A few months ago, Austin’s long-running nightlife institution 80’s Night at Elysium announced that they would no longer be featuring the music of Michael Jackson (except by request.) Many radio stations and 80’s themed events did the same. The King of Pop was canceled. Why? Because of a new documentary that made it – in nauseating, explicit detail – very, very hard to deny the accusations that Jackson had been a rampaging pedophile.
We’re living in the days of ‘cancel culture’, where cultural value is weighed against perceived personal virtue, and for the most part, it’s been enormously cleansing and cathartic. But it also invites serious debate about what gets canceled, when, and why. There’s no clear consensus, because everyone has their own boundaries of what they find acceptable. But if anyone clearly deserves to have all of their accolades posthumously revoked, it’s Michael Jackson, right? But we can’t cancel Michael Jackson. We need him now more than ever. We need to confront all the ways that Jackson is the totem of everything that’s gone wrong with our pop culture.
It may be possible to cancel an obscure or mediocre artist, but Michael Jackson was neither of those things. Are pop divas and their choreographers suddenly going to stop emulating his dance moves in their music videos? Not very fucking likely. (Sick fact: one of the victims featured in the Leaving Neverland documentary grew up to be an influential music video choreographer who instructed the likes of Britney Spears in the fine art of synchronized grotch-grabbing.) Millions and millions of records sold all over the world over the course of decades can’t be removed from the memories of the people who enjoyed them. That’s cultural impact.
Also, why now? Why not in 1993, when the first accusations of child sexual abuse came to light? Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? That’s where we have to take a long hard look at the metaphorical man in the mirror. Obviously, the culture has changed. It has changed over the past century, and it has changed over the last two or three years. The first change has been in the gradual secularization of society, in which the elevated role once occupied by the church and its leaders has been replaced by popular culture and the entertainers who shape it. This has allowed a person like Michael Jackson, who came from nowhere special and had no power, skills or schooling in the traditional sense, to ascend to a pope-like position of influence and notoriety. He’s hardly the first, the only, or the final person to be in that position, of course. Many people have occupied it to varying degrees, and they handled it with varying degrees of grace. One glaring thing we’ve learned is that being a secular icon is not a very desirable or healthy position to be in, and many of the people put there either abuse their power or destroy themselves. (Michael Jackson did both.) We place people on pedestals because God is dead but we still like pedestals.
More recently, though, our perception of our icons has changed. Our relationship with the power structures that have been in place for generations has changed. Of course, resistance against unjust power structures is as old as civilization, but now that so much of our cultural identity is in the chimerical sphere of entertainment, the entertaining is also the political. We’re tearing down our secular icons, in other words. We’re punishing the people we’ve put on pedestals for committing human misdeeds, but not really questioning why we thought they needed to be up there in the first place. Yes, of course, people who commit misdeeds should be held accountable and those who commit crimes should be punished. The question is why we love them so much that we expect them to do neither and feel personally betrayed when they do both.
So let’s take another look at the sad and pathetic saga of Michael Jackson. I’m too young to remember a time before he was tainted by scandal, but I’ve been told that before the child-fucking, he was considered to be very wholesome. The world watched him grow up, for god’s sakes. He was an adorable, gifted child; who became an adorable, soft-spoken, un-rebellious, gifted adolescent; who grew up to be a visionary, business-savvy, bazillion-selling artist. And if he started to get a little weird as he matured, he carried enough residual sympathy that his weirdness at first seemed endearing, or at least understandable, or, finally, a symptom of problems which were not his fault, to which we could still extend sympathy. Which we should, extend sympathy, that is. There’s no question that Jackson was a victim, an exploited child himself, someone who literally never had a normal day in his life and had no basis for forming a normal identity. There isn’t really another example of anyone who became that famous, that young, under such abusive circumstances, who went on to become even more famous, under that much scrutiny, and remained under the most intense scrutiny even after no longer being able to do the work he’d become famous for in the first place. Because the hits eventually stopped coming, but the attention never went away. The weirdness became the work. Michael Jackson had to entertain, it was the thing he’d been doing all his life, the only thing he knew how to do, the only thing anyone ever wanted him to do, and if he no longer had the spirit to make music, he would do it by being a mutilated, grotesque ghost of himself. When the scandal broke that Wacko Jacko stood accused of interfering with children, that was entertaining too. More entertaining than hit songs or music videos. This was a real-time, real-life Grand Guignol horror spectacle, and it sold one hell of a lot of newspapers. The fact that he was able to throw enough money at the problem to make it go away was a miscarriage of justice, but that too was entertaining. Then the inevitable sequel happened, and he weaseled his way out of that too, and it was entertaining. Then he died, killed by his longtime drug addiction, aided and abetted – as it always is – by exploitative management and sycophantic doctors. That was entertaining as fuck. His memorial service was shown, live, in movie theatres. The whole entire saga is a sick example of putting a blameless person – a child! – onto a cultural pedestal before the adoring eyes of millions, and then watching him grow increasingly sick and deranged until he finally drops dead.
None of which excuses or minimizes the fact that he fucked little boys. He did. He was a pedophile. There’s no two ways about it. The shell-shocked recollections of his now-grown victims just brings it into sharper focus. Michael Jackson scouted, groomed, seduced and raped little boys, over the course of decades, all while treating their families to five-star vacations and buying them homes and helping them in their careers. He got away with it, because he was richer than God and still had enough people on his side to defend him. He had enough people who still believed that he was just a harmless eccentric who meant well, that he was a victim who’d lost his own childhood and was just trying to reclaim it, that he was doing good for those kids and it was all just a big misunderstanding, that he had been framed by nameless enemies who were out to get him, that the victims were money-grubbing lying little scoundrels, etc. Anything but the glaring probability that a wealthy, isolated and mentally ill man could have abnormal sexual proclivities and freedom to pursue them with little fear of recourse.
Michael Jackson wasn’t canceled in 1993, or in 2003, and he’s probably not going to stay canceled now, either. In 1993, and in 2003, it was clear that we’d decided that the entertainment value of Jackson’s work outweighed whatever harm he might have done to a couple, or even a dozen, little kids. Worse, it seems that we’d also decided that the entertainment value of the accusations themselves, the spectacle of watching an icon fall from grace, outweighed all of the harm done. Enough for Jackson to go on being an icon, albeit a severely tainted one. Let him go on being an icon, then. Let him be a dark symbol of the media age. Let him be the worst example of the ongoing battle between artistic immortality and personal disgrace. There’s nothing lower that hurting children. People who’ve gone down in history for their atrocities still drew the line of decency at child-fucking. On the other hand there’s nothing more celebrated than selling a few millions records and making some really cool music videos. We’re here now weighing the relative merits of a man who made some of the best pop songs of all time, but who probably also fucked a few children, and we’ve consistently come to the conclusion that those things more or less balance each other out. That’s were we are now, as a culture. That’s what Michael Jackson is an icon of. Never forget Neverland.