The Number Ones

September 2, 1995

The Number Ones: Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

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Here you have it: The most cancelled #1 hit of all time. In its moment, “You Are Not Alone” already felt shady. Michael Jackson was attempting to bounce back after a child molestation accusation mangled his already-complicated public image. In response, Jackson’s big move was to release a double album — one greatest-hits disc, one disc of angry and paranoid songs about how the world had betrayed him. “You Are Not Alone,” Jackson’s 13th and final #1 hit, was the softest and sweetest new song on the album, the one point where he didn’t really sound panicked and freaked-out. The person who wrote this grandly swooning ballad for Jackson was R. Kelly, and that’s a whole other mess.

When it came out, “You Are Not Alone” became the first song ever to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100. The SoundScan era had made that kind of thing possible, and now it happens all the time. But the song’s success still showed just how much space Michael Jackson took up in the public imagination. Today, though, “You Are Not Alone” mostly stands as an uncomfortable curiosity. Two deeply troubled and fucked-up people joined forces to make a #1 hit, and the song could never be grand or special enough to drown out all the context that will always surround it.

Michael Jackson was deep into the Dangerous album cycle when the first accusations came out. At that point, Jackson’s star was already starting to dim. “Black Or White,” the first single from Dangerous, had a nice long run at #1, but the album’s other singles missed the top of the charts, even after all the hype of the rollouts for the videos. Then, in August of 1993, a 13-year-old boy named Jordan Chandler said that Jackson had sexually abused him. The case was noisy and complicated, and various different parties came forward to make statements for or against Jackson before retracting those statements. Police strip-searched Jackson to see whether his junk matched the kid’s description. Eventually, Jackson settled the kid’s family’s lawsuit, and police never charged him. Jackson’s reputation never recovered.

The world was a different place in 1993. I have no idea how people would react if the most popular star in the world was charged with child molestation now. In 1993, though, the world mostly responded with jokes. At least anecdotally, I can remember a whole lot of people just assuming that the charges against Jackson were true. But instead of reacting with outrage or horror, people just clowned the whole situation — making fun of Jackson, the kid, the kid’s parents, everyone. People had been making jokes about Michael Jackson for a long time, but those jokes hadn’t been enough to pierce the magical bubble that seemed to surround Jackson. After those accusations, Jackson just became a kind of laughingstock. He didn’t deal with it well.

Jackson was already struggling with constantly being in the public eye and with a painkiller addiction that started up after he’d been badly burned in a TV-commercial shoot years earlier. In 1993, Jackson cancelled a bunch of tour dates and married Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of the other biggest star in pop history. That marriage came off as a deeply uncomfortable publicity stunt, especially after the two of them made out onstage at the beginning of the 1994 VMAs. They broke up in 1995.

The constant noise surrounding Michael Jackson drowned out his actual music, but Jackson kept recording. Epic had planned to release a Jackson greatest-hits album, and it was supposed to come out in time for Christmas 1994. Jackson worked on a few new tracks to include with the album, but once he had five songs, Jackson decided that he wanted to go ahead and make a whole album. That idea led to the 1995 release of the preposterously titled HIStory: Past, Present And Future, Book I. It’s easy enough to understand the thinking here. The greatest-hits CD would remind the world of all these incredible, incandescent songs that Michael Jackson had recorded. The new studio-album disc would point towards the future and remind everyone of what Michael Jackson could do. It didn’t quite work out like that.

The new-album half of HIStory is Michael Jackson’s attempt to prove that he could still compete in a 1995 pop context. To that end, he worked with a bunch of the biggest hitmakers of that era — Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, David Foster, R. Kelly. Future Number Ones artist Biggie Smalls raps on one song; future four-time NBA champion Shaquille O’Neal raps on another. Boyz II Men sing backing vocals. Slash plays guitar. It’s a star-studded affair, a blockbuster production. To promote the album, giant statues of Michael Jackson showed up around the world. Michael Jackson wanted the jokes to end, and he wanted the world to regard him, once again, as an idol — possibly a literal one.

For “Scream,” the first single from HIStory, Michael Jackson teamed up with his baby sister Janet, who’d come to eclipse him commercially, to sing about being disgusted by injustice and wanting the world to stop pressuring him. Michael co-produced the song with Janet and her prime collaborators Jam and Lewis, and Mark Romanek directed the video, which was, in its moment, the most expensive ever made. That video probably launched the era of R&B videos that took place on spaceships, which I really enjoyed. “Scream” became the first single to debut in the top 10, where it peaked at #5. (It’s a 6.)

