clenched anger of its extended coda. Mainline circa-1991 popular culture didn’t really have the vocabulary to process an angry Black pop idol, so the omni-directional rage and frustration of that coda led to parents’ groups getting mad about all the crotch-grabs. In response, Jackson removed the coda, and the full video basically disappeared for years, with only the cheery parts remaining. I had no idea what to make of any of this as a 12-year-old. But maybe all the publicity from that staged one-man riot helped “Black Or White” remain at #1 for longer than any Michael Jackson single since “Billie Jean.”

I’m spending all this time on the “Black Or White” video, rather than the song, since the video was clearly what Michael Jackson wanted to put into the world. The song itself was almost an afterthought. It’s certainly an anomaly on Dangerous, the album where Jackson attempted to catch up to a changing pop-music landscape. Jackson stopped recording with longtime producer Quincy Jones after Bad, and he started working on what would become Dangerous almost immediately thereafter. The original idea was to release a greatest-hits album with a few added-on songs, but Jackson eventually decided that his new songs should become a whole new album and that they should represent a new sound.

Three years after Bad, Michael Jackson was contending with a whole new reality where his baby sister Janet had arguably become an even bigger star than he was. Michael was preoccupied with new jack swing, the harsh and percussive Black pop style that Janet had helped introduce to the world, and he recorded much of Dangerous with Teddy Riley, the young new jack swing auteur behind #1 hits from Bobby Brown and Hi-Five. Working with Riley, Jackson tapped into a new version of the primal James Brown-style funk that he’d made with his brothers in his pre-Motown childhood days. But “Black Or White” isn’t a Teddy Riley track, and it sounds nothing like a Teddy Riley track.

Instead, Michael Jackson recorded “Black Or White” with Bill Bottrell, a 39-year-old California native who’d started out as a recording engineer for Electric Light Orchestra in the late ’70s. As an engineer, Bottrell had first worked with Michael Jackson on the Jackson’s Victory album in 1984. He’d kept working with Jackson on Bad, and he’d also done engineering work on records like Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and Madonna’s Like A Prayer. Bottrell had also co-produced Thomas Dolby’s 1988 album Aliens Ate My Buick, and when Jackson started working on Dangerous, he wanted Bottrell in there with him. Jackson knew that Bottrell played a bunch of instruments, so he’d hum little snatches of melodies or riffs to Bottrell and then task Bottrell with putting those sounds on record.

It sounds like “Black Or White” took forever, as did the rest of Dangerous. Jackson recorded something like 60 songs for the album, and he spent about $10 million recording it. (That’s not including video budgets.) Jackson could afford to do this, since he’d recently struck a new deal with Epic, signing the biggest contract extension in the history of recorded music to that point. “Black Or White,” with its generalized racial-harmony message and its jittery quasi-rock riff, is clearly Jackson’s attempt to make a world-uniting single, a song that could cross all perceived boundaries that might divide up genres or radio formats. It’s not Michael Jackson doing his version of a rock record, the way he’d done on “Beat It” or “Dirty Diana.” It’s messier than that.

“Black Or White” is a message song, but its message is simple and arguably naive enough that it might as well not exist. Jackson wants the world to know that it don’t matter if you’re Black or white. He believes in miracles, and a miracle has happened tonight: His baby doesn’t care about race. Jackson wants that message in the Saturday Sun, but noise keeps getting in the way. He’s tired of this devil, tired of this stuff, tired of this business. He’s not scared of you, brother, and he’s not scared of no sheets — a reference to the KKK, presumably. On the guest-rap bit, a mysterious entity known as LTB laments all the gangs, clubs, and nations causing grief in human relations — a turf war on a global scale. LTB isn’t having any of this. He’s not going to spend his life being a color.

