Michael Jackson died on 25th June 2009. His death was a surprise, in part because his life was so shrouded in the kind of secrecy that only superstars can cultivate. Everyone felt like they knew him, because they knew his music. It was both universal, reaching hundreds of millions across the globe, and personal, having an indelible impact on the people who found joy, comfort, and release in his songs. But in his death, it became more clear that very few truly knew Jackson — not his adoring public, not his business partners, and not the people who thought they were closest to him.
His death caused a media frenzy, not only because he was such a massive star but because he was relatively young — at only 50, he wasn’t known to be under the kind of health strain that would indicate he was on the precipice of death. He was also working on a comeback concert series, This Is It. As the news cycles churned, the sordid details of Jackson’s death emerged. We learned about his relationship with Dr. Conrad Murray, the man who would be convicted of involuntary manslaughter for his death, and his addiction to a cocktail of painkillers and narcotics that had escalated since he suffered a third-degree burn on the set of a 1984 Pepsi commercial.
What I remember most about the coverage was the footage of latter-day Jackson that aired on repeat on morning shows, nightly newscasts, and 24-hour news networks as new details emerged on the story. They favoured footage from his later “Wacko Jacko” years, when Jackson was pale, covered with surgical masks or oversized hats and sunglasses to hide his face, and surrounded by bodyguards, seemingly untouchable as fans waved and yelled wherever he went. By the time he died, I hadn’t been paying attention to Jackson’s career for some time, and it was surprising to see not only how different he looked, but how strange and alone he seemed. He appeared to exist in a silo of sadness, a stark contrast to the man who had 13 No. 1 singles from 1968 to 1995.
Jackson’s death was shocking. His life was so much messier than we knew. There was the debt that led to foreclosure on his Neverland ranch, the prosthetic nose, the questions around who would control his estate as his family squabbled. This person who had become ubiquitous in our lives, been a hero to many and a musical icon to a generation was suddenly gone. His memorial service, held on 7th July 2009 at the Staples Centre in downtown Los Angeles, was a three-hour event that attracted thousands of fans who wanted to say goodbye in person — some 17,000 tickets were given away to members of the public. It was broadcast live on multiple networks, an event reserved for heads of state, and was a ratings juggernaut with over 31 million people watching. When Heath Ledger died unexpectedly from an overdose in 2008, the world was shocked. When Anna Nicole Smith died, also from an overdose, in 2007, the world was titillated by the details of her life and demise. But when Jackson died, it was like we got both the shock and the titillation, and it was about one of the most famous, most secretive people in the world. It changed everything about how the public mourned celebrities and how the news covered their deaths.
The reaction to Jackson’s death was overwhelming. I, frankly, didn’t know he still had so many fans. They were immediately on the grounds of his home when he died, gathering at Neverland to await new information. Hours of television was created by asking people to talk about their reactions to his death — which amounted to shock, sorrow, and disappointment. People seemed unable to digest the news, unable to make sense of how this had happened. Above all, they were obsessed with the tawdry details, including the years of information that would come out with Jackson’s family and estate sued Murray in 2011. For me, it was too much. I leaned away from the media circus, finding it overwhelming and distasteful. Jackson had guarded his secrets so closely for so long, it felt like we were all learning things about him that he never wanted to be public.
There have been so many ways that Jackson’s music became a part of my life. It started with “Billie Jean.” The video and the meaning of the song were a small obsession when I was a little girl and it was on MTV all the time. How did he get that pathway to light up as he walked down it? Who was Billie Jean? And the string of hit singles through the ‘80s he released were inescapable. Even as a youngster I thought “Thriller” was too overplayed, but I lived for “Dirty Diana” and “Human Nature.” When I was in my 20s, I discovered Off the Wall, his absolutely genius 1979 album. “Rock with You” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” were mainstays at parties I DJ'd, guaranteed to fill the dance floor. That album, that era — those are the MJ songs I still put on and groove to. Or, at least, I could until Leaving Neverland.
The accusations against Jackson have been out since 1993, and they are so horrific that it’s easier to draw a curtain over them, to dismiss them as untrue than to believe. Jackson is accused of sexual misconduct by four men, who allege that Jackson had sexual relationships with them beginning when they were children. His estate, his family, and Jackson during his life, deny the accusations.
But watching Leaving Neverland, which aired on Channel 4 in March, hearing the stories from two of his accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, left me, and many others, unsettled about who Jackson really was. And it made many people turn away from his music.
The man who died as the victim of a doctor who helped him abuse narcotics, a slew of hangers-on and advisors who ran his finances into the ground, and the father of three children seems like a very different man in the light of new abuse allegations. This anniversary has left me wondering what to do with his music and his legacy, ten years on.
Following the airing of the documentary, Jackson’s songs were pulled from some radio airplay in New Zealand, Canada, and the U.K, with a decrease in airplay in the U.S. Streaming of his catalog of music initially dropped, and then showed an increase — which is typical, we saw the same phenomenon following the airing of Surviving R. Kelly. There was no public call to mute Jackson, as there was with Kelly, but his estate did cancel the planned Chicago run of a musical based on his songs ahead of the doc’s release. It’s hard to imagine many would find enjoyment in a jukebox musical based on the work of someone whose reputation is so tarnished.
Now, less than two months later, the anniversary of his death is upon us. It’s been 10 years since Jackson passed and with that milestone comes an examination of his legacy after Leaving Neverland. The man who died as the victim of a doctor who helped him abuse narcotics, a slew of hangers-on and advisors who ran his finances into the ground, and the father of three children seems like a very different man in the light of new abuse allegations. This anniversary has left me wondering what to do with his music and his legacy, ten years on. Turn a blind eye to the new accusations against him? Extract the man from the music? Play his music and lament the loss of a genius?
Personally, I am going to keep Jackson on mute. Hearing his songs leaves a bad taste in my mouth, still, and I can give my time and the revenue my streams generate to unproblematic artists — new artists who need the attention. I’d rather be a contentious consumer and move forward than look back and continue trying to justify to myself why I didn’t listen to the accusations.