It was like any given Wednesday afternoon in Anderson Commons. I was tossing french fries back and scrolling through Twitter when I should have been working on my religion paper. It’s 2:40 and DS is mostly empty — the tables occupied few and far between. The dreamily generic mid-80’s pop ballad that was ringing out in the empty cavern faded out, and for a second, it was silent. Then Michael Jackson’s 1983 single “Billie Jean” came on over the tinny speakers.
One can’t remove Michael Jackson from American culture. It isn’t just that it would take a lot of effort and our patriarchal society is unwilling to change. It is that, but it’s something else as well. That something else is Michael Jackson. Wesley Morris, a New York Times culture critic dives into this point on a guest appearance on The Daily, the Times’ flagship daily podcast. Morris explains the enormous impact that Michael Jackson has had on both American pop music and American culture at large. “There’s no other artist who is as important to where pop music currently is than Michael Jackson.” Morris is exactly right. Without Michael Jackson, pop music as we know it simply wouldn’t exist. Michael Jackson single-handedly created the pop sound that we hear all summer at over-chlorinated pool parties and on the top 40 charts as we drive to work weekday mornings. But now we know the truth—or at least enough is out there that we realize we couldn’t see the truth before.
Finding Neverland had premiered on HBO a few days before I heard it in a nearly-empty Anderson Commons. I haven’t had time to see the documentary, but I recognized the impact it had. Though allegations about Michael Jackson’s lewd conduct with children has been in the public eyes for over two decades, this was the first time a massive expose has been brought up in the post #MeToo era. This time felt different. The allegations detailed in the documentary were honest and graphic—more so than past ones. So what can we make of this?
Though my answer will disappoint you, I at least owe readers the decency to answer the question in the title. Should DS play Michael Jackson songs? I don’t know. Probably not, I suppose. Or, at least, not right after the premiere of Finding Neverland. But I still don’t think that’s the right question. The real question, the deeper question, is: are we, as a society, able to treat Michael Jackson’s art as the tragedy that it is? Are we able to listen to the uplifting melodies that Jackson made famous while recognizing the abuse that the artist committed behind the beats?
It’s something that we should strive for, but for me, and I suspect it’s the same for many others, it’s easier said than done. It feels hardwired in our brains now, a virtual gag reflex when a song by an abusive artist plays in our vicinity. The moment I recognized the distinctive beat of Billie Jean while eating french fries, I felt a prick in my brain, like I was personally doing something wrong.I was letting an abuser win by listening to their music. I sat there tossing it around in my brain, Am I over-analyzing this?
On the one hand, the math adds up, especially in our culture of interconnected social media justice. If a public figure does something bad, everyone either tells them on Twitter that they’re stupid and stinky and ugly and wrong or cancels them in the hopes that we can collectively forget about them entirely. I think it’s important for older generations that look down on this ‘cancel culture’ style of cultural justice to note that this isn’t a new phenomenon. Shunning, as a way to deal with social outcasts or miscreants, has been around for centuries. The Amish are infamous for their usage of it. In an early tribal way, it makes sense to try to push ‘badness’ out of our minds and out of our social spheres.
On the other hand, how deeply are we supposed to read into art? Dining Services certainly doesn’t promote or even excuse predatory behavior. Billie Jean is just a popular, (until recently) mildly inoffensive pop song that fills the silence. I mean, Dining Services doesn’t encourage heroin usage by playing Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” three times every hour. Is “Billie Jean” that much different? And what is justice in this case? Michael Jackson passed away nearly a decade ago. He can’t collect Spotify residuals. He’s not earning any money or gaining any fame by me listening to it while I eat french fries.
Should you stop listening to Michael Jackson? I don’t know. That’s my honest answer. I don’t know if I should. Should DS stop playing Michael Jackson songs? I don’t know the answer to that either. But even if my answer was to protest Dining Services until they stopped playing “Billie Jean,” it’ll still play in auto shop waiting areas and twenty-four-hour diners. Why? Because “Billie Jean” is a great song. In the end, it’s up to the listeners, willing or unwilling, to deal with the tragedy of Michael Jackson’s music. They are without a doubt some of the most revolutionary songs in music history. But they’ll never be the same. They don’t deserve to be. The closest we can come to justice—whatever that means now—is to always remember the abuse of power that went on behind the songs.