After Michael Jackson was attacked for having anti-Semitic language in one of the songs on his new album, "HIStory," he did what most pop stars do when caught in such a situation: He apologized.
Then he did something few ever do: He announced that he would re-record the song, sans the offensive lyrics.
Rock stars rarely want to change their tunes when complaints over content come in. Most try to get by with an apology or a we-meant-no-offense sticker stuck on the album's packaging. Jackson is doing both, but he is not the first to do either. The Walt Disney Co. apologized to American-Arab groups after some lyrics in a song from the film "Aladdin" were deemed offensive, and the Cure added a sticker onto its greatest hits album stressing that the song "Killing an Arab" was not meant to be inflammatory.
Other artists have had songs or even whole albums pulled after controversy arose. But it's extremely rare to find a performer who is willing to go to the trouble and expense of re- recording a song and re-issuing an album simply to clean up troublesome lyrics. It's far more common to see the offending selection deleted -- or even to have the whole album pulled off the market -- than to find the kind of change Jackson is making.
In Jackson's case, the trouble arose in conjunction with the song "They Don't Care About Us," which includes the lines, "Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/Kick me, kike me, don't you black or white me." Asked about the lyrics on ABC's "PrimeTime Live," Jackson seemed stunned at the suggestion they could be considered anti-Semitic.
"It's not anti-Semitic because I'm not a racist person," he said to Diane Sawyer. "I could never be a racist. I love all races of people, from Arabs to Jew to, like I said before, blacks. But when I said, 'Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/Kick me, kike me, don't you black or white me,' I'm talking about myself as the victim. You know?
"My accountants and lawyers are Jewish. My three best friends are Jewish . . . I was raised in a Jewish community."
Placing himself in the role of victim didn't make those words any less offensive, and Jackson's "my best friends are Jewish" defense did little to quiet his critics. Moreover, with 2 million copies of "HIStory" already in the stores, there was little he or his record company, Sony, could do short of recalling every copy -- a move that would not only have cost millions, but would have pushed the long-delayed album's release back a month or more.
Instead, Jackson announced that a sticker explaining his lack of racist intent would be added to copies of the album still in Sony warehouses. He also said he would re-record the song, eliminating "the words found offensive." It remains to be seen just when this is taking place, or what the new lyrics may be. "I don't know how long it will take to turn around, but he's responding quickly," said Melani Rogers, a Sony publicist. Rogers said that Jackson may be in the studio as early as this week, but she added that mastering and manufacturing the new version may take as long as a month.
Changing a title
This, by the way, isn't the first time Jackson has changed words around after an album has been released. When the Jacksons' "Triumph" was released in 1980, it included a song by Michael called "Heartbreak Hotel." Some Elvis Presley fans complained about the arrogance involved in appropriating such a title, but Jackson insisted he had never heard Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel."
Recent CD copies of "Triumph," however, now list the song as "This Place Hotel," even though its chorus still uses the word "heartbreak." No one at Jackson's record company could comment on the change.
Given Jackson's interest in maintaining a wholesome, positive image, some commentators were stunned that he wouldn't have realized the words in "They Don't Care About Us" would be considered anti-Semitic. But Jackson is hardly alone in underestimating how much careless words might hurt.
When the Walt Disney Company launched its animated version of "Aladdin" in 1992, the cartoon opened with a song called "Arabian Nights." Its lyrics described the movie's setting as a place "Where they cut off your ear/If they don't like your face." Shrugged the cartoon vocalist, "It's barbaric, but hey, it's home."
After the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League complained that the song was racist in presenting Arabs as bloodthirsty barbarians, Disney announced in July 1993 that it would re-cut the musical number, using an alternate verse written by lyricist Howard Ashman. Instead of the ear-cutting couplet, the new version described Aladdin's homeland as a place "Where it's flat and immense/And the heat is intense" -- though the "it's barbaric" line remained.
The new lyrics were included in the film's home video version, and in subsequent theatrical releases. But a recently purchased copy of the soundtrack CD still had the old lyrics, suggesting that Disney's cleanup was far from complete.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League had complained about lyrics before. In 1987, after the song "Killing an Arab" was included on the Cure album "Staring at the Sea: The Singles," several student DJs on college radio stations made Arab-bashing statements while introducing the song. Needless to say, the AAAD was greatly concerned. "The lyrics have an inflammatory nature, not in terms of what the writer intended, but how it could be used in a country with a growing anti-Arab hysteria," said the group's spokesman, Faris Bouhafa.
