One of my earliest childhood memories was of me and my family riding in a car with Michael Jackson’s ‘Black and White’ playing on the radio.
There was something powerful that connected me to that music. I remember when it came on, my how my younger brother immediately turned off the radio. Apparently he never really shared my musical tastes. I started bawling my eyes out, telling my mom how I liked the song, and how I wanted her to turn it back on. A bit of an overreaction by six-year-old me, to be sure. It can be hard to ask yourself, as an adult, what it means to have had such a love for a music; given it was by such a controversial musical talent.
Jackson was recently pressed back into the forefront of the public eye, with the release of HBO’s new documentary Leaving Neverland. In the documentary, well-known, decades-long allegations take on a renewed vigor; written on the now-adult faces of his alleged victims. There is a rawness in the simple interview style, you can see the accusers’ faces parse and contort, as they process the things that had been done to them. The accusations ring true, that way.
The emotion of the event is compounded by cinematic cuts to various settings in and around the locales where Michael maintained his living. Secret rooms on the ranch, where James Safechuck and Wade Robinson (the two alleged victims in question) said they were sexually assaulted, are interspersed throughout the testimony. Hotel suites, cottages, and secret stairwells to secret bedrooms. These were the backdrop for what would define the rest of these men’s lives.
And all of the corroborating testimony. The prepared lines, and means of grooming the children, they all lined up in an eerily prepared uniformity. A scene where Mr. Safechuck is holding a child-sized wedding ring breathes a tangibility from his unhappy memories of coercion and manipulation.
It is inevitable that people will do some level of self-reflection. Examining our choices, our hearts, our motivations, and morals is natural; in the wake of it all. It’s scary to come face-to-face with something that you didn’t want to know about, something that you had pushed deep down; because you like Thriller. What does liking his music mean for us? What does his estate collecting our money say about our values?
It doesn’t say anything, or at least not anything new.
If you think that fancy, lauded musicians with shabby, possibly-deranged tendencies is a new phenomenon, then you are wrong. The entertainment business and debauchery are as twinned as America and apple pie. Art is simply on the nobler branch of what is our collective species’ cosmic duality. Humans have always been capable of feats of cruelty and kindness. Of astounding creativity and senseless destruction. Michael Jackson was just another cog in that ever-churning machine. (I hear Chris Brown is enjoying healthy margins these days, too)
Taking it all the way back to the old school, there are stories of musical composers like Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa; an Italian composer of sacred (church) music, who brutally murdered his wife and her lover. That isn’t very much unlike Phil Spector, who murdered Lana Clarkson for spurning his advances. Apparently he cried out to his driver, after the incident, “I think I shot her…”. Throughout the centuries, people doing terrible things in the heat of the moment (or in a drunken rage) is a testament to the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Music, like most performance art, is connected to the human experience in a visceral way. Because it is tied to our humanness, it is inevitably, often, disturbing. Elvis Presley, the King of Rock, routinely indulged in one night stands with under-aged girls as young as 14 years old. In the world of opera, James Levine stands accused of having victimized multiple young male students. James Brown was accused of serious domestic abuse and rape. The problem of our humanness, within our art, is one that crosses the boundaries of genre, style, and period.
Our inner conflict
This is the problem, and the benefit, of living within a capitalist society. As creators, innovators, and business men and women, we reserve the right to be compensated for the fruits of our labor. It is the principal that ensures we can create a life for ourselves and our families. It is irrevocable, therefore, that Michael Jackson (or his estate, now) be entitled to the proceeds of all of his greatest musical hits. Our system creates a vote in every spent dollar. Wrapped within each of these votes, it is easy for people to see the moral dilemma. As soon as the new documentary dropped, the obligatory conversation began to creep back up. “Should we buy this music still…” and “How can I enjoy and support someone who has done something so awful?” These questions emanate through the forums, and litter the headlines of our journals.I always find it odd. Nobody seems to be having this conversation about most of the innumerable other musicians, actors, and producers in a myriad of fields. You don’t see people going back through the headlines, scouring the newspapers for the moral failings of all of the great artists, curating only those who are most pure-hearted. For me, like much else in the American experiment, it comes down to economics.
Do a personal, moral cost/benefit analysis of what your tastes are worth to you. Are your Apple smartphones worth the abhorrent conditions in Fonghua’s forbidden Chinese manufacturing city? Or the fact that the demand for instantaneous shipping contributes to slave-labour like working conditions; causing death by exhaustion, and multiple miscarriages. Ostensibly, a bunch of you guys have said yes. At least tacitly. Perhaps, it is just that you don’t like to think about this stuff…and I totally get it.
Life, government, policy, music, entertainment, charity, technology, business…these things are hard. Sometimes the right answers are not always clear. Sometimes the absolution that our hearts collectively want is nowhere to be found. Personally, I wont begrudge Blanket Jackson a click or two, in order to rock out to You are not alone or Bad every once in a while.My final point has to do with music, and why we like it in the first place. Music inspires us because it makes us feel something that we need to feel. Any music that can transcend the boundaries of race, economic status, age, and religion cannot help but be received. Don’t punish music for the feebleness of its vessel. Rather, let your own moral sense renew the music. Attach a little bit of it to yourself. Buy some of the rights and play the music at a charity event for underserved children; for the abused and the destitute. Let the music have the legacy that we attend to it, and not just the one that attached itself to it in those dark bedrooms; so many years ago. If we can collectively reinvent our thinking this way, we can shift the paradigm of what is possible — Not just for music, but for everything else.