In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines a song that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone,” which became the first song to ever debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1995.
The majority of Michael Jackson’s 13 chart-topping solo hits are more than mere songs. They’re audio companions to videos etched into the hearts and minds of those old enough to remember The King Of Pop during his mighty reign. To this day, it’s impossible to hear “Beat It” or “Bad” without thinking of a contrived street fight or that one gangster dude in the red velvet roller skates.
In the case of those songs, the link between the music and the visuals works to Jackson’s advantage. They’re fairly gimmicky tunes made stronger by their imaginative clips. “You Are Not Alone,” MJ’s final No. 1 entry on the Billboard Hot 100, is a totally different story.
Although it may seem like a sweet, uplifting ode to true love or friendship or whatever listeners hear in that reassuring title phrase, this 1995 ballad is slightly creepier and way more depressing than it seems. The video isn’t the only reason for this, but it’s a good place to begin the conversation.
By the time “You Are Not Alone” landed on radio and MTV, Jackson the supernaturally gifted singer and dancer had long since become Jacko the reclusive freak and accused pedophile. Although he was still massively famous and beloved all over the world—“You Are Not Alone” was the first single in history to debut atop the Hot 100—MJ needed badly to reinvigorate his career and reestablish himself as a red-blooded male inhabitant of planet Earth.
Part of his strategy involved 1995’s HIStory, a new studio album packaged with a greatest-hits disc designed to remind people why they loved him in the first place. It was a smart play, and with its mix of undisputable classics and tolerable new ones—the fierce Janet duet “Scream” and “You Are Not Alone” being the best of the bunch—HIStory was a global smash.
And for once, Jackson had someone with whom to toast his success. In May 1994, he’d married Lisa Marie Presley, the only daughter of the only singer who ever achieved anything like his unfathomable level of fame. It didn’t take a cynic to question the motives behind this marriage, so the couple worked hard to silence doubters.
First came their totally natural, completely unforced kiss at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards. Then, in case anyone’s eyebrows hadn’t been singed off by that white-hot display of passion, the lovebirds one-upped the smooch by stripping down for director Wayne Isham’s “You Are Not Alone” video.
Whether Jackson had genuine feelings for Presley, the video is still pure calculation. Lounging semi-nude on a temple set that looks like something out of a porno, or maybe an orientation film at a discount day spa, MJ and his bride cuddle and giggle yet never actually kiss. There’s obvious affection but zero sexual chemistry. What there is plenty of is skin.
Jackson had been altering his appearance for years, but here, without bedazzled pseudo-military garb or giant sunglasses to distract from the transformation, it’s jarring to see just how much he’d changed. With his pale, pore-free skin and pointy nose, he looks like a Disney prince—particularly when he’s set against corny green-screen mountains and rain forests.
The video left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, including Lisa Marie. In J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 2004 MJ biography The Magic And The Madness, she’s quoted as saying she was “sucked up in the moment,” though she admitted it was “kind of cool being in a Michael Jackson video.”
But again, the video is just the beginning. It must also be noted that “You Are Not Alone” was written by R. Kelly—that other R&B superstar who has somehow maintained a career despite shocking accusations of sexual conduct with minors. In 1995, the famous sex tape allegedly showing Kelly urinating on an underage lover was still about seven years away, but he’d already weathered a scandal involving his brief marriage to Aaliyah, who was just 15 at the time. Even pre-pee, the Pied Piper was a little sketchy.
Then again, Kelly was a proven hitmaker and an obvious Jackson disciple, so it was natural for Jackson to ask him to contribute a song to HIStory. Kelly wrote “You Are Not Alone” especially for Jackson, and he even went so far as to imitate Jackson’s quavering vocals in his demo. In a 2013 interview with SiriusXM, Kelly manages to sound homophobic and a little insulting as he recalls crafting a song for one of his childhood idols:
Michael has, like, a feminine thing going on. I know he’s not like that, but at the same time, I had to jump into that to do it. I felt funny at first, but I had to accept it if I wanted to write a song strictly for Michael.
