Returning to Neverland: why has Michael Jackson been unmuted?

6 mins read

TEN days after Halloween, a video went viral on Twitter. It showed elderly residents at a nursing home in Utah performing their version of a recognisable dance. The video has nearly 150,000 likes and 30,000 retweets.

“This gives me life,” replied one Twitter user. Another agreed: “This is amazing!”

The song the residents dance to is Michael Jackson’s Thriller, a track that made its annual rounds in shopping centres, party playlists and karaoke nights at Halloween.

Had Halloween been six months ago, it is hard to imagine Thriller enjoying its usual annual spike in popularity.

In March, the documentary Leaving Neverland was broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK and HBO in the United States. It contained allegations of two men claiming to have been sexually abused by Jackson as children.

Intensely controversial, the documentary prompted a backlash against the late singer and radio stations to pull his music.

And yet sales of that music increased, while the Jackson estate dismissed Leaving Neverland as “one-sided” and pursued an ongoing court case against U.S. TV network HBO.

Jackson’s guilt or innocence aside, the documentary might have been another landmark moment in the #MeToo movement, which continues to affect the music industry.

Singer R. Kelly, who pleads not guilty to sex abuse charges, awaits a second trial. Pop star Kesha, who first sued Dr. Luke for sexual assault and battery in 2014, is in a legal battle against the producer.

The Jackson case raises the question of why some figures in the entertainment business, partly or universally disgraced, appear forgiven through continued enjoyment of their work.

Can you separate art from the artist?

Peter Ward, 26, was a fan of former Welsh rock group Lostprophets long before singer Ian Watkins was convicted of child sex offences in 2013.

Peter still listens to Lostprophets. He said: “They were definitely my favourite band for a while, I’m not sure why, I just loved their music.

“When those allegations started coming out – not really because of that, but because my taste started changing and their music started changing – I slowly stopped listening to them – but I do still listen to them.

“When I do, it does come into my head and obviously I don’t talk about listening to them because a lot of people have that association.

“But I wouldn’t say that when I listen to a song, I specifically think ‘I don’t like it any more’ because he did this, or anything like that. I still just enjoy the music.”

In the film industry, many notable figures have been accused of sexual misconduct.

One is actor Kevin Spacey, who has had some cases against his name dropped, but a London -based investigation is ongoing and Netflix cut ties with him long ago.

Douglas Fleming, 25, still enjoys Spacey’s work. He said: “I’m aware that when you’re watching his films, there’s so many people involved in the making of those films. He’s kind of just a piece of the puzzle.

“A film like Se7en, which he’s quite heavily involved in, I like it more because I like the director of the film, David Fincher.

“It’s easier to dismiss, I think, when they’ve had a smaller role in the art.”

There is no question that Michael Jackson’s role in Thriller and his catalogue of hits is anything but small.

And yet Jackson’s loyal fans do not have trouble dismissing the allegations against him. They remain enamoured by the once King of Pop and his music.

Line Caes, a social psychology lecturer at the University of Stirling, believes it is human nature to idolise figures like Jackson to such an unwavering degree.

She said: “I think it’s because they really want somebody to look up to.

“They want an example, and I think it is easy for somebody who is very popular and has quite a lot of influence to be the person they pick, even if they have never met them before.

“It’s to do with the basic human need of working through emotions and feeling happy. Music lends itself quite well to that.”

Watching those care-home residents moving in time to Thriller, with their painted faces and curly black wigs, there can be little doubt over the uplifting power of music.

Michael Jackson may never be found guilty, and if not, his songs will not be going anywhere.

It will be up to us to decide if we want to listen to them.

Featured image credit: Channel 4

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