Robert Smith, who wrote the song, was appalled at its misuse. Explaining that the song was merely a gloss on the Albert Camus novel, "The Stranger," Smith said, "The song was intended to mirror one of the key incidents in the book: that of the senseless killing of an Arab. . . . The incident, as I interpreted it, was designed to illustrate the utter futility of the actual action of killing."
As a result, subsequent copies of "Staring at the Sea" included a sticker stating, "The song 'Killing an Arab' has absolutely no racist overtones whatsoever. It is a song which decries the existence of all prejudice and consequent violence. The Cure condemn its use in furthering anti-Arab feeling."
Adding a sticker
Adding a sticker to an album cover isn't always enough to appease people who are offended, though. In 1992, a Texas law-enforcement organization calling itself CLEAT announced that it was organizing a boycott of all Time Warner products to protest the inclusion of a song called "Cop Killer" on the self-titled debut of Ice-T's heavy metal band, Body Count.
Even though the album had been out for several months before CLEAT launched its campaign and had not been tied to any acts of violence, "Cop Killer" became a campaign issue after then-Vice President Dan Quayle weighed in. By August, Time Warner announced that all unsold copies of "Body Count" were being recalled; by the time it was reissued, in early 1993, "Cop Killer" had been replaced by a short speech by Jello Biafra.
Even that didn't quite kill the controversy. In May, presidential hopeful Bob Dole again lambasted Time Warner for releasing the song, even though it had by then been off the market for 2 1/2 years.
As Dole's speech reminds us, many people have complained about the sex and violence in some rap recordings. But when rap albums get pulled off shelves, it's usually because of something far less incendiary: sampling.
Many rap artists use musical ideas "sampled" off the recordings of others and go through the complicated process of "clearing" -- that is, getting the legal rights to -- those samples. Some, though, make the mistake of using samples that haven't been cleared and end up paying the price in court.
Biz Markie paid more than most. One of the songs on his 1991 album, "I Need a Haircut," used a sample from Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 hit, "Alone Again (Naturally)." O'Sullivan was less than amused and took Markie to court. Not only did the judge find in O'Sullivan's favor, but he ordered all copies of Markie's album recalled and destroyed.
Markie learned his lesson. His next album was called "All Samples Cleared!"
Sometimes an artist will recognize that he or she has made a mistake but will not bother changing the recording in question. When Mark Knopfler wrote "Money for Nothing," he originally had the scoffing protagonist three times describe a rock star as a "faggot." That's the way it was recorded, and that's what people heard when they bought the single or listened to the album.
Knopfler, in fact, was stunned that gay activists took umbrage at the lyric. Pointing out that the song portrays its protagonist as a bigoted moron, Knopfler said his critics were missing the point. "The same thing happened when Randy Newman recorded 'Short People,' a song that was clearly about the stupidity of prejudice," he said at the time.
Nonetheless, Knopfler often substituted the phrase "queenie" in concert versions, and he uses "faggot" only once on the live version of "Money for Nothing," included in the 1993 concert recording "On the Night."
The stations react
Even if an artist doesn't decide to change lyrics or pull a song off the market, radio may do it anyway. That was the case with "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" by Napoleon XIV. This 1966 novelty record was an immediate smash, quickly climbing to No. 3 on the Billboard charts. But after mental health organizations complained that the song made fun of the mentally ill, radio stations dropped it from rotation, thus ending Napoleon's reign on the charts.
Then there are the songs whose lyrics are "edited" to make them suitable for airing. Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels" is a recent example. Although the original recording had Petty singing "Let's get to the point/ Let's roll another joint," video viewers heard him sing "Let's roll another tnioj," as the reefer-reference was played backward. But there was also a special radio edit, which changed the line to "Let's hit another joint" -- that is, let's go someplace else.
Changing lyrics isn't new. When the Jethro Tull single "Locomotive Breath" arrived at radio stations in 1971, the phrase "got him by the [anatomical reference]" was changed, inexplicably, to "got him by the fun." In 1973, many stations doctored the Paul Simon hit "Kodachrome" to edit out a seemingly scatological reference to what its protagonist learned in school.
Perhaps the most unusual approach to the language question cropped up in response to the 1984 Prince song "Erotic City." Concerned that some radio stations wouldn't play the song because of its language, Prince's label sent out a press release assuring the nation's program directors that Prince was singing the words, "We can funk and dance all night."