It’s been almost a decade since Michael Jackson died. I remember my heart just about stopped when I read the headline: The King of Pop is dead.
Like many others, I remember exactly where I was when Jackson died. I was living in Chandler, Arizona. It was the day before my birthday, June 25, 2009, and my then-girlfriend and I sat in the darkness of my bedroom. The only light came from the TV as CNN broadcast helicopter shots above Neverland Ranch and clips from his dozens of music videos, his musical performances, his physical transformation over the years, his otherworldly gaze, his childlike innocence, his movements on stage that seemed so foreign and alluring and wholly unbelievable.
My father had always told me about The Day the Music Died, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson were killed in a plane crash, and as I sat there listening to anchors and contributors and celebrities and musicians and people on the street talk about how much Jackson’s music meant to them, I couldn’t help but think that this was our generation’s The Day the Music Died. Any conversation about Jackson’s history—and it was widely known then as it is now—was put on hold, and instead we danced to the music of Miles Davis, a musician with his own problematic past.
I can’t imagine my childhood without listening to Thriller every Halloween. My parents bought me Number Ones, a video album of Jackson’s greatest hits featuring the unforgettable videos for “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” “Bad,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Black or White,” “You Rock My World” and more. I used to stand in front of the TV practicing every move, learning every gesture and hip thrust and leg kick and finger point and “ooh!” and “shamone-ah!”
His legacy left an indelible imprint on my childhood. Arguably, he redefined entire genres of music, so much so that I often think of music as Before Michael and After Michael. And when we talk about his influence, it’s often with a sort of religious connotation which makes it that much harder to truly look at the things he’s done and the people he’s hurt.
A decade after his death, creative genius or not, Jackson’s history deserves reexamining.
HBO’s new two-part documentary Leaving Neverland focuses on Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who allege Jackson had sexually abused them as children. The men describe in harrowing detail the ways in which Jackson had apparently befriended their families and, ultimately, began sexual relationships with them. Jackson apparently staged mock wedding ceremonies and used jewelry to reward Safechuck for performing sexual favors. As he shows us the rings Jackson had bought him as a child, rings that no longer fit past the knuckle of his index finger, Safechuck trembles as he recalls his history with the King of Pop.
While the #MeToo movement has justly taken down celebrities, comedians and politicians, it’s taken a while to catch up to the music industry. But as we’re learning with the New York Times’ recent article on Ryan Adams and the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly, the movement is indeed catching up with men who, under the guise of their mercurial brilliance, have abused their power, often at the expense of others. As a culture, we’ve decided to offer these men a pass because the scope of their work appears to be broader and carry more weight than the damage they inflict and they dreams they shatter.
So the question now becomes one that, at least for the time being, has no clear answer—that is, unless you’re Roxane Gay. She recently wrote an article for Marie Claire titled, “Can I Enjoy the Art but Denounce the Artist?”
Along with her brilliant observations of our cultural attitudes toward the work of problematic men and her personal history with The Cosby Show,she writes, “I no longer struggle with artistic legacies. It is not difficult to dismiss the work of predators and angry men because agonizing over a predator’s legacy would mean there is some price I am willing to let victims pay for the sake of good art, when the truth is no half hour of television is so excellent that anyone’s suffering is recompense.”
The problem, as Gay rightly points out in the article, is the caliber at which we hold people for their artistic contributions. We idolize these troublesome men into infallible gods of creation. To criticize, to call out or to turn away is sacrilegious.
But when we destroy our idols and remove the lure of the creative genius, what’s left are men who have climbed to success by abusing others. In what other line of work would this be acceptable? It isn’t, and it shouldn't be for the music industry either.