Some lyrics are revised when listeners read between the lines Changing Their Tunes

July 05, 1995|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

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.

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