FEATURE: A Tarnished Icon: Separating the Man from the Artist: Should We Stop Listening to Michael Jackson's Music?




A Tarnished Icon


IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Separating the Man from the Artist: Should We Stop Listening to Michael Jackson’s Music?


I think there is a big difference between the case...

 IN THIS PHOTO: Ryan Adams/PHOTO CREDIT: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Universal Music

of Michael Jackson and allegations against him and living musicians Ryan Adams and R. Kelly. I make that distinction because, as Adams and Kelly are accused and seeing their careers damaged, it seems likely we will see the truth and justice done. It is shocking to hear about their wrongdoings, especially R. Kelly, and there will be a chance for them both to have their day in court. Ryan Adams has cancelled his U.K. tour and R. Kelly’s music is being decried and banned by many. Both men are influential artists and hold a degree of power. The cases are very different but it comes down to men in the music industry thinking they can do what they want and feel it is appropriate to cross the line. Their cases of sexual abuse and inappropriateness have made for disturbing reading and one suspects neither will be able to revive their flagging careers. There is an ethical and moral question that one poses when we think of those artists. Do we listen to their music and can we separate the men from the music? Naturally, Ryan Adams music will be played on radio still and many own his albums. Do we burn or throw them away because Adams is being accused by a number of women? R. Kelly’s case seems more disturbing but I know he has millions of fans and many are still listening to his songs.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson with one of his accusers, Wade Robson/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It is a hard question to answer but I think there is a difference between keeping an artist alive in creative terms – giving them gigs and publicity – and listening to their music. Unless their music is actually promoting and glorifying sexual abuse then I feel people should not feel wrong listening to it. It is definitely uncomfortable listening to songs from an artist who has been tarnished and is now seen in a different light. Many artists through history have faced criminal charges and, in many cases, we judge and criticise the artist but listen to the music still. I think, regardless of the outcome regarding R. Kelly and Ryan Adams, neither will have a viable career but people will still listen to their music because it inspires them and provides them with comfort. I do not think we can judge them but it is definitely a divisive issue. This brings me to Michael Jackson and the ongoing slew of news articles dedicated to him. I mentioned how Adams and Kelly are living artists because, happily, they can answer their accusers and we can see justice done – we can get actual clarity and, if found guilty, both men will get their comeuppance. Michael Jackson is a different case altogether. He has faced accusations and judgement throughout his career and, yes, he is definitely known for his eccentricity and odd behaviour.

It is clear Jackson has had a difficult childhood but, of course, that does not excuse him of sexual abuse or any crime. Leaving Neverland is a documentary that speaks to two men, Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, who have accused Michael Jackson of sexual abuse. It is not just a few times we are talking about: between them, it is alleged he abused them hundreds of time. There is this media furore and desire to see Jackson in a criminal light without any proof and substantial evidence. Vanity Fair seem to have their opinion: that Jackson is guilty and there is no denying the facts. They set out ten points but these two caught my eye:

So far, five boys Michael Jackson shared beds with have accused him of abuse: Jordie Chandler, Jason Francia, Gavin Arvizo, Wade Robson, and Jimmy Safechuck. Jackson had the same nickname for Chandler and Arvizo: “Rubba.” He called Robson “Little One” and Safechuck “Applehead.”

The parents of boys Jackson shared beds with were courted assiduously and given myriad expensive gifts. Wade Robson’s mother testified in the 2005 trial that she funneled wages through Jackson’s company and was given a permanent resident visa. Jimmy Safechuck’s parents got a house. Jordie Chandler’s mother got a diamond bracelet”.

The points raised are definitely shocking but the most obscene and uncomfortable aspects are the fact Jackson let children into his bed – there is never a mention that he touched or had sex with any of them. There is this assumption that he must have abused children because he shared their bed. The man was an eccentric and misguided but the facts we already know – him sharing his bed and nicknaming children – does not a guilty man make.

Forbes made interesting observations in this article when it came to the testimony and motives from one of Jackson’s accusers, Wade Robson:

That same year, with Robson’s career, finances, and marriage in peril, he began shopping a book that claimed he was sexually abused by Michael Jackson. No publisher picked it up.

In 2013, Robson filed a $1.5 billion dollar civil lawsuit/creditor’s claim, along with James Safechuck, who also spent time with Jackson in the late ‘80s. Safechuck claimed he only realized he may have been abused when Robson filed his lawsuit. That lawsuit was dismissed by a probate court in 2017.


IN THIS PHOTO: James Safechuck, another of Jackson's accusers/PHOTO CREDIT: Channel 4

In 2019, the Sundance Film Festival premiered a documentary based entirely on Robson and Safechuck's allegations. While the documentary is obviously emotionally disturbing given the content, it presents no new evidence or witnesses. The film's director, Dan Reed, acknowledged not wanting to interview other key figures because it might complicate or compromise the story he wanted to tell.

