His records were woven into the lives of millions – but the documentary Leaving Neverland appears to make clear the King of Pop was a paedophile. So can we divorce the music from his alleged crimes?
Greg Tate: ‘We recognised MJ’s special kind of self-destruction decades ago’
All forced conversations in America about race, sex and celebrity are inevitably framed by horror and absurdity, history and the modern day. Because of this, many of my people – as in American born Blackfolk – refuse to countenance moral or legal absolutes when allegations of our stars committing sexual assault hit the news. They instead invoke a form of mathematical objectivity in pursuit of American democracy’s most impossible dream: a racialised level playing field. In this accounting, Bill Cosby and R Kelly aren’t defended despite victim-testimony and compelling evidence, but because not enough equally evil-ass white men have suffered enough public shaming for their crimes.
So Michael Jackson’s legacy is being discussed in another judicial session and once again black folk are being asked to weigh in on the latest charges. The thing is, our community recognised MJ’s special kind of self-destruction decades ago. Many Blackfolk learned to compartmentalise Jackson the moment they saw the cover of Thriller, they separated the spectacular soul singer and dancing machine from his increasingly mad choices, including self-erasing skin-bleaching facelifts, chin enhancements and rhinoplasty. Would the brown-skinned, big-lipped, wide-nosed MJ who appears on the cover of Off the Wall have been allowed by white parents to have as much unsupervised time with their pre-tweens? Would he have been trusted to disappear into his mansion for hours days and nights with them?
Having seen only the trailer for Leaving Neverland, whatever confessional justice was intended by its two informants is compromised by its director’s hackneyed, tabloid true-crime approach. It doesn’t mean the testimony is untrue, just that it depends on the film-makers selling several racially burdened oxymorons at once: white-male innocence, white-male fragility and white-male truth-telling. Of course, MJ doesn’t belong just to the court of white public opinion or to the miscreant deeds he may have perpetrated at Neverland. He got connected to something far bigger than himself way back during his Motown years: he became an inextractable and irrevocable piece of Blackfolk’s story that can only be crooned, shouted, stomped, screamed and sanctified into the public record.
Greg Tate is a New York-based writer and musician. He was a staff writer at The Village Voice from 1987-2003.
Alexis Petridis: ‘Too many people have too much of their lives bound up with his music’
About five years ago, I interviewed a collection of diehard Gary Glitter fans, unbowed by the singer’s convictions for possession of child pornography and sexual abuse. Some of them were clearly in denial about his crimes. Most weren’t, though, and talked calmly about separating the artist from the art. One told me that when Glitter was first convicted, he had thrown out all his records, only to find his music exerting an allure regardless. “You don’t choose music,” he said. “It chooses you.” Later he added: “It’s not just wiping him out of history, is it? It’s us, they’re whitewashing us as well. They’ve nicked 15, 20 years of my history.”
I thought about that remark when the furore around the Leaving Neverland documentary blew up. More compelling allegations that Jackson was a paedophile will undoubtedly lead to more calls for his music to be treated the way Glitter’s is – unofficially banned from radio and TV, never mentioned in public (even the Glitter fans I met would only talk to me under a veil of anonymity). I can see why, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. You can’t easily eradicate Jackson from history: too many people have too much of their lives bound up with his music. And perhaps you shouldn’t. Perhaps it is all right that his music continues to be heard, so long as it comes with a caveat: that it reminds us great art can be made by terrible people, that talent can be weaponised in the most appalling way, that believing an artist automatically embodies goodness because we like their work is a dreadful mistake that can have awful consequences.
Alexis Petridis is the Guardian’s chief pop critic.
Lyndsey Winship: ‘Choosing to listen to his music is a personal reckoning’
Separating man and music is difficult when that man’s output amounts to a cultural phenomenon and his influence went way beyond music. Jackson brought black dance styles into the mainstream. He didn’t invent steps like the moonwalk but he was responsible for bringing them to the world’s attention. He inspired people to dance – especially boys, especially non-white ones – and he is cited by some of the superlative performers of their generation as the person who sparked their desire to move. From Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta to kathak-contemporary dancer Akram Khan, from the back streets of Havana to suburban Wimbledon, Jackson’s reach was immense.
But, the allegations against him are hideous. Abuse can never be excused. As a society, what we consume and what we celebrate is what forms our values. Does that mean a ban on his music? It is impossible to erase from our consciousness (and much of its brilliance was created by others – Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton – not Jackson alone), but choosing to now actively listen to, or dance to Jackson? Once people have seen the film, that will be a personal reckoning, yet it must be possible to condemn the person, even shelve the records, without being ashamed of the influence his music had on us, the good things he inspired and the careers he started.
Lyndsey Winship is the Guardian’s dance critic.
