As you know I’m a professional asshole, and it wears on me sometimes and I just abhor myself and repent and pledge to be more sympathetic to the foibles of my fellow humans. But I have to admit, when I hear that people are only just now catching on that when Michael Jackson had little boys over to the house for sleepovers it wasn’t just to watch cable and play with Bubbles, churl that I am, I laugh.
I mean, suddenly it’s bad form to enjoy or admit to enjoying his music. Drake has dropped an MJ tune from his show, The Simpsons won’t run their MJ episode, and there are many long, thoughtful monologues like this one by Janell Ross about “what to do with Michael Jackson's music” now that he is in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes. From that essay:
The New York Times cultural critic Wesley Morris has described Jackson’s art as foundational. The type of music he made and even the way he danced redefined how to perform popular music and has seeped into a large portion of music and performance consumed today.
But now that one of Jackson’s accusers has described in “Leaving Neverland” a Jackson who allegedly purchased a wedding ring and exchanged private “vows” with a 10-year-old boy, the documentary could force those who admire Jackson’s art and those who have done that with some level of suspicion to consider amending their idea of the man.
Now I read this and think: Why isn’t enjoying “the type of music he made and even the way he danced” a separate matter from “amending their idea of the man”? In order to admire a work of art, do we have to admire the person who made it? Because if we do I have very bad news about the past, oh, several centuries of civilization. (You guys ever hear of Jerry Lee Lewis?)
But you can get that argument anywhere — the Internet has been full of it for years, and especially recently for obvious reasons. You can guess how I feel about that. (I’m much more sympathetic to the corollary idea that accepting shitty behavior from male geniuses was a disastrous mistake.)
Still my main question remains: Did all these people disowning Jackson not suspect that his relationships with these underage boys was pretty much the same as that enjoyed by guys you’ve only seen in disheveled mugshots on TV or online? What restrained them from “amending” their “idea of the man” before now?
Was it the lack of victim testimony that the documentary has now supplied? Is that what tipped the scale? Did their feeling for Michael Jackson and his music shift, like the majesty of the law, upon the judgement — that the moment before he was convicted “Don't Stop Till You Get Enough” was a banger, and the moment after it was shit? Is an artist really just like a politician, someone whose approval rating is more important than the power of their work to compel an audience? (Or actually, even more approval-rating-bound than a politician, if our current scumbag-in-chief is any indication.)
I have to say I’m rattled by the idea, not because it punishes malefactors (in this case a dead one — call him King of Pop Formosus and strike his begloved blessing fingers off!), but because it seems to short-circuit one of the most basic aspects of human life: the power of art to go beyond the reach of reason. I’m not talking about propaganda, which tries to bypass reason in furtherance of some political or social scheme, though I suppose art can be turned to that purpose (that’s what the culture warriors are trying to do, after all), but a natural human response to the act of creation that mimics our response to spring — something that makes our sap rise rather than our gorge, and submits us to a pleasure that has nothing to do with keeping the body alive or the tribe accommodated, and everything to do with the spirit.
I know that seen from a certain perspective this is a self-refuting argument, for human beings don’t have to have a reason to disown Michael Jackson; if they don’t want him, or any artist, that’s the right in the free market and an end to it. So I have to say I’m heartened by this from the New York Times:
Since HBO’s broadcast last week of “Leaving Neverland” — a two-part, four-hour spotlight on two men who said Mr. Jackson had abused them when they were young boys — reams of commentary have been devoted to whether fans could ever listen to “Off the Wall” or “Thriller” again in good conscience.
But the numbers show that, at least so far, the popularity of Mr. Jackson’s music has not budged.
Since the beginning of the year, songs from Mr. Jackson’s solo catalog have been streamed 16 million to 17 million times each week in the United States on services like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal, according to Nielsen. Last week, including the period immediately after the documentary’s premiere on March 3 and 4, the total was 16,497,000 streams.
Even the daily listening pattern did not vary since the HBO documentary was shown.
Radio stations in the United States have been cautious, significantly reducing the number of plays of Mr. Jackson’s music. According to Nielsen, Mr. Jackson’s songs have been played about 2,000 times a day on American radio stations in recent months. That number began to slip in February, and since the documentary aired it has dropped sharply, to about 1,500 a day through Sunday.
It would seem that the stations, whose management must feel they have to take account of mass sentiment real or imagined, has been nervous and predisposed to withdraw the music, while ordinary listeners have been like “Michael Jackson’s in the news — you know what, I could go for ‘Man in the Mirror’ right now.”
Maybe over time people will abandon MJ as they did Ukulele Ike, Nat King Cole, and Johnny Ray, as times and tastes change and the parade moves on. But it gives me some pleasure and hope that for the moment the groove is stronger than the anathema.