The media’s largely uncritical, de-contextualized takes out of Sundance seem to have forgotten: no allegations have been more publicly scrutinized than those against Michael Jackson. They elicited a two-year feeding frenzy in the mid-90s and then again in the mid-2000s, when Jackson faced an exhaustive criminal trial. His homes were ransacked in two unannounced raids by law enforcement. Nothing incriminating was found. Jackson was acquitted of all charges in 2005 by a conservative Santa Maria jury”.


It seems like there are two schools of thoughts here. There is the one camp who knows there is a financial incentive telling your story now; the fact Jackson has been dead for almost ten years and it seems strange to speak out so late. There are others who hear the graphic stories and feel these men have no reason to lie and they have just been scared to speak out. We will, of course, never know the actual truth but one wonders why more men have not spoken out in the wake of the documentary and why, if Jackson had countless boys in his bed and is seen as this predatory figures, charges have not been brought. One might say his celebrity and fame protected him but one cannot jump to conclusions in that respect. It is troubling to see the slew of articles coming out where the author has this viewpoint based on what has come from Leaving Neverland. Louis Theroux has spoken about the allegations and feels that, despite no evidence being found, he is a paedophile. Again, he feels like testimonies, stories and what we already know regarding Jackson’s behaviour regarding children makes it all point to abuse.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

There is definitely division and whether you believe Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck and feel their motives are pure and they have no reason to lie, one must also look at the flip-side of the argument – the fact no criminal charges have or will be brought and Jackson cannot have its say. I feel the fact Michael Jackson is dead and will, a) never be able to have his say and answer his accusers and, b) he will not be punished in any way makes me wonder what the ultimate goal is. If it is to discredit Jackson and have people stop listening to his music then that brings me to another interesting argument. Neither man will be able to see justice done and get their day in court. It all seems a little late, pointless and flawed – Jackson is dead so cannot hurt anyone ever again.

I am definitely on the side that suggests Jackson is innocent until any real evidence comes to light as it is irrational and irresponsible calling someone a paedophile based on stories and the fact that they might have invited children into their bed – there is a difference between doing that and touching them inappropriately. In any case, many are asking whether we need to stop listening to Michael Jackson’s record. The Guardian ran some interesting features regarding this question. Suzanne Moore seems unequivocal in his denouncement and judgement of Michael Jackson:

The idea of Jackson as an abuser is not new. In 1994, he made a financial settlement of $23m with the family of Jordan Chandler. Everyone knew he had young boys sleeping in his bed. This was not normal, we said – but we had decided it was not sex. Oh no. When every big case of predatory paedophilia breaks, we rush to say it was obvious all along, but somehow we looked away.

Jackson turned himself into a monster in front of us in Thriller, yet he was also always the victim. As more and more awful, awful details emerge of boys who claim he abused them from the age of seven, I don’t know what box to put his music in any more. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes we draw lines and it is way too late, but it has to be done. That is how cultural shifts happen. They happen when we say: no more. Enough.

How sad is it that I might not listen to Jackson any more, that this investment in my own past is so morally rotten? In the scheme of things, not so sad. There is so much magnificent music in the world; I won’t go without. He is properly dead to me now”.


This article asked a few Guardian contributors to have their say and whether, in light of these accusations, we can keep listening to Jackson. I want to, first, bring in Alexis Petridis’ comment:

I thought about that remark when the furore around the Leaving Neverland documentary blew up. More compelling allegations that Jackson was a paedophile will undoubtedly lead to more calls for his music to be treated the way Glitter’s is – unofficially banned from radio and TV, never mentioned in public (even the Glitter fans I met would only talk to me under a veil of anonymity). I can see why, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. You can’t easily eradicate Jackson from history: too many people have too much of their lives bound up with his music. And perhaps you shouldn’t. Perhaps it is all right that his music continues to be heard, so long as it comes with a caveat: that it reminds us great art can be made by terrible people, that talent can be weaponised in the most appalling way, that believing an artist automatically embodies goodness because we like their work is a dreadful mistake that can have awful consequences”.

