It seems like there's a perfect storm brewing. On the heels of might be deemed a successful campaign to make R. Kelly face sexual assault charges and suffer the career consequences for his alleged misdeeds, another artist is facing consequences of his alleged actions posthumously. Enter the release of Leaving Neverland, the Michael Jackson documentary so devastating thanks to the detail shared by two men who claim Jackson sexually abused them as children, that Sundance had counsellors on hand for its audience when the four-hour film premiered in January. But while the Mute R. Kelly campaign was swiftly created following the Lifetime documentary that detailed the allegations against him, is it even possible to mute Michael Jackson — an artist whose star power and influence on the world is practically immeasurable?
Now that more than just critics and Sundance attendees have seen Wade Robson's and James Safechuck's detailed, painfully graphic accounts of what they say Jackson did to them as boys, there haven't exactly been calls for a boycott of his music, but some critics have written that the "damage to Jackson's legacy is irreversible" and that the doc will "turn you off Michael Jackson for good." Much as it seems shocking to listen to R. Kelly or to watch a Woody Allen movie now, hitting the dance floor to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" or “Thriller” may be seen as implicit support of an artist who allegedly ruined two little boys' lives. That would be a logical step, right? It might not be that easy, writes the New York Times' Maureen Dowd.
"It was easier to ignore a landscape designed as a spider web for child sexual abuse than to give up the soundtrack of our lives, the catchy songs that coursed through memories of weddings, bar mitzvahs and other good times," she writes, referring to the previous allegations that managed not to stick to Jackson's legacy.
And it would appear that even after the doc's release, that cultural relevance continues to make it difficult to effectively mute an artist as beloved as Jackson. Slate recently spoke to wedding DJs who confessed that while they'd "think twice" about simply adding Jackson into a wedding soundtrack, that "I more than likely will ultimately have to play his music — just given that people typically dance to it" thanks to the deep imprint his music has had on American culture.
Even Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed has said the aim of his film is not to wipe Jackson's songs out of our lives, even though many people who have seen it report definitely not wanting to hear his music for the foreseeable future.
"I wouldn’t get behind a campaign to ban his music; I don’t think that makes any sense," Reed told the Metro. "But is this a time to celebrate Michael Jackson? I don’t think so. It’s a time to acknowledge the man he was. He was also a brilliant entertainer. Maybe one day, those things can fit together in people’s minds, but there will be a period of reevaluation of who he was, and his work as well."
Already, there are signs that muting Michael might not be a successful movement. Writers for major publications have preemptively made excuses for Jackson not to be canceled. His music is too pervasive and influential, some say.
"Michael Jackson’s music isn’t a meal," Wesley Morris wrote in the New York Times this week. "It’s more elemental than that. It’s the salt, pepper, olive oil and butter. His music is how you start. And the music made from that — that music is everywhere, too. Where would the cancellation begin?"
Slate's Carl Wilson makes the case for silencing Jackson's music for the sake of those who have experienced sexual assault, writing, "Their potential trauma outweighs any other consideration, at least for a while." At the same time, he doesn't seem to be holding his breath that this will happen.
"[T]here are points where the apparently irresistible force of moral outrage runs into immovable objects of cultural history," Wilson wrote.
A sign of this immovability: Jackson's music still gets more than 22 million streams a month on Spotify, nearly 10 years after his death, and some of those streams happened just steps away from Leaving Neverland's Sundance premiere, as Variety reported hearing songs play at more than one of the festival's sponsored parties.
There are those who have decided that Robson and Safechuck are just two people in search of fame and fortune, with no proof that Jackson molested them. First in line is Michael Jackson's estate, which has vehemently denied the claims made by Robson and Safechuck, and seems at least somewhat concerned about the effect of the doc, suing HBO for £75 million in response to Leaving Neverland's release. (That number pales in comparison to the singer's estimated annual earnings — in 2016 alone he earned £626 million, according to Forbes.) But avid Jackson fans have also flooded Twitter with the hashtag #AmplifyMichaelJackson and numerous flippant responses to the mere suggestion that audiences might mute Jackson.
But it's not just his devoted fans who feel this way. Witness how Ne-Yo bent over backwards telling a TMZ reporter why he thinks Jackson is different from R. Kelly: "There were no videotapes of Michael Jackson peeing on little girls or little boys," he said. "There was no undeniable proof that Michael Jackson did any of that stuff. ... We've got proof that R. Kelly was doing what he was doing."
But even without proof, there is a precedent for laying off the MJ records. In 2005, after he was acquitted in his child molestation trial, the public did essentially deliver its own guilty verdict. Jackson and his three children retreated from public life, moving to Bahrain of all places, and he rapidly went broke. He closed Neverland and auctioned off many of his belongings, and still was in massive debt. At the time of his death, The Guardian reported, there were at least 46 lawsuits against him for unpaid bills. People weren't buying his music then, and he was making one last-ditch effort to win back their hearts and ears — the This Is It performances in London — when he died.
Ironically, death is what resurrected Jackson's image and his music. His estate has raked in money in the decade since then, as it also allowed people to remember him as the icon he was before the allegations of abuse became public. We could select the moment in time to freeze him in our minds.
"[S]ince his death, it’s been easy enough for the culture to collectively push the half-remembered allegations aside and instead simply appreciate the genius of Michael Jackson," the Philadelphia Inquirer's Dan DeLuca wrote.
What remains to be seen is if Leaving Neverland, and the general movement toward believing survivors of sexual violence at their word, will mute our nostalgia for MJ as much as his music.