LTB never had to spend his life being a color because LTB never recorded another rap verse. LTB was really just the rap alias that Bill Bottrell invented for himself. Bottrell had been trying to figure out what to do with the dead space in the middle of “Black Or White,” and he eventually hit on the idea of a rap bridge, writing and recording that verse as a placeholder to show what should be in there. Bottrell wanted to use a real rapper on the song — someone like LL Cool J, who’d recorded some never-released vocals for Dangerous, or Heavy D, who had a quick verse on album opener “Jam.” In a Vice interview years later, Bottrell said, “I’m not a rapper, and I did not intend to be a white guy who’s rapping on there.” But Jackson loved what he’d written, and he might’ve also loved the clumsiness of his delivery, which sounds a bit like an impression of Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy leader Michael Franti: “The fact that I’m white and I did that rap kind of speaks to the content of the song. So in [Jackson’s] mind, it all came together.”

In that Vice interview, Bottrell said that his manager got record-label inquiries about a potential LTB album — presumably from people who didn’t realize that LTB was just Bill Bottrell. Bottrell did not pursue a rap career. Instead, shortly after the release of Dangerous, Bottrell put together an informal collective of musicians who got together to play music once a week and who called themselves the Tuesday Night Music Club. One of the members of that club was Sheryl Crow, a former touring backup singer for Michael Jackson. The group’s songwriting sessions essentially developed into Crow’s 1993 debut album Tuesday Night Music Club, which Bottrell produced and which ended up selling nearly as many copies as Dangerous. (Bottrell co-wrote Crow’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “All I Wanna Do,” which peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)

Anyway, back to the Michael Jackson song in question. As a piece of music, “Black Or White” fits together as a heterogeneous jumble — a jigsaw puzzle with a few alien pieces jammed into places where they don’t belong. The central guitar riff, played by Bottrell himself, is bright and funky, vaguely Stones-esque. The percussion underneath it keeps popping hard, and it’s got a nice little groove. But then the groove switches into pulsating techno with chopped-up metal guitars, then to the awkward stadium-rap of that Bill Bottrell verse, then back into the regular groove so that Jackson can sing the outro hook over and over. Jackson’s vocal is ticcy and percussive, pushing up against the groove by becoming part of it. He goes so deep into his yips and grunts that you can’t always make out his lyrics, which is weird for a message song. But Jackson was always going to have a hard time selling that message.

When “Black Or White” came out, it was an instant-cliché punchline to point out that Michael Jackson himself no longer looked especially Black or white. Jackson suffered from vitiligo, a condition that made his skin light and patchy, and he used makeup to cover it up. But Jackson didn’t talk publicly about his vitiligo until an Oprah Winfrey interview two years after “Black Or White,” so a lot of people assumed that he was bleaching his skin in an effort to appear white. That changing skin tone, along with the clearly visible effects of his plastic surgeries, made Jackson look a bit like post-human, hyperreal figure. He’d been an icon of Black music ever since his childhood, but he had to deal with the idea that he was trying not to be Black. Maybe that’s why he sounds so angry on the “Black Or White” bridge. But then, Michael Jackson had sounded angry on record ever since Thriller. He had a lot to be angry about.

Michael Jackson never had the slightest shot at living a normal life, and even his strange pop-star existence presumably got even stranger after the tabloid media started treating him like a freak. Given all the sexual-abuse allegations that started coming out soon afterward, the sight of Michael Jackson and Macaulay Culkin together has always been discomfiting. But Culkin has denied, again and again, that Jackson ever sexually abused him in any way. I honestly believe that Michael Jackson and Macaulay Culkin probably related to each other more than anyone ever knew. Both of these guys had come out of deeply fucked-up show-business families and become Pope-level famous at age 11. Nobody else knows how that feels. It’s possible that nobody else has ever had to face the levels of public scrutiny that followed Jackson in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“Black Or White” is almost certainly Michael Jackson’s attempt to make an upbeat anthem of racial unity — an optimistic song for a new age. But it ran up against the realities of Michael Jackson and 1991. No single song could overcome all that context, and “Black Or White” will always be deeply tied to its video and its moment. As a song, it’s pretty decent. As a cultural text, it’s overwhelming.

“Black Or White” was a smash, of course. It rose up to #1 faster than any single since the Beatles’ “Get Back” 22 years earlier, and then it held that spot into 1992. The “Black Or White” single eventually went double platinum. Dangerous debuted at #1, and it went platinum eight times over. But in terms of sheer popularity, Dangerous was still a big step down from Bad, which itself was a big step down from Thriller. “Black Or White” was the only chart-topping single from the album.