Lyndsey Winship has similar views…

But, the allegations against him are hideous. Abuse can never be excused. As a society, what we consume and what we celebrate is what forms our values. Does that mean a ban on his music? It is impossible to erase from our consciousness (and much of its brilliance was created by others – Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton – not Jackson alone), but choosing to now actively listen to, or dance to Jackson? Once people have seen the film, that will be a personal reckoning, yet it must be possible to condemn the person, even shelve the records, without being ashamed of the influence his music had on us, the good things he inspired and the careers he started”.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson's accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, as well as Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed/PHOTO CREDIT: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The allegations, yes, are seriously unsettling but that does not make them true. If artists like Ryan Adams and R. Kelly are found guilty of their charges, it brings to the table the debate as to whether their music is erased from streaming platforms. I tend to find there is a difference between the artist and the person and the music itself is not linked to their alleged crimes. Jackson’s music never makes allusions to sexualising children and his impact through the decades is clear: he has transformed Pop and helped bring about huge change. Maybe Jackson’s accusers are in it for the money or they may have felt, when with Jackson, what he was doing was okay and he was their idol – it seems sort of okay as children but, looking back, it was wrong. We will never get the clear truth but that is no reason to toss Jackson’s back catalogue on the pyre. The deceased icon is already being tarnished and vilified and Jackson’s estate are refuting claims against him; they have released a pair of concert films that shows Jackson playing live...not as a distraction but a chance to see the man in his element. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson and he is still a very important part of my life now. I am definitely unsettled regarding the allegations but his music is separate from him as a human.

Jackson will not earn any money from anyone now and one cannot discredit and disrespect what is, arguably, the finest collection of Pop songs ever produced. He helped bring black faces to mainstream stations like MTV and he has influenced countless artists today. The Guardian’s piece that I just quoted from – and will return to – asked others for their opinions and the consensus was that he is a paedophile and, therefore, there is this sense of discomfort. I feel like, regardless of his culpability, why should the music make one feel dirty? It seems strange we should be of this mindset where the mere sound of Michael Jackson singing makes us feel somehow immoral and strange. The lyrical content is perfectly fine and, even when Jackson wrote songs rebuffing critics and asking to be left alone, he was never mentioning allegations or abuse against children. The music has reached millions and has pushed music to new heights. It is a part of our psyche and shared experience and we have always bought his records – even when he was in the press years ago for misconduct, abuse and inappropriateness. We have, through the decades, always squared his artistic merit against accusations and how he is seen as a human being. If people want to throw their Jackson albums away that is fine but what good does it do?! His music will never be erased and, until there is definitive evidence regarding sexual abuse claims, what can streaming sites do?!

People can do what they like but this crusade to blacken his name and get people to stop listening to him is futile. His music provides joy and happiness to people and to deny that would be dangerous. I completely feel Jackson was a man who often used his celebrity in very strange and unsettling ways and I have known this for years. Other articles such as this say that money was a factor and there was a sense of hush-hush when allegations were made years ago. If Jackson was found guilty then it would be hugely damaging to his career and record label. There are a lot of debates and sides to this argument but I want to bring in the article I quoted and a quote from Chuck Klosterman from that Guardian article I have quoted:

What will happen, I suspect, is that the ever-increasing population of transgressive musicians (both living and dead) who find themselves recast as irredeemably problematic will eventually be lumped into a separate silo of cultural history. The unspoken rule will be that their work can be consumed and analysed, but not without overtly recognising that they are members of this exiled fraternity. It will be somewhat similar to how a film student can still reference the cinematography of Leni Riefenstahl, but only after first noting her political relationships. Jackson’s work is brilliant and unusually ubiquitous, so people will always want to talk about it. They just won’t be able to talk about that music to the exclusion of non-musical events, which will incrementally change its musical meaning”.

PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Mazur/Wireimage 

One cannot say for sure what happened and how extensive Jackson’s supposed abuses are. We can have our views about the man and whether he is a bad human being but I feel we need to take aside his music and judge it on its own merits. To deny the world of his brilliant Pop would be a travesty and I do not see the point in doing that – Jackson is no longer alive so cannot profit or be punished. I do understand it is a personal choice and some people will feel wrong listening to his music; unable to disassociate the predatory image and paedophiliac claims with this megastar who earned millions and was mega-famous. I think the Leaving Neverland documentary is nothing more than sensationalism given the fact Jackson died a decade ago. To get a true sense of balance and truth we need Jackson to speak and go to court and the fact he cannot makes me wonder what will happen next. Do we keep making these sort of documentaries and writing pieces about how awful Jackson is?! If you want to get truth and justice then that is fine but so much of it seems like witch-hunting and attack. It all comes down to the music and how we perceive that in decades to come. I think there will be a definite dent when it comes to sales figures but, no, the music will never disappear and fans, old and new, will continue to listen to him. His music will always be popular and he will always influence; radio stations will continue to play him and, soon enough, artists will come through citing Jackson as an influence. I do not think we should dismiss Jackson as a recording artist and to do so would be folly. Although I am shocked by Leaving Neverland and the press obsession with Jackson the Villain, I will continue to listen to his music because for me, and many others, Michael Jackson’s albums were crucial parts...

OF my childhood.