opinion pieces

Is it morally justifiable to listen to Michael Jackson’s music?

After the documentary Leaving Neverland, alleging Michael Jackson was a child abuser, I discuss whether it is possible to separate the art from the artist.

I recently watched Leaving Neverland, the highly controversial documentary about Michael Jackson, produced by Dan Reed.  In light of the publicity surrounding the allegations made by James Safechuck and Wade Robson, the issue of whether it is morally appropriate to listen to Michael Jackson’s music anymore has raised in my mind.  I would like to emphasise that there seems to be an overwhelming amount of information surrounding these allegations, and as such this post will only be scratching the surface.  This is a hugely complex issue and these are only my opinions however I will try and be as unbiased as possible.

What is the likelihood of the allegations being true?

There is obviously a level of subjectivity in their recollections as they were children during the period of abuse and therefore may not have been fully able to rationalise what was going on.  However, this is not to say that the allegations are not true, as I fully believe sexual assault to be an issue that people do not fabricate for personal gain.  Whilst they may make some monetary gain and fame, they will forever be known as victims which I would argue is not a worthwhile payoff.  There is also controversy surrounding the length of time that has elapsed since the alleged period of abuse, which is leading some people to believe there is not much substantiation to the claims.

Other children in Michael Jackson’s life

During Jackson’s lifetime there were a couple of other allegations of abuse that were bought to court against the musician.  The first was in 1993 from Jordan Chandler and his father however a police search revealed a “lack of criminal evidence” and was dropped. They later brought a $30m lawsuit against Michael and this was settled outside of court for $22m, which could be seen as alluding to Jackson’s guilty conscience.  In 2003, further allegations against Jackson were made by a 13 year old boy called Gavin Arvizo.  During the trial Gavin and his younger brother claimed that Jackson plied them with alcohol, “Jesus Juice”, and forced them to watch porn.  The jury ruled him not guilty on all counts but the District Attorney, Thomas William Sneddon Jr, and Nancy Grace thought that the jury were influenced by Jackson’s celebrity status.  Macaulay Culkin, also a friend of Jackson’s, has vehemently denied any claims that Jackson abused him during his childhood.  However, he has corroborated sources that claimed Jackson had an alarm system set up to alert him if anyone was nearing the master bedroom.

Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?

Now that everything is on the internet the world is literally at our fingertips and nothing is more than a click away.  So much of our popular culture has been hugely influenced by celebrity, especially in the case of Michael Jackson.  Lyndsey Winship, critic at the Guardian claims that “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”.  Greg Tate, a former staff writer at The Village Voice, called Jackson “an inextractable [sic] and irrevocable piece of Blackfolk’s story that can only be crooned, shouted, stomped, screamed and sanctified into the public record”.  If we censor Jackson’s music, does this mean that we are erasing not only history, but the lasting legacy that his music has left? There are no references to his crimes in the song lyrics, therefore providing a basis for some to say we should still be able to listen to it.  On the flip side, Jackson often used children to perform in his music videos and live performances, thus linking the crime and the music inextricably for those who have seen the visual versions.

NME polled Twitter users to find out whether they would still listen to Michael Jackson’s music in the light of the very public accusations

Another question that this issue raises is whether or not we have the right to censor music.  In my opinion, I do not think we should continue to allow the Jackson estate to continue profiting off Michael’s success, but this does not mean we cannot listen to the music that is already out there.  Charles Klosterman claims “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”.  He speculates that one day “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”.  We can continue to listen to the art that exists as it is difficult to avoid, but we must also consider the crimes Jackson allegedly committed and bear this in mind as we listen.

Does celebrity status grant immunity from low-level crime?

With the number of celebrity accusations in recent years, I am beginning to question whether the cult of celebrity allows members to become outside of the law.  Dan Reed, director of Leaving Neverland, recently told the BBC  that he thought celebrity culture was “pernicious and [that] it leads people to go blind and parents to do stupid things,”.  There are many other celebrities that have been in the centre of similar scandals, such as R. Kelly, Gary Glitter and Chris Brown to name a few.  Whilst the victim accounts have begun to be listened to, these people have bees suffering in silence for many years.  I can only imagine that this is due to the immense power, influence and wealth that these celebrities have that make them appear untouchable.  Michael Jackson is no exception to this rule.  As I mentioned earlier, the District Attorney of Santa Barbara clearly thought the jury was swayed to a not guilty verdict due to their celebrity status.  This begins to suggest that there is a fundamental problem with the legal systems we employ if a materialistic hierarchy that influences our verdict on just punishments.

The lasting negative impacts of Michael Jackson’s alleged actions

After watching the documentary and seeing the raw pain on Robson and Safechuck’s faces, it is undeniable that the effects of abuse are lifelong and studies have shown that it tends to have an increase on the likelihood of developing mental health issues during the victim’s lifetime.  This is an interesting point to consider in reference to Jackson, as he too was a victim of childhood trauma at the hand of his father.  This is not to say that in any way I am condoning his actions, as abuse is never right.  However, it is often said that Jackson was robbed of his childhood by his father, and so greatly abused from such a young age that he potentially did not know what normal behaviour was.  Not only was Michael subjected to this abuse, so were his siblings, but they are also tarred by association to Michael himself and their passivity in regards to his behaviour, that they clearly had some knowledge of.  In addition to this, some superfans of the late singer are devastated by the revelation and have had lasting impacts due to the surfacing of these allegations.  As Steven Hyland puts it, “anyone who ever loved Michael Jackson’s music — pretty much the entire world — played a part in it [his crimes], too”.  By promoting celebrity culture, we are in effect giving credence to this sense of superiority they hold and in some respects by supporting them as a society we almost condone their actions.

For me, Alexis Petridis sums it up best, “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.”

The solution is not to stop appreciating celebrated works and therefore erase parts of our history, instead we must simply learn from our mistakes and evolve as a society.

Photo courtesy of Edward Grigg

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