Sonically, “Scream” is in line with most of what Michael Jackson did on HIStory. It’s harsh and percussive and angry, and it’s mostly about Jackson lashing out at a world that had, in his mind, rejected him. There’s a lot of that on the album — songs about tabloid culture, about parasitical forces, about indifferent authorities. Jackson got a bunch of bad publicity for yelling anti-semitic slurs on “They Don’t Care About Us,” a song that eventually peaked at #30. He responded by taking the slurs off the song and issuing a confusing statement about how he, Michael Jackson, was “the voice of the accused and the attacked.”

“You Are Not Alone” is something else. It’s Michael Jackson reaching for grandeur and for interpersonal connection. To that end, Jackson contacted R. Kelly, who’d hit #1 with “Bump N’ Grind” the previous year. Kelly had already secretly married his 15-year-old protege Aaliyah, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, and Vibe had printed their marriage certificate. But Kelly wasn’t really known as a habitual sex offender yet; his camp had kept that as quiet as they could. At the time, it wasn’t really controversial for Michael Jackson to work with R. Kelly. This was an established star, coming off of a scandal, joining forces with an ascendant hitmaker. That kind of thing happens all the time.

R. Kelly was delighted when Michael Jackson reached out to ask for a song. He wrote “You Are Not Alone” for Jackson, and in recording his demos, he copied Jackson’s mannerisms, which Jackson thought was funny. (Kelly later released his own version of the song.) Jackson flew to Chicago to record the song with Kelly, and the two of them co-produced it and sang the backing vocals together. Kelly and past Jackson collaborator Steve Porcaro, who’s already been in this column as a member of Toto, played keyboards.

As a song, “You Are Not Alone” is thin gruel. It’s got the same kind of brittle, mechanical slow-jam quality that Kelly brought to his solo debut 12 Play, but it’s not a seduction. Instead, it’s a sort of generic sad ballad. Over a slow drum machine and a processed-to-death acoustic guitar, Jackson sings about being without somebody. The song never gets much more specific than that. It could be about a breakup or a death. Jackson sings about missing someone but promises that he’s always there in spirit. Certain lines read a bit like Jackson singing to the listening public, asking to be let back into our collective heart: “I can hear your prayers, your burdens I will bear/ But first I need your hand, then forever can begin.”

On “You Are Not Alone,” Jackson’s voice is as tender and reassuring as ever. In the ad-libs at the end of the song, Jackson goes on some nice little churchy runs, and they’re enough to remind the world that he was a Motown recording artist when Motown meant something. But the song is long and wispy and, quite frankly, boring. The slow-build structure is obvious, and the key change arrives exactly when you might predict. Jackson has a ton of great ballads in his discography, but “You Are Not Alone” isn’t one of them. The song is too sleepy and insignificant to make anyone forget its whole context.

The “You Are Not Alone” video, on the other hand, is a blinking, honking reminder of that exact same context. In the clip, Jackson’s physical transformation becomes a kind of spectacle. He’s often half-naked, his skin gleamingly bright, his face altered almost beyond recognition. He looks like a fragile porcelain doll. The song doesn’t allow him to dance, which immediately strips him of one of his greatest gifts. Director Wayne Isham, a guy famous for making videos with glam metal bands like Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi, puts Jackson in mythic storybook locations — a Greek temple, an empty theater, a bunch of rocks jutting out of the ocean at sunset. Lisa Marie Presley is in some of those scenes with Michael, and she’s topless, too. Their chemistry is not particularly evident. The whole thing is hard to watch.

At least on paper, the HIStory album was a success. It debuted at #1, and it was almost immediately certified quintuple platinum. Eventually, the album went platinum eight times over. There was some strategy involved there. With the greatest-hits component, Jackson could sell CDs even to people who weren’t all that interested in a new album. Since it was a double CD, every sale counted twice. But HIStory did not change the trajectory for Jackson. After “Scream” and “You Are Not Alone,” none of the singles made the top 10. Later in 1995, Jackson was hospitalized for a panic attack. In 1996, when Jackson gave a 10-minute performance of “Earth Song” at the Brit Awards, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker cemented his common-people persona by stepping onstage and waggling his ass at Jackson mid-performance. By the current standards of awards-show stage invasions, this was pretty mild, but it was a big deal at the time.

