The allegations against the King of Pop in the Leaving Neverland documentary are devastating. So what do we do about Michael Jackson’s musical legacy?
For anyone looking for the answer, sorry to disappoint, but we don’t have one.
The cliché of 2019 will surely be that terrible people make great art. The #MeToo era is, quite rightly, forcing us to examine the behaviour of some of the most famous people in the world, mostly men. The movement is forcing us to confront our idols, challenging what we think we know about the celebrities, artists, actors and others who we’ve come to like and love.
There have been a number of high profile individuals who have been accused as part of the movement. R.Kelly could be going to jail soon; Bill Cosby is already behind bars; Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey could be joining him; and no doubt many others are waiting in fear that their sordid secrets will soon be made public.
The biggest irony is that the President of the United States is the one who (so far) seems to have got away scot-free from the accusations of sexual assault that surround him. If it were any other President, things might be different. But this is Donald J. Trump and these aren’t normal times.
Yet, surprising as it may seem, there is one thing that Trump has said which appears to be true. Before the 2016 election an audio tape was leaked of Trump speaking with ‘Access Hollywood’ presenter Billy Bush in which, among other things, he said that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
In the case of Michael Jackson, if the accusations in the new documentary Leaving Neverland are true, it seems Trump’s statement is correct.
The late ‘King of Pop’ is accused by Wade Robson and James Safechuck of grooming and sexual abuse when they were children. Accusations against Jackson of this nature aren’t anything new – such claims first appeared in the early nineties. Yet, the climate has changed thanks to the #MeToo era, and more questions are being asked around Jackson’s behaviour and his legacy.
According to the documentary, the performer used his fame and fortune to prey upon young boys and sexually abuse them. Grooming young boys, showering them and their parents with gifts and travel, and by portraying himself as a lost child, an adult ‘Peter Pan’ who had no childhood himself, it appears that Michael Jackson, at least in life, was able to get away with it.
When you’re famous you can do anything, it seems.
Now, obviously, Jackson isn’t around to defend himself. In fact, his death in 2009 seemed to bury the reports of sexual abuse as the world seemed to enter into a lengthy period of mourning. In the years after his death Jackson’s estate has carefully been trying to cleanse his legacy, tarnished as it was after the 2005 trial. Two albums of posthumous material have been released and sold pretty well; the estate has licensed official tribute shows, including two Cirque du Soliel productions. Naturally, the Jackson estate has made billions of dollars as a result.
Yet Leaving Neverland could threaten all that.
The documentary focuses purely on the testimony of Robson and Safechuck. No one from the Jackson family nor estate is given time to refute the claims, something Jackson’s defenders claim is a sign of a hit-job on the pop star.
Jackson’s supports have sought to control the social media narrative around Leaving Neverland. It’s been a clever, co-ordinated response to these allegations, helped by using the hashtag #MJInnocent. Some have protested outside Channel 4 HQ in London (the channel the documentary was shown on in the UK), and others even funded posters on the side of London buses.
The supporters defending Jackson point to his trial and acquittal in 2005 on child sexual abuse charges in California. At the time, both Wade and Robson appeared as part of Jackson’s defence. They have also claimed that their testimony in Leaving Neverland does not stand up to scrutiny, including claiming the dates the alleged abuse is said to have taken place are wrong.
More weirdly, Jackson’s supporters have also been posting videos and comments made by Jackson about women, trying to portray him as just another typical red-blooded male who enjoyed flirting with women, as if somehow that means he couldn’t be a child abuser as well.
The Jackson estate has strongly denied the allegations, as have the Jackson family, with Michael’s nephew Taj leading the defence.
Yet, allegations around Jackson and young boys dates back to the early nineties and in the two decades up to his death. In 1993, Jackson was reported to have paid $20 million to Jordan Chandler, who accused Jackson of sexual abuse when he was just 13. The highly publicised trial in 2005 resulted in Jackson’s acquittal, but the allegations still followed the more reclusive singer.
Interestingly, Wade and Robson’s lawyers, in 2015, alleged that Jackson had paid up to the equivalent of £134 million to stop up to 20 sex abuse victims going public, according to a report from The Independent.
So we really shouldn’t be surprised to learn in watching Leaving Netherland that Jackson was, allegedly, a child abuser.
But even after years of allegations, Jackson’s music was never muted. But the times have changed. Will it be different this time? Possibly. But then again, possibly not.
The #MeToo era is forcing us to recognise that terrible people make great art and raises questions around what we do with that art. But then, hasn’t that always been the case? The music industry is littered with cases of complete bastards making great music, and these complete bastards have been adored in the process.
Perhaps the difference is that very few icons had the popularity, or musical catalogue and influence, of Michael Jackson. Few people will have mourned the loss of Gary Glitter’s music from the radio, but Jackson is somewhat different. A question often asked is that, given the worth of Michael Jackson in money and influence, is he too big to fail?
