In the mid-’90s, Michael Jackson was doing his best to rebuild his career and the public’s faith in him after facing what would be his first child sexual abuse allegations. No one was doubting Jackson’s musical legacy, but his personal one was heavily darkened by the claims of impropriety that began in 1993. Part of his attempt to climb back into a positive light came during the 1996 BRIT Awards. Receiving the special Artist of a Generation award that year solidified that his work would always be beloved, but his performance during the show only stirred more controversy.
The ceremony, held 20 years ago to this day on February 19th, 1996, featured Jackson singing his powerful single “Earth Song”. The performance saw Jackson surrounded by children and adults dressed in the rags of the poor, pleadingly reaching out to the singer as if looking for a savior. Some saw this as Jackson painting himself like Jesus Christ, and the fact that there were all these children running around him just years after he settled a sexual abuse case did not sit well with certain audience members. That included Jarvis Cocker of Pulp.
As Jackson made his way to a crane and was lifted above the crowd’s head, Cocker bum rushed on from side stage. In an act of protest, he began wiggling his butt in Jackson’s direction, and later towards the crowd. Members of the stage performers tried to remove Cocker from the stage, but the wily Brit ran about, jumping up to the top of the sloped platform and zig-zagging between the costumed wretches.
Though the first reaction of many was to knock Cocker’s interruption (he was even questioned by police over concerns he injured children during the fracas), others came out in support of his actions in the days following the show. Jonathan King, a former producer of the BRIT Awards, told The Independent at the time, “I thought Jackson’s performance was appalling and everyone who was there, bar the Sony executives, thought it was appalling too. It was the most excruciating, misguided and unbelievably awful thing I have seen in my life: 99 per cent of the music industry couldn’t believe it.” Others, such as Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, producer Brian Eno, and alternative duo Everything But The Girl, also expressed favorable opinions of Cocker.
Years later, following Jackson’s death, Cocker spoke to BBC 1 about the incident. “He was pretending to be Jesus – I’m not religious but I think, as a performer myself, the idea of someone pretending to have the power of healing is just not right,” Cocker said (via The Independent). “Rock stars have big enough egos without pretending to be Jesus – that was what got my goat, that one particular thing.”
Looking at the performance today, it actually reads rather powerful, something that fits well within Jackson’s legacy as an artist. In context, though, it’s not hard to see why feathers were ruffled. Unfortunately, this ended up being Jackson’s penultimate performance in Britian, with his final one coming in 1997 at Wimbledon.
Revisit the whole thing below, with Cocker’s entrance happening around the 5:00 mark.
Interestingly, Cocker had more words to say for the BBC 1 following Jackson’s passing. “If there’s a tragedy about the whole thing, I would say that if he’d kept making records like he did in the mid 80s up to now, that would have been great. But… for the past 20 years he didn’t do that – for me, that’s the tragic part of it.”