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Michael Jackson: to listen or not to listen?


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Over the last few years, more and more public figures are being held to account for their actions. It is harder for them to hide behind the veil of untouchability in an age where information is more accessible than ever.

From Jimmy Savile to Harvey Weinstein, it’s becoming clear that no amount of money or fame can prevent the exposure of unsavoury conduct, from sexual harassment through to outright criminality behind closed doors. The latest celebrity to come under scrutiny is Michael Jackson, the allegations of abuse against whom have been a topic of discussion ever since Leaving Neverland aired in early March.

Image by Alan Light via Flickr

The debate over the extent of culpability for the singer's unethical behaviour continues and one of the major questions asked in the wake of the Channel 4 two-parter is: "Can we still listen to Michael Jackson's music?"

‘Bad’, ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Smooth Criminal’ - these are only a fraction of the iconic tracks from the so-called King of Pop still well-known almost a decade after his death. They’ve been played at countless school discos, wedding receptions and pre-drinks all over the world, but despite the uncertainty surrounding the full extent of claims made by Wade and James, it is still difficult to know whether the art created by an alleged paedophile can be enjoyed and supported.

Jackson vs. the case of Weinstein

Whilst Harvey Weinstein’s rape convictions, amongst other offences, have justifiably tarnished his name, there does not appear to be a widespread boycott of films such as The Iron Lady, Lion and The Hateful Eight, all of which were produced by The Weinstein Company. We go to art galleries and museums displaying art obtained unethically, sometimes even paying to do so. So, what’s the difference when it comes to music? Can we separate the creator from their creations in what can be highly identity-driven artform? It seems to be a far more contentious issue.

It’s a complicated debate, but it seems clear that Michael Jackson’s music is hard to separate from the man himself. Just as it would be highly uncomfortable to watch Savile’s Jim’ll Fix It because of its inextricable link to the late alleged sex offender, the music of Jackson is impossible to dissociate from the man. Perhaps we can watch Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook and not even consider Weinstein and his sex crimes because he is not at the forefront. Maybe this just makes us more blissfully ignorant. The films are comparatively more palatable because Weinstein's power abuse is not immediately present on the screen whilst we watch them.

What’s more, so many others were as heavily involved in the creation of Weinstein’s films, from actors to directors, and that puts some distance between his crimes and the art. This explains why so many people seem able to continue to enjoy these, whilst Jackson’s music has adopted undeniable darkness. With the artist’s voice, lyrics and melodies permeating the art, it’s much more of a challenge to ignore the connection between the created and the creator when it comes to something as personal as music.

Music and identification 

Often used to communicate personal feelings and being a direct link between the artist and audience, music is arguably the most affecting of the arts. While the likes of visual art and literature can be explored from a critical standpoint, listening to pop music at a party is not usually an act of detached examination, but largely of identification and enjoyment. Enjoying music in spite of the creator’s dark actions seems to neutralise the alleged behaviour of the artist, saying it is okay and that their art is worth more than the testimony of their alleged victims.

But of course, we still don’t know if the accusations against Jackson are entirely true, so are we condoning anything at all? It all remains murky. While, personally, I feel I cannot listen to Michael Jackson’s music unless his innocence is confirmed, it’s not a simple black-and-white debate. There are complexities and contradictions that mean we will probably never settle the issue of the morality of listening to the music of an alleged criminal, so for the time being, the conscience of the individual consumer will have to suffice.

Lead image: Alan Light via Flickr

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