Jackson spent something like four years and tens of millions of dollars working on Invincible, his next album. During that time, Jackson was either completely gone form the public eye, or he was headlining another big star-studded charity concert overseas. (He did a few of those.) When Invincible finally came out in 2001, it barely caused a ripple. Lead single “You Rock My World,” which was supposed to be Jackson’s big comeback, peaked at #10, and none of the other singles went top-10. (“You Rock My World” is a 6.) Jackson never released another album during his lifetime.

In the ’00s, Jackson faced more accusations of child molestation, and he eventually stood trial in California before being acquitted. He left the US for Bahrain, and he drove himself into debt. In 2009, Jackson announced a run of 50 concerts in London; they would’ve been his first shows since he played a DNC fundraiser at the Apollo Theater in 2003. Weeks before those concerts were supposed to start, Michael Jackson went into cardiac arrest after accidentally overdosing on prescription medications, and he died at the age of 50. Conrad Murray, the doctor who’d prescribed his medication, eventually went to prison for involuntary manslaughter.

Every time I write about Michael Jackson, I get fans in my mentions talking about how Jackson was a victim of racism and that all the abuse charges against him were phony, cooked up by extortionist parents. Every few years, though, another round of accusations seems to come out. The truth is that I don’t know what Michael Jackson did with those kids, and I never will. But whether or not he was guilty of those crimes, I see Michael Jackson as a truly tragic figure — a transcendent entertainer who lived a sad, strange, bleak life that ended early.

Michael Jackson made records that will last until long after we’re all dead, and those records have lost none of their power. He’s also a pivotal figure in the history of pop music. At his peak, Michael Jackson was more popular than anyone else in pop history — more popular than anyone had realized that a singer could become. Jackson was able to become that popular, at least in part, because his father had worked and abused him mercilessly. When he became galactically famous, Jackson couldn’t really enjoy it because his fame required a complete removal from society. Watching something like the “You Are Not Alone” video, I mostly feel pity. That’s a weird emotion to feel for someone who was exponentially more rich and famous than anyone who I will ever meet, even before you factor in the monstrous crimes that he was accused of committing. But that’s what I feel. It sucks.

The other day, my son’s friend told me that I was lucky to be alive at the same time as Michael Jackson. He was jealous. That hit me like a two-by-four. This kid is nine years old, so he and Jackson never breathed the same air. The kid doesn’t care about the crimes that Jackson was accused of committing. He might not even know about them. He just loves the music. And the thing is: I don’t think he’s wrong. Michael Jackson was my first favorite artist. When I was that kid’s age, I would watch Jackson, and I would feel like I was floating on air. I was lucky. Everything about Michael Jackson’s life became really, really fucked up, but I can still remember feeling like that. I probably always will.

After Jackson’s death in 2009, there was a tremendous surge of goodwill towards him. For months, it felt like I heard his music whenever I left the house. In death, Jackson has returned to the top 10 a couple of times. In 2014, producers used an unreleased 1983 demo of “Love Never Felt So Good,” a song written for Jackson by previous Number Ones artist Paul Anka, and turned it into an elaborately produced duet with future Number Ones artist and clear acolyte Justin Timberlake. The song peaked at #9. (It’s a 7.) In 2018, future Number Ones artist Drake used unreleased vocals from another demo that Jackson recorded with Paul Anka in 1983 on the album cut “Don’t Matter To Me.” When Drake’s Scorpion album came out, “Don’t Matter To Me,” credited as a Drake/Jackson collaboration, peaked at #9. (It’s a 5.)

Maybe it’s not impossible that some other posthumous Michael Jackson song will eventually make it all the way to #1. The goodwill is still out there in the world, even with all the horrifying stories. We probably won’t see Michael Jackson in this column again, but who knows? We definitely will see R. Kelly in this column, though, and I’m not any happier about that than you are.

GRADE: 3/10

BONUS BEATS: In 2009, a few months after Michael Jackson died, the contestants of the British singing-contest show The X-Factor released a group-singalong cover of “You Are Not Alone,” and it returned the song to #1 on the UK charts. Here’s that version:

(The X-Factor, in both its British and American versions, will eventually factor into this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Burial sampling “You Are Not Alone” on his 2013 track “Come Down To Us”:

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