Why I Still Listen To Michael Jackson's Music, Despite Believing The Allegations
For me, the most surprising thing about the documentary "Leaving Neverland" was not the revelations of Michael Jackson’s child abuse: the most surprising thing was how surprised people seemed to be.
I mean sure, the doco brought new detail and specificity to allegations of Jackson’s crimes, but the base message -- “Michael Jackson molested kids” -- was one we were all surely very familiar with -- it had been in the public domain since he was not only alive, but a viable recording artist. Yet for many there was a feeling of “the last straw”: that "Leaving Neverland" had finally made the allegations so irrefutable that the public love affair with Jacko must now be forever severed.
Such was the message I took from Koraly Dimitriadis’ excellent, heartfelt article The Only Response To 'Leaving Neverland' Is To Burn All Michael Jackson's CDs on 10 daily last week. Koraly’s anger at Jackson’s crimes was palpable, her fury at the complicity of those who allowed him to get away with it and her sympathy for his victims beautifully expressed.
So it is with an almost guilty feeling that I have to say I disagree with her.
Not, I should make clear, on the question of Jackson’s guilt. The likelihood that he was innocent is, in my view, vanishingly unlikely, and absent a stunning exculpatory revelation I doubt I’ll revise that. He did terrible things to vulnerable children and it is an awful shame that he wasn’t jailed for it at the time.
But burning his CDs? Boycotting his music? Banishing his catalogue from public consumption? No, I can’t get on board with that.
It’s important to specify what we are not talking about here. We are not talking about allowing criminals or abusers to continue careers consequence-free. Were Jackson alive, I’d have no objection to saying no, you don’t get to make records anymore. Hopefully that’d go without saying: as previously mentioned, were he alive, jail would be the best place for him. The fact that any musicians, producers or engineers would be very much entitled to refuse to work with such a person would be enough to say that an end to his career would be justified, had not mortality already done the job.
In the same way, anyone who refuses to work with Louis CK, who admitted exposing himself to female colleagues, or Kevin Spacey, who's been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 30 people, has right on their side.
But we’re not talking about denying future opportunity: we’re talking about culturally expunging work that already exists. We’re talking about saying, not “Michael Jackson was a dreadful man who did dreadful things”, but saying, “Michael Jackson was a dreadful man who only did dreadful things, and it is immoral to claim otherwise.” And that isn’t true.
The fact is, Jackson was a brilliantly talented artist, and he made wonderful art. His music has given enormous joy to millions upon millions of people, over several generations. None of which justifies his crimes -- it’s just the truth. The music is there. People love it. Their lives are better for it. Take it away from them and their lives will be -- even if only a tiny bit -- worse. How would removing a marvellous of body of work from the world make the world a better place?
Obviously, if an abuser receives just punishment early in his career, that career may never pan out. If Kevin Spacey had been collared for his allegedly abusive ways back in the 80s, maybe his critically-acclaimed, award-winning roles would never have happened. Someone else would’ve filled the space that he ended up taking, and maybe that would indeed have been a better world. But that didn’t happen.
The world we live in is the one where Kevin Spacey performed brilliantly in great films and TV shows. A world where he did so, but nobody was permitted to watch them, would not, as far as I can see, be a better world than the one we live in. Neither would a world where Michael Jackson made a long series of superb records, but to enjoy them was forbidden.
The case of Spacey is an instructive one because it reminds us that entertainment is, more often than not, a collaborative process. To boycott Spacey’s work would mean boycotting the performances of Annette Bening in American Beauty, Robin Wright in House of Cards, Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects. It would mean denying that Edgar Wright had pulled off a remarkable directing accomplishment in Baby Driver. Do these artists deserve punishment for Spacey’s sins? Quincy Jones hit his highest peaks as a producer with Michael Jackson’s albums. Should we deny him his due because Jackson turned out to be a bastard?
You’ll run into this problem time and again when playing the dangerous game of morality-based art condemnation. If we boycott the work of the violent monster Ike Turner, we will also have to boycott the work of his innocent victim Tina Turner. If we boycott actual murderer Phil Spector, we’re boycotting the Shirelles, the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, and a whole slew of brilliant artists who never hurt anyone. And that’s before we even get into the question of consistency: how many people do you know who refuse to listen to the Beatles because John Lennon was a self-confessed wife-beater?
Indeed, how much would we deny ourselves if we applied zero tolerance to artist behaviour? Elvis dated a 14-year-old. Jerry Lee Lewis married a 13-year-old -- who was also his cousin. The writer Colette -- recently subject of a biopic starring Keira Knightley -- had an affair with her teenage stepson when in her 40s. Caravaggio killed a man. Of course we’re going back a while now -- but what would be the cost to art lovers now if they had burnt all Caravaggio’s paintings then?
Often this issue is framed as “separating the art from the artist”. Such a concept can be scoffed at: how CAN you separate the art from the artist, since the artist’s life and experience is the well from which the art springs?
But separating art from artist is not a matter of denying the connection between a human being and what that human being creates: it’s simply an acknowledgment that creation and creator are not the same thing, and that a piece of art does not alter in quality depending on who made it.
Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and a Shakespeare play would be just as good if Christopher Marlowe turned out to have written it -- or, indeed, if Shakespeare was a child molester.
Michael Jackson was a criminal predator, and his music was marvellous. One does not dilute the other.
Separating art from artist isn’t always easy. I believe that Bill Cosby is a comedic genius and one of the most influential comics in history. But now, knowing what I know, I can’t enjoy his comedy anymore. But that’s simply my personal reaction. I don’t require that anyone else share it. If you can still enjoy Bill Cosby’s work, that’s great. I envy you. And given that I still happily consume the music of Jackson and the films of Spacey, I’d be an incredible hypocrite if I scolded anyone for laughing at a Cosby joke. It’s not a matter of what you’re comfortable with watching or listening to: it’s a matter of what you insist other people go along with.
If you find that knowledge of Jackson’s deeds has soured his music for you, I understand. But there’s no moral imperative for anyone to deny themselves any work of art based on the artist’s personal morality.
To insist there is is merely to punish the fan for the star’s crimes; to lessen the beauty of the world for no practical benefit.
When we learn of the bad that someone has done, and respond by trying to erase any evidence of good that they did, we haven’t righted a wrong -- we’ve just added to the bad.
Far better, I think, to always demand accountability for crimes: to not let celebrity blind us to bad behaviour, and to pursue justice for victims. To hopefully work towards a world where anyone who abuses others can be punished properly for it. But not a world where works of art that enrich countless lives can be declared off-limits to those who love them, through no fault of their own.