If you grew up in the 1970s, ’80s or ‘90s, his music was likely woven through your life.
Maybe it was when you first heard “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and realized little Michael Jackson was all grown up. Or those times the slinky beat of “Billie Jean” propelled you – and half the club – onto the dance floor. Or those private moments when you sang along to “Man in the Mirror” and vowed to be a better person.
As great as those songs are, it’s hard now to hear them in quite the same way.
The disturbing claims of HBO’s documentary “Leaving Neverland” have many fans rethinking their feelings about the late King of Pop.
Similar abuse allegations have followed Jackson for decades. But the power of national television, amplified by internet outrage and the #MeToo movement, appear to have brought a new reckoning for the superstar’s legacy almost 10 years after his death.
It’s similar to how Lifetime’s recent “Surviving R. Kelly” finally shifted public opinion about the R&B singer. But for some, muting Michael Jackson – a still-beloved pop icon whose music transcends boundaries of age, race and geography – is a much thornier prospect.
It’s a wrenching dilemma. Should we stop playing Jackson’s songs? Does enjoying his music in 2019 make you a bad person? How do we separate the art from the artist?
Will radio and other outlets still play his music?
Almost certainly, at least for now.
Jackson hasn’t been convicted of a crime. His 2009 death insulated his legacy somewhat because it precluded the possibility of any more criminal charges against him.
His family has called “Leaving Neverland” – in which two men accuse Jackson in graphic detail of sexually molesting them when they were boys – a “public lynching” and suggest the accusers have been motivated by financial gain. Jackson’s estate has filed a suit against HBO. (HBO and CNN share parent company WarnerMedia.)
But there has been some recent pushback. At least three radio stations in Canada have stopped playing his songs. “We are attentive to listeners’ comments, and last night’s documentary created reactions,” Christine Dicaire, a spokeswoman for Cogeco, the stations’ owner, said Monday in a statement.
Several radio stations in New Zealand also pulled Jackson’s songs from their playlists this week.
Even so, his music is still streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, both of which took the unusual step last year of yanking R. Kelly’s songs from their featured playlists.
Several live shows featuring Jackson’s music are still running, including Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson ONE” in Las Vegas. A spokeswoman for Cirque du Soleil declined to comment this week on whether the troupe has received complaints or requests for refunds.
And a musical based on Jackson’s rich catalog of hits, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” is still scheduled to hit Broadway next year.
Is it morally wrong to enjoy his songs?
That’s a decision each of us must make for ourselves.
For people of a certain age, his music conjures potent memories of carefree days – of weddings and barbecues and dancing to “Thriller” at Halloween house parties. Whatever has happened to tarnish Jackson’s image since then – and there’s been a lot – those memories may remain unsullied.
His voice was angelic, his dance moves were electric and his talent was undeniable. Jackson’s “Billie Jean” moonwalk at the Motown 25 special in 1984 and his dramatic intro at the 1993 Super Bowl halftime show were indelible TV moments.
As a seemingly gentle, childlike man, he inspired a protectiveness in his most fervent fans that continues to this day.
“He was my childhood. I grew up thinking he was not of this world or that he was almost superhuman,” says Hayley Winter, 35, who lives in Essex, England, and owns all of Jackson’s albums. “I found out that he had died whilst driving my car, the news came over the radio … (and) I sobbed all the way home.”
But to sexual abuse victims or those who have watched the HBO documentary, hearing “Beat It” on the radio in 2019 may be like stumbling across a rerun of “The Cosby Show.”
“Sadly all of his music is tainted now,” Winter says. “I feel like a part of me has died – I hope that doesn’t sound too dramatic, but it’s true. That’s how much he meant to me.”
The alleged abuse that James Safechuck and Wade Robson recount in “Leaving Neverland” occurred in the late ’80s and early ‘90s – around the time of Jackson’s “Bad” and “Dangerous” albums. Considering that, some of his sexually suggestive songs from that era, like “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “In the Closet,” might leave today’s listeners a little queasy.
So might songs like “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?”
Then there’s his 1995 hit “You Are Not Alone,” which was written by … R. Kelly.
For some of us it may be easier to hear his earlier songs, especially his chirpy Jackson 5 hits. He was still a child then.
Will Jackson become the latest example of ‘cancel culture?’
At a time when many pop culture figures have been tarred by their misdeeds and the #MeToo movement demands swift retribution, we seem quicker than ever to condemn offenders.
The recent “cancel culture” phenomenon surfaces every time a celebrity says or does something offensive, spurring a rabid, internet-fueled push to cancel their TV show, shelve their movie, shut down their concert tour or stop buying their book.
It’s a collective economic punishment – and an effort to silence those we feel have betrayed us.
#MuteRKelly is the most high-profile of these efforts, but in the past few years dozens of entertainers – from Roseanne Barr and Kathy Griffin to Spacey and Louis C.K. – have been blacklisted by angry consumers.
In recent days many of Jackson’s famously loyal fans have rallied to his defense. In London, fans of the singer protested outside the British network that is airing “Leaving Neverland” and bought ads on buses questioning the motives of his new accusers.
There have been #MuteMichaelJackson grumblings on Twitter, but they’ve been drowned out by a chorus of #MuteOprah after Winfrey hosted an HBO special Monday night in which she appeared sympathetic to Safechuck and Robson in an interview.
Slate music critic Carl Wilson argues that Michael Jackson’s mark on our culture is too huge – he’s sold more than 84 million albums – to be erased. As he and other cultural critics have noted, many famous artists – from Charles Dickens to Pablo Picasso to Charlie Chaplin – continue to be revered long after their deaths, despite being accused of horrible things.
Tonja Renée Stidhum, an entertainment writer for The Root, said she’s not sure how she’ll feel the next time she hears one of Jackson’s songs.
“I believe you can’t erase the impact and reverence you had for the art simply by the artist’s wrongdoing,” she says. “However, so much of art is an extension of the artist, so it’s likely impossible to totally separate the two.
“Where is the line drawn? I honestly don’t know – I really wish I could come up with a definitive answer, but there isn’t one at this point, as reckoning is a process,” Stidhum says. “A colleague of mine made a good point in saying that whatever you do, know that you are making a choice and own up to said choice.”
It’s a decision many of us aren’t ready to make just yet.