Michael Jackson: Separating the man and the music
This year “has gotten off to a fast and sordid start for alleged predators” in the music industry, said Dan DeLuca in The Philadelphia Inquirer. R&B star R. Kelly was charged with criminal sexual abuse, and folk-rocker Ryan Adams was accused of sexually exploiting up-and-coming musicians. But “now comes the big one.” HBO this week released Leaving Neverland, a four-hour documentary in which Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 41, recount in horrific, methodical detail how as young boys they were befriended—at 7 and 10, respectively—and seduced into years of sexual abuse by Michael Jackson. We all heard the rumors about the “King of Pop,” said Hank Stuever in The Washington Post. But after he was acquitted of child molestation in 2005, the public largely accepted the claim that Jackson’s fondness for children, whom he hosted by the dozen at his fairy-tale Neverland Ranch, was an innocent, if eccentric, attempt to recapture his own lost childhood. Not anymore. The estate of Jackson, who died in 2009, calls Robson and Safechuck “liars” and is suing HBO for $100 million. But the “devastating and credible” Leaving Neverland will convince all but the willfully blind of Jackson’s guilt. The question now is what we do, as a culture, with Jackson’s songs. My answer? “Turn off the music and listen to these men.”
It’s not that simple, said Chuck Klosterman in TheGuardian.com. Unlike R. Kelly, whose songs have largely been banished from radio and TV, the problem with trying to “cancel Michael Jackson” is the “sheer magnitude of his footprint.” We could stop playing his songs tomorrow and the transcendent beats of “Billie Jean” and “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” would still be woven into the rhythmic DNA of modern music. Here are two facts, said Carl Wilson in Slate.com: Jackson “changed the sound of global pop,” bringing joy to billions, and he almost certainly molested children. “Neither fact alters the other.” Disavowing Jackson’s music would be an “empty rhetorical flourish” that would do nothing to repair the harm he caused his victims.
We can’t heal his victims’ wounds, said Maeve McDermott in USA Today. But if we stopped listening to his music we could at least dry up the revenue stream that Jackson used, in life, to facilitate and get away with his abuse of children, and that his estate is using posthumously to try to discredit the accusers in Leaving Neverland. It’s all very well to talk in theoretical terms about the need to “separate the art from the artist” in these now countless cases of abusive men. But when we ignore an artist’s crimes, and continue to consume his art, the reality is that we are “upholding the power structure that contributes to these crimes happening in the first place.”
Whether we like it or not, Jackson’s music is probably with us for eternity, said Chris Richards in The Washington Post. And his “songbook suddenly feels even wider, more lifelike in the saddest way.” The formerly platitudinous “Man in the Mirror” becomes a heartfelt “guilty plea”; “Smooth Criminal” has a horrifying new realism; and “Thriller” is now “very much about a man trying to expose the horror inside.” The “Thriller” video shows Jackson transforming into a werewolf and a flesh-hungry zombie, said Wesley Morris in The New York Times, much as in life he “disfigured” himself with unnecessary plastic surgeries. After Leaving Neverland, it’s hard not to see Jackson’s obsession with transformation as a “semiconscious manifestation of a monster that lurked within.” ■