When a fan has this one-sided relationship with a musical idol like Jackson, what happens when the artist is accused of doing something utterly horrendous? Is the illusion shattered? Can you still listen to their work, despite knowing the alleged abuse they’ve committed? Can you ever listen to them again?
Given the horrific nature of the allegations, what do we do about Michael Jackson’s musical legacy?
Undeniably, Jackson made some great music. In fact, Jackson was one of the artists I listened a lot while growing up. It was the pre-Dangerous (and marginally less weird) Michael Jackson I loved: I enjoyed The Jackson 5 (“The Love You Save” is a particular favourite), I loved “Blame It On The Boogie”, I adored Off The Wall, and I found much of Thriller and Bad enjoyable (his duet with Siedah Garrett is another favourite ).
Perhaps selfishly, I don’t want to give this music up. I listened to Off The Wall while writing some of this article, and it still excites me, even if there’s that lurking feeling in the background that I’m committing a grave sin by continuing to get pleasure from listening to the album.
In the case of R.Kelly, the #MuteRKelly movement on social media seems to have had some success at banning his music on radio and, briefly, Spotify removed his music from its curated playlists before making an embarrassing U-turn.
Interestingly, there’s been no similar move on social media (where the traffic generated by his supporters is positive) and Spotify hasn’t removed his music from its playlists. In fact, streams on Spotify and on other streaming services, of Jackson’s music have increased since the documentary was aired.
Meanwhile, some radio stations have removed his music from their playlists – but who listens to the radio anymore? And is Jackson’s music really what radio stations need to draw listeners anymore?
Other articles discussing whether we can listen to Jackson’s music or not tend to be written by authors who weren’t particularly fond of Jackson’s music in the first place, so don’t have the same emotional attachment. Which, for those of us who love the likes of Off The Wall, Thriller and The Jackson 5, isn’t helpful.
An interesting point is the extent to which Jackson was responsible for his own musical legacy. At Motown it was the influence of Berry Gordy and the in-house producers, writers and marketers who gave Michael and his brothers a successful sound and image. Later on, Michael’s adult solo career might not have been as monumental without the guiding hand of Quincy Jones. Similarly, some of Jackson’s best loved songs (including ‘Off The Wall’ and ‘Thriller’) were written by Rod Temperton. And the musicianship on the 3 albums Jackson did with Quincy is astounding, boasting contributions from the likes of The Brothers Johnson, Greg Phillinganes, Patti Austin and more.
(As an aside, it’s a bit awkward for poor old Quincy as he’s just announced that he is to perform in London summer, playing Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad in their entirety, along with orchestra and special guests. I suspect Q will find it hard to get any special guests now.)
This isn’t to defend Jackson by saying he wasn’t responsible for his own musical legacy, because clearly he had a lot of control over it, regardless of what his supporters might say on social media.
But it’s worth remembering that people are rarely self-made. Do we ignore their contributions? Clearly, Michael Jackson was the key. But without the likes of Jones and others, those records wouldn’t be as great as they are.
But on the flip side, can we ignore the person and focus purely on the music? Art doesn’t appear in a vacuum; it’s often an extension of an artists’ beliefs, thoughts and emotions. That’s certainly the case with Michael Jackson, particularly in the post-Bad era when he had almost complete musical freedom.
But all this still doesn’t answer the question. Can we continue to listen to Michael Jackson?
I don’t know. Maybe. Lots of artists who have committed crimes and committed alleged abuses, dead and alive, haven’t been muted.
If we stop listening to Michael Jackson, do we stop listening to James Brown? Arguably no man has done more to shape popular music than Brown, but does his appalling treatment and abuse of women (including an alleged incident where Brown brutally beat singer Tammi Terrell after she didn’t watch the entirety of one of his performances) mean we have to erase his musical legacy?
Do we stop listening to ‘My Girl’ if we accept that Temptation David Ruffin also physically abused Tammi Terrell?
What about Rick James’s prison sentence for abusing women in the nineties? Do we have bin our collection of Punk-Funk records?
Likewise, do we bin our Ike and Tina Turner records?
Do we stop listening to Phil Spector records like ‘Be My Baby’ after his murder conviction?
Where do we draw the line? How thick should the line be? Should we even be drawing lines?
And what do we do with the rest of The Jackson family. Can we go see The Jacksons (Tito, Marlon, Jackie and Jermaine) on tour? Or do we mute them too?
I wish I could give you the answers to these questions but, sadly, I cannot. It’s something I’m still thinking about, especially when I hear one of his songs.
The allegations against him are horrific. If true, Michael Jackson used his money, fame and power to abuse young boys. His music, if we listen to it again, won’t sound quite the same again. Every fan of Jackson will have to make their own decision at some point on whether they listen to him again or not.