In February of 1992, Jackson gave the same grand rollout to his video for follow-up single “Remember The Time,” which again debuted simultaneously on a bunch of networks. The clip for “Remember The Time” is just as epic as the one for “Black Or White,” and it’s considerably better. It’s also much more definitively Black. John Singleton, who’d just made Boyz N The Hood, directed the “Remember The Time” clip, setting it in ancient Egypt. The clip is full of Black celebrities: Eddie Murphy, Magic Johnson, Iman. The members of the Pharcyde are backup dancers. The song itself is one of Jackson’s best Teddy Riley collabs. But that same strategy couldn’t push “Remember The Time” to the top, and the single peaked at #3. (It’s an 8.)

Jackson’s next single was “In The Closet,” another one that he made with Teddy Riley. “In The Closet” was originally conceived as a Madonna collaboration, but it ended up featuring the vocals of Monaco’s Princess Stéphanie instead. In the Herb Ritts-directed video, Jackson danced with Naomi Campbell and did his best to radiate sexuality. It didn’t really work, and “In The Closet” peaked at #6. (It’s a 7.)

Other Dangerous singles peaked outside the top 10 — “Jam” at #26, “Who Is It?” at #14, the maudlin “Heal The World” at #27 — before Jackson returned to the Hot 100’s upper reaches with “Will You Be There,” an utterly gorgeous Dangerous album track given new life when it appeared on the soundtrack of the 1993 whale movie Free Willy. (“Will You Be There” peaked at #7. It’s a 10.)

Michael Jackson remained a figure of widespread fascination even as his pop-chart profile diminished. When Jackson performed at the hugely promoted Super Bowl halftime show in 1993, for instance, his halftime show got better ratings than the game itself. After “Black Or White,” though, Michael Jackson no longer existed as a central figure within pop music. Quickly, he became a kind of sideshow. When Jackson was first accused of sexually assaulting a child in 1993, the allegations got a ton of press, but I don’t remember anyone being surprised. Jackson existed in some strange stratospheric level of celebrity, and anything seemed possible.

Even after those allegations, though, Michael Jackson could still come out with a #1 hit. He’ll appear in this column again.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: The “Black Or White” video became a widely-parodied pop-culture nugget almost immediately. A month and a half after the “Black Or White” video debuted, former Number Ones artists Genesis released their deeply goofy video for the comeback single “I Can’t Dance,” and it ended with Phil Collins spoofing the “Black Or White” outro, dramatically zipping up his pants. Here’s that video:

(“I Can’t Dance” peaked at #7. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In a 1992 “Black Or White” parody, In Living Color went for the ultimate low-hanging fruit. Tommy Davidson played Jackson as a racially confused figure: “I got a nose job and changed my skin and made my skin light/ Look me in the face, and tell me if you think I’m Black or white.” In the end, he finds out. Here’s that sketch:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: “Weird Al” Yankovic, a guy who had a lot of success with Michael Jackson parodies over the years, wrote a “Black Or White” parody called “Snack All Night.” Yankovic always asked permission for his parodies, and Jackson was usually happy to go along with it, but he felt that the lyrics of “Black Or White” were too serious for that kind of treatment. Yankovic, respecting Jackson’s wishes, never released “Snack All Night,” but he did perform the song at live shows. Here’s a video of Yankovic performing “Snack All Night” in 1992:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Brazilian tropicalia icon Caetano Veloso was always fascinated with Michael Jackson, and he sometimes covered “Black Or White” live. Here’s a video of Veloso singing his version of “Black Or White” in 1992:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Just before Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, Adam Lambert performed “Black Or White” on American Idol. Here’s his performance:

(Adam Lambert’s highest-charting single, 2009’s “Whataya Want From Me,” peaked at #10. It’s a 6.)

THE 10S: Nirvana’s eternal bubble-roar “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” an actual generational anthem, peaked at #6 behind “Black Or White.” It’s here now, and it entertains us. It’s a 10.

(Last year, at donor request, I wrote a whole bonus column about “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”)

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