Kelly doesn’t delve into the lyrics, which is too bad, since that’s where “You Are Not Alone” really gets interesting. It’s a prime example of how a beautiful melody and a heartfelt vocal performance can obscure what’s actually being said. As the song opens, the male narrator, Jackson, is addressing a woman who’s split without saying goodbye. She’s blindsided him and left his “world so cold,” and in the pre-chorus, he describes obsessing daily over what went wrong. Then, he hears a voice.
“You are not alone,” it whispers in his ear. “I am here with you.” This isn’t Jackson singing to the girl, promising he’ll always love her, though Kelly’s gorgeous five-note melody certainly lends itself to that misperception. Rather, it’s some unnamed third party—maybe God, maybe a friend, maybe an idealized version of the girl, maybe even the ghost of the girl, if the Genius.com annotator who posits a necromancy theory is correct.
What’s clear is that the song’s warm and fuzzy hook isn’t addressed to the narrator’s departed lover. That makes the second verse even sadder.
“Just the other night / I thought I heard you cry,” Jackson sings, sounding about as vulnerable and sincere as he ever did. “Asking me to come / And hold you in my arms.” Remember, she left him. This is all in the narrator’s head—a product of heartbreak and delusion. It’s only in the bridge that the perspective shifts, and he finally addresses his former flame with a variation on the title phrase: “Whisper three words and I’ll come running / And girl you know that I’ll be there.”
Whether “You Are Not Alone” is a deft, lyrical sleight-of-hand—a psychologically complex love song disguised as inspirational, salable pap—or simply proof that Kelly needs a proofreader, Jackson sings the chorus like a self-affirmation. For this lonely, maladjusted, simultaneously loved and vilified oddity of the species, “You Are Not Alone” might as well have been four words long. The rest of the lyrics are immaterial.
“On listening to ‘You Are Not Alone,’” wrote Taraborrelli in 2004, “one wonders how many times Michael tried to tell himself, during his most desperate and anguished times, that he did have support in his life, from a higher power, or even friends and family, whether he actually believed it or not.”
In 1995, Jackson’s “desperate and anguished times” were just beginning. Although he wasn’t indicted on that first set of child-molestation charges, which he settled out of court in 1994, the taint of the case—not to mention a second round of abuse allegations that arose in 2003—undoubtedly took their toll. In the final 14 years of his life, The King Of Pop failed to notch a single No. 1 hit.
The closest he came was “You Rock My World,” which peaked at No. 10 in 2001. That meager placement came despite a cinematic video featuring stars like Chris Tucker and Marlon Brando and plenty of costumes and choreography meant to evoke 1987’s “Smooth Criminal.” The music was also blatantly old school—a textbook MJ soul-pop mover with a silky groove and monster chorus—but not dated. A couple years later, Justin Timberlake scored a bigger hit with “Rock Your Body,” a similar-sounding Neptunes joint that Jackson had actually turned down for his Invincible album. In other words, the commercial disappointment of “You Rock My World” says more about Jackson’s fading celebrity than it does the public’s changing tastes.
According to Billboard chart expert Fred Bronson, “You Rock My World” might have fared better had it been available in the United States as a commercial single. But even if the song had given Jackson a 14th chart-topper, it would’ve been a lone blip in an otherwise fallow period. Terrific though it is, no one’s talking about the tune 14 years later.
In light of all that, “You Are Not Alone” marks a poetic end to a string of colossal singles —from 1979’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” through the early ’90s—that seemed destined to unfurl forever and ever. It’s an emotionally messy ballad penned by a fellow oddball genius and suspected sexual deviant, and it inspired one of the strangest videos of all time. Yet Jackson sings it in a way that still brings comfort and joy to fans around the world. More than any of his other hits, it’s a reminder of just how alone—as an artist and as a human being—he really was.