The fallout from Leaving Neverland, HBO’s Michael-Jackson-was-a-pedo documentary, has only just begun. And the discussion is only going to get louder and uglier.
We’ve all heard the dark stories about Jackson over the last 25 years (here are 10 verified facts about the man we used to call Whacko Jacko) but in the grand scheme of things, they’ve had little overall effect on Jackson’s money-making abilities. His music remains as popular as ever. The business of Michael Jackson, run by his estate, is worth an estimated US$2 billion.
But things have changed thanks to the woke-ness created by the #MeToo era, a time when men with power are being called to account for their sins.
The question today is whether Jackson will finally be branded a pariah, a criminal who preyed on children as young as seven (can you believe this story?), a serial pedophile who bought the silence of his victims and, to a certain extent, their parents.
Abusing children is one of the few crimes for which there is no redemption. There are no excuses. It can’t be explained away. It cannot be forgiven. Offenders are rightly shunned.
If Michael Jackson ends up deeper in this bucket of awfulness, what happens to his music?
Oprah has bailed on Jackson, choosing to side with his accusers. Variety reports on a Hollywood DJ who says she will refuse to play any of his music from now on and is urging other people to do the same. The Chicago stand of a musical based on Jackson’s music has been cancelled. Tiny Record Shop, a vinyl emporium in Toronto, has announced it will no longer stock Jackson’s records, something that has resulted in a vicious Twitter storm.
Now consider radio. These days, Jackson’s songs are heard on Adult Contemporary stations and Adult Hits outlets (that’s what the industry calls oldies for Baby Boomers). Each sort of station will have somewhere around a dozen Jackson songs in regular rotation. They play his music because audience research says that they’re very popular and that they test well with audiences. Or at least they have up until now.
Up until this week, Jackson’s songs have remained very popular on North American radio even 10 years after his death. Last week, his songs were heard 15,744 times according to Nielsen BDS Radio. Billie Jean alone was played 1,830 times during those seven days. Now that we have a pre-Leaving Neverland baseline, we’ll have to watch these numbers in the coming weeks.
WATCH BELOW: ‘Leaving Neverland’ Reaction
Radio stations have several choices, each of which comes with its own risks. First, they can take a public position like a group of Quebec radio stations have, saying that Jackson is no longer welcome on any playlists, something that could create a massive backlash from Michael Jackson truthers, those fans who will never believe anything bad about their hero. Another option is to quietly drop Jackson songs and see if anyone notices, although this will be criticized by those who would prefer a strong and transparent moral stand. Finally, a station may continue to play his songs and base any decisions on audience reaction and announce (or not) what it plans to do.
And it’s not like Jackson would be the first. With all the recent #MeToo allegations against Ryan Adams, radio stations reportedly dropped his songs. Have you heard much R Kelly on the radio lately? No, I didn’t think so. Remember the controversy over Hedley when singer Jacob Hoggard was arrested on sexual assault charges? There are plenty of others, alive and dead, who may yet face some kind of reckoning.
Jackson may, in fact, end up being completely marginalized like U.K. glam-rock star Gary Glitter who ended up in a Vietnamese prison on child prostitution, child porn, and pedophile-related charges. His Rock and Roll Part 2 used to be a staple at sporting events. When was the last time you heard that at a hockey game? He’s now back in the U.K. where he’s a registered sex offender.
Then there’s the case of Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins. This was a pretty solid rock band which found itself completely derailed by their frontman’s horrendous abuse of a child. You won’t hear any of their music on the radio anymore.
Yes, Jackson isn’t alive to defend himself. Yes, it’s true that he was acquitted of molestation charges in 2005, a trial that featured testimony from the two men in Leaving Neverland who defended Jackson, proclaiming him innocent. But the documentary makes it very clear why they did that. It’s only now as adults that they realize that they had been coerced and brainwashed into not telling the truth.
Then there’s this question: How far down this rat hole do we go? We can make a list a mile long of musicians through history accused of doing illegal things with underage fans. Once we start pulling on this thread, there is a lot that will unravel.
There are those who argue that in cases like this, the music needs to be separated from the person. Others will say that anything that enriches and promotes an abuser living or dead should be extinguished. These actions even have a name: cancel culture.
Michael Jackson, the best-selling solo artist of all time, still has a long way to fall. What comes next?