The MJ Dilemma
Over the past month and a half, I have been asked several times my thoughts on Leaving Neverland. I stood down every time, assuming interest in my talking head was only about my proximity to the world of superstardom—I danced with Madonna early in my career and with Cher currently.
But when a family member asked recently, I could see the desperation in her eyes deeper than scoop lust: she needed help sorting years of love for the King of Pop with the moral dilemma of jamming to his music despite absolutely compelling allegations. The ignorance that was bliss, an ignorance that often insulates us from the imperfections of our beloved icons, is gone.
It dawned on me then that many of us are having the wrong conversation, since beneath “Did he do it?” is the trouble of what to do with the flashback to that kiss when The Way You Make Me Feel came out. Or how to now process the triumph of self-esteem from successfully learning the entire Thriller dance break as a teenager after so many MTV airings. Although Michael Jackson is a worldwide icon, America for sure has always struggled with disposability politics muddled by a firm situating of celebrities on Rushmore high pedestals. Our better-than-you society, braised in capitalism and seasoned with calibrated likes on Instagram, enjoys the luau of pardon-heavy praise and worship.
It is not a new phenomenon.
We went through this with Bill Cosby only moments ago when TV executives, hip to the presence of #metoo in the Zeitgeist and afraid of bottom line endangerment, tossed the entire collection of The Cosby Show episodes, even at the expense of the good work of dozens of writers, producers, actors, guest stars and consultants accused of raping no one. And a quick glance at the music industry will give us a full gamut of miscreants, from Phil Spector to Ike Turner, from Peter Yarrow to James Brown, all with substantial cultural contributions to consider. Through it all, consumers generally have to tough out whether it is okay to enjoy the art despite the artist. (Conspicuously—and on purpose—I exclude R. Kelley from the dialogue, mainly because the art he released commented on the alleged crimes in real time, i.e., Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.)
Those of us who work alongside these entertainment paragons get to see firsthand that they are people first. We learn to accept them on their own terms. We realize their fallibility. Unencumbered by the magic that floats stars over our heads, we get to be less conflicted. We know the eyebrow-raisers, and we sign NDA addendums with our contracts because managers know we know. Often, the result is that we love them more.
Mostly, we truly get the one thing that I explained to my friend: reconciling is less about indicting or exonerating Michael Jackson than it is about making room to accept that all of the things can be true IF they are: he was a history-making artist of epic proportions, he was the phenomenal standard of brilliant musicianship, he was an active philanthropist devoted to raising money to fight AIDS and hunger, and he was a adult with a troubled childhood and questionable, inappropriate relationships with little boys.
It can all be true.
Aside from the fact that disposing wholesale of a phenomenon like Michael Jackson means also dumping from your playlist the music of any artists whose brands were inspired directly by him (bye Usher, bye Mario, bye Justin, etc.), it makes no sense to squash the moral compass here. When we buy a pair of jeans, we understand that brand transparency be damned, there is no way to ensure that some of the 73 million kids worldwide working in hazardous conditions for pennies at this very moment did not construct the denim. Reading this article on an iPhone means supporting a company whose inhumane manufacturing contract with Foxconn subjects workers to 60 brutal hours a week of standing on swollen legs and occasional dying from explosions. The list of responsible consumer checks goes on. Although we try, this kind of consistency is untenable because we live in an America anchored on oppression and churned by greed.
And soundtracked by a brutal music industry, however shiny, that is known to chew, suck and spit.
So let’s have this other conversation instead, on how to make peace with a whole human truth no matter how great (and possibly damaged) the human, on how to dismantle those pedestals and find new ways to regard these artists and their work.
Maybe there, we can find permission to listen, permission to continue varnishing memories that Michael Jackson’s music accompanied.