Michael Jackson’s “Stranger in Moscow” Lyrics Meaning

In 2019 HBO released a hit documentary, Leaving Neverland, which centered on two individuals who accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them during their youth.  The project proved to be so scathing against Jackson’s character that the late singer’s estate sued HBO for a very-large amount of money. This is some 10 years after Michael Jackson had already passed away. However, such accusations are also something he dealt with quite a lot while he was still alive. And it is upon such a premise which “Stranger in Moscow” is set.

Yes, Michael did originally conceptualize this song while actually visiting Moscow.  However, it is not only about the loneliness he may have literally felt while in Russia.  Rather, no matter where Jackson may have found himself, he felt like a pariah due to consistently being dogged by the media. For as alluded to earlier, this was around the time MJ first had to deal with allegations of sexual abuse. And for the record, the investigation into his conduct got quite serious, ultimately resulting in the singer reaching a settlement with the accuser for tens of millions of dollars. And even after never being convicted of an actual crime, Michael still continued to be more or less viewed as a sex offender, i.e. Leaving Neverland.

So again whereas the superstar’s time in Moscow – even the environment of the city itself – inspired the sentiment behind this song, in reality Michael was lonely in general. As such Moscow, as used throughout, comes off more as a symbolic setting than a literal one. Take for instance the fact that the song’s music video was actually shot in Los Angeles, i.e. Michael Jackson’s own ‘hood. Moreover its narrative is not centered on the singer per se as much as six characters featured therein. But more to the point, all of these individuals are depicted as being akin to disenfranchised loners.

And whereas the lyrics have general applicability, in many ways they still speak to MJ’s personal life also. For instance, in the first verse when he mentions a “swift and sudden fall from grace”, one can’t help but to postulate that he is referring to his own downfall – so to speak – due to the allegations that were levied against him. And some of wording does in fact feature the singer being situated in Moscow. But symbolically what these references allude to are the powers that be, i.e. the media, being on Michael’s behind.

For instance, he starts off the second verse by acknowledging that despite his great “fame”, he feels “abandoned”. Then he follows up by inferring that he is dealing with a substantial amount of stress, i.e. complete chaos “of the brain”. However, he concludes the passage by changing the subject, albeit briefly, from himself to “a beggar boy”.  Subsequently, Michael seemingly assures this individual that “happy days” will eventually arrive. But by making this statement to the boy, the singer is also, in a roundabout way, making it to himself. And that’s where the universal aspect of “Stranger in Moscow”, as displayed in its music video, comes into play.

In other words, of course Michael Jackson was going through hell at the time. And most of us will never know how it feels to be famous, furthermore to go on and suffer the type of persecution that he did. But still, the King of Pop was sensitive enough to know that he is not the only person who had to deal with depressing loneliness. Moreover the tone of the song is such that he is also encouraging the listeners, even the happy ones, to sympathize not necessarily with himself but rather with other disenfranchised people.  Or let’s put it like this – Michael, via his own personal experiences, came to take disease of loneliness quite seriously. Indeed by the time all is said and done, he is actually calling out to a Higher Power for intervention.

Release Date of “Stranger in Moscow”

This is a song which the King of Pop wrote and produced himself. Its release date was on 28 August 1997, coming to us via his long-time musical partners Epic Records and Sony Music Entertainment. Moreover a label Michael himself founded, MJJ Productions, contributed to the release of Stranger in Moscow.

This track is featured on an album MJ put out entitled HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I. It was a double-CD project, with the first disc featuring a bunch of his classics. And the second disc, upon which “Stranger in Moscow” is third on the playlist, consisted of original tunes. Moreover, this song served as one of six singles which were released from HIStory.

“Stranger In Moscow” meets with Success

By most artists’ standards, “Stranger in Moscow” would be classified as an undeniable hit. Take for instance the fact that it charted in over 20 nations. This includes earning a number 1 in three countries, reaching as high as number 4 on the UK Singles Chart and also appearing on the Billboard Hot 100. However, in terms of the latter, it has been also noted that “Stranger in Moscow”, peaking at number 91, is the lowest MJ ever scored on the list. And for the record, as of the year 2020, 51 of his songs have made it onto the Billboard Hot 100.

Music Video for “Stranger in Moscow”

Nick Brandt, who is a photographer by profession, served as the director of this song’s music video. And as noted earlier its filming took place in Los Angeles, specifically in a neighborhood called Van Nuys. L.A., the center of the American music industry, is a city Michael regularly took up residence, having even passed away at his home there.  Moreover according to the legend of the video (or more specifically a prominent Michael Jackson biographer), the way the singer depicted himself as a loner in the clip was based on his real-life experiences in the City of Angels.

Michael personally contacted legendary filmographer Spike Lee to do a video for HIStory. And by the way MJ was so famous that even Lee, a fellow celebrity, didn’t believe it was actually him the first few times he called. But upon making contact, Michael initially gave Spike a choice as to which of the singles he would direct. And for the record, Spike actually opted to helm the visual for “Stranger in Moscow”. However, it was kind of a trick question that Jackson posed, as he instead went on to insist that Spike direct the video for another song, “They Don’t Care About Us” (1996), which he felt was more applicable to Lee’s established filmography.

Song used in Sega’s Videogame?

While MJ was in the midst of his aforementioned legal/personal woes, he was also working with videogame company Sega. More specifically he and his keyboardist, Brad Buxer, were composing music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3, which was released in 1994. According to Buxer, Jackson quit the project due to being unimpressed with the sound capabilities of the Sega Genesis, the main console which the game was developed for. However by the looks of things, some of the music they created for Sonic still made it onto the game. Indeed one tune in particular which Sega used on the finished product sounds very similar to “Stranger in Moscow”.

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