(July 15, 2022). During the early-to-mid 1990s when the late King of Pop Michael Jackson was at one of his lowest periods, he wrote a beautiful ballad containing metaphorical lyrics about what it must be like to feel alone, anguished and alienated.
The song was “Stranger In Moscow,” which he would include in his HIStory – Past, Present & Future album in 1995. The song’s title and lyrics were a reference to the Russian capital’s long held reputation for being a place that’s difficult to live in, particularly if you’re a foreigner who’s not accustomed to that environment.
Especially if you’re an American.
Michael wrote “Stranger In Moscow” by himself in the wake of the first sexual misconduct allegations made against him in 1993. Coming off his fourth consecutive multi-platinum album (Dangerous, which followed Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad), MJ was still on top of the world before those charges triggered the beginning of a long, slow demise for the American pop icon who passed away in 2009 at the age of 50.
“Stranger In Moscow,” perhaps more so than any other song Michael ever recorded—including several more direct, angrier tunes on HIStory and the later EP Blood On The Dance Floor—was the former Gloved One’s most poignant, introspective track and, ironically, his least successful one on the charts. The song was released as a commercially available single in 1997 and spent just two weeks on the U. S. Hot 100, peaking at a low No. 91 (eleven points lower than his previous worst: “Get It,” the 1988 duet with Stevie Wonder).
Yet it’s “Stranger In Moscow” that perfectly encapsulated how Michael must have felt in the months and years following those initial claims of child sexual abuse, particularly after he had built up an image of being pop music’s Pied Piper, a man who had dedicated much of his life to children’s causes (and even built an amusement park specifically geared towards them).
In “Stranger In Moscow,” he softly sang of the Kremlin and KGB, likening both to the media that were “belittling” and “dogging” the then-most famous singer in the world following the sex allegations (and even in the years leading up to them for MJ’s less egregious eccentricities).
He also sang of “Stalin’s tomb” not letting him be, likely a reference to the horrendous experiences Michael endured leading up to his first trial (and later described in a self-recorded video in which he shockingly described his genitalia being photographed by authorities). Joseph Stalin, the former Communist leader of the Soviet Union during World War II, famously instigated a series of “show trials” meant to prosecute (and execute) defendants that were in opposition to the Communist Party. The trials were famous for their presumption of guilt with little chance of defendants being proven innocent.
Fast-forward to 2022 and the highly publicized situation involving WNBA (and NCAA) basketball superstar Brittney Griner, the 6’-9” phenom who in February was arrested and detained in Moscow for drug charges, specifically for having vape cartridges containing hashish oil (marijuana concentrate) in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo International Airport.
Griner was in Russia playing with that country’s professional basketball league during the WNBA off-season (ironically she makes more playing there than she does here). Despite having played there for several previous off-seasons—and winning more championships in the former Soviet capital than she has in America—the world’s most famous women’s professional basketball player is truly experiencing what MJ sang about more than a quarter century ago.
Except her story is playing out on a world stage in a women’s prison just outside of Moscow. It’s a story whose script could easily be fed from those metaphorical lines Michael Jackson penned at his lowest point.
For instance, the reference to Stalin’s trials in “Stranger In Moscow” has played out in a grim reality for Griner who, in a trial that took place in the Russian capital on July 7 and was seen by many as a no-win situation, plead guilty to the drug charges. In her plea, Griner stated she “never intended” to break the law and that the vape cartridges were packed in her bag as part of a mixup. The trial, which began after more than four months of detention, was expected to continue Thursday (July 14) with Griner returning to court to provide her own full testimony.
With reports that less than 1 percent of defendants are acquitted in Russian criminal cases, and those few acquittals capable of being overturned there (with more ease than here in the U.S.), Griner’s guilty plea was probably her best chance at serving a lesser sentence (or even soon returning to the U.S.). Many see her likely conviction as a Russian ploy to leverage the high-profile case for an eventual prisoner swap with a Russian national here in America.
But the timing couldn’t have been worse for Griner. Her detention by Russian customs officials happened just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, a move shunned by most of the Western world and for which the U.S. and several of its allies have imposed sanctions designed to halt Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Even the U.S. State Department has weighed in on Griner, going on record to call her situation a “wrongful detention,” one in which the athlete is clearly being used as a “political pawn.” Needless to say, U.S.-Russian diplomacy isn’t at its highest point right now.
In the first verse of Michael Jackson’s “Stranger in Moscow,” he sings of a “mask of life” and “feeling insane.” These words could easily describe Griner’s feelings in a Russian prison where, according to public prison monitoring group member who visited her, as reported in the U.K. publication Independent.co.uk, she could be spending hours in isolation with nothing but Russian literature and Russian television to entertain her.
“I’m living lonely, I’m living lonely, baby,” sang MJ in 1995’s “Moscow,” referring to the isolation he felt as the world seemingly turned against him following the sexual allegations (which were settled out of court before the song was released). Griner likely can relate to those lyrics. According to that prison monitoring group’s account, the American basketball star gets to eat breakfast in her cell and take a brief walk in the prison yard before returning to her dimly lit, gray-walled cell. She’s reportedly restricted to two showers per week, according to the account.
“Swift and sudden fall from grace, sunny days seem far away,” Michael sang as he finished that first verse. Could there be any better description of the fate that potentially awaits the basketball legend Griner, who will be 32 in December and is possibly facing ten years in the Russian prison if she is convicted?
“How does it feel…when you’re alone and you’re cold inside?” Michael’s musical question, written in a mostly metaphorical context, is something Griner can likely understand perfectly in her reality today. On average, nearly half of the WNBA’s 144 players join Griner overseas each year to play in either Russia or Ukraine when the WNBA season ends (Griner reportedly makes roughly four times as much money playing in Russia as she does here in the U.S.; WNBA players are salary capped at $228,000 per season compared to NBA’s $28 million, not including bonuses and incentives).
After the Russia-Ukraine war broke out in February, all of those WNBA players returned to the U.S.—all of them, that is, but one.
As Michael sang in his song’s outro, “We’re talking danger, we’re talking danger, baby. Like a stranger in Moscow.
“Lord, have Mercy.”
The Biden administration has said it is doing everything it can to free this Brittney, a tall, Black, outwardly gay American female who clearly stands out in Russia. This blogger, for one, hopes the administration is successful!
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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