Priya Elan: ‘My initial reaction was to throw Off the Wall in the bin’
My pop allegiances were always with Prince and Madonna, but I came of age when Bad-era Michael Jackson was massive. He transcended race, he transcended gender and for me he transcended a personal connection. Being a fan of his felt like being a fan of a skyscraper or a corporation. You could admire its foundations, its height, the sheer spectacle, but it would be harder to love the bones of it. He was unlike Prince and Madonna, who seemed to let their freakish rebellion hang out with a carefree abandon.
Later in life, I couldn’t resist Thriller and Off the Wall. Spurred on by Spike Lee’s documentary of the making of latter, I fell in love with the magical disco grooves and the story of the child star turned spangly king of the dance floor. Watching Leaving Neverland, I felt an allegiance with the survivors: their story of manipulation, control and parental neglect is a familiar tripartite to those who have experienced emotional or physical abuse as children. By the end of the unrelenting four hours, I was broken by the story of grown men and parents trying to examine the scars of their past. My initial reaction was to throw Off the Wall in the bin (I didn’t), but the next day, listening to a ’70s soul compilation whose first song was the Jacksons’ Blame it on the Boogie, it was to skip that track. I couldn’t go there.
Priya Elan is editor of the Guardian Guide.
Laura Snapes: ‘It’s a cautionary tale against idol worship’
I have never really associated Jackson with his music. I was born in 1989, and grew up in a pop landscape where he was decreasingly visible. His songs remained totemic, but so much so that it rarely occurred to me that they had been made by humans, the same way that I never wondered who designed the McDonald’s logo, or what’s really in a can of Coke. The first time I really became aware of Jackson the man was in the build-up to Martin Bashir’s 2003 documentary, which my parents wouldn’t let me watch because it was “inappropriate”. Obviously, I watched it anyway. Since then, I have always associated Jackson with allegations of paedophilia, and so I never sought out his albums.
Still, the irresistibility of his music crept up on me. The irresistible power Jackson brought to his music is the same power he wielded to abuse children and hoodwink their families into letting him do so. It is the same power that afforded him a coterie of enablers with a vested financial interest in ensuring that the public perceived these allegations to be ridiculous. Jackson’s greatest legacy is as an unparalleled example of how the entertainment industry prioritises profit over pain. It’s a cautionary tale against idol worship, and a reminder to question figures who willingly exploit that dynamic. This is the point where, for me, the man and the music become inextricable, and for ever inadmissible
Laura Snapes is deputy music editor of the Guardian.
Chuck Klosterman: ‘He is too massive to cancel’
The possibility of separating an artist’s work from the artist’s life isn’t a practical question right now. We are at a point (either temporarily or in perpetuity) when people don’t want to engage with that debate. The conflict still exists and the philosophical puzzle hasn’t changed, but the public argument is pretty much over. What is specifically complicated about the Michael Jackson scenario is the sheer magnitude of his footprint. Even if every worldwide streaming service removed his songs and Apple Music terminated his catalogue, there are still at least 60m physical copies of Thriller scattered around the globe. He is too massive to cancel.
What will happen, I suspect, is that the ever-increasing population of transgressive musicians (both living and dead) who find themselves recast as irredeemably problematic will eventually be lumped into a separate silo of cultural history. The unspoken rule will be that their work can be consumed and analysed, but not without overtly recognising that they are members of this exiled fraternity. It will be somewhat similar to how a film student can still reference the cinematography of Leni Riefenstahl, but only after first noting her political relationships. Jackson’s work is brilliant and unusually ubiquitous, so people will always want to talk about it. They just won’t be able to talk about that music to the exclusion of non-musical events, which will incrementally change its musical meaning.
Charles Klosterman is an author and essayist. His most recent book is But What If We’re Wrong?
Simran Hans: ‘I’m no longer able to square the art with the artist’
I watched Leaving Neverland on my birthday, a bruising 9am screening at the Sundance film festival. The experience was, as you might imagine, somewhat of a downer. Yet, what’s both fascinating and illuminating about this film is the precision with which its two central survivors, James Safechurch and Wade Robson, describe the doublethink of abuse. Survivors can hold two contradictory thoughts in their heads, Michael Jackson was “one of the kindest, most gentle, caring, loving people I knew”, says Safechurch matter of factly. He was also a paedophile, and an abuser. If you weren’t convinced of Jackson’s guilt before (and many of us were), it is near impossible to turn a blind eye to it now, so powerful and incriminating are the testimonies the director, Dan Reed, presents.
There is also a contradiction, or at least a tension present for Jackson fans such as myself when revisiting his art. To detach Jackson’s tarnished celebrity persona from his music and reappraise it as pure and faceless pop commerce because it is more comfortable doesn’t feel right. Listening to him doesn’t feel right, either. I’m not calling for him to be “cancelled” but personally I’m no longer able to square the art with the artist, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Jackson made brilliant, titanic pop, and he sexually abused children. People have known both of these things for years. Nothing has changed except the times in which the work is being received.
Simran Hans is a writer, researcher and film programmer.
This article first appeared on The Guardian.