Like wounded infantrymen caught in the sights of a crack shot enemy sniper, celebrities fall one by one to the unstoppable bullet of cancellation. From Woody Allen (handsy paedo) to Harvey Weinstein (all round scumbag), Roseanne Barr (racist) to R Kelly (sex fiend), each new day seems to bring a fresh allegation of unsavoury behaviour against some of the biggest names on the planet. And now, joining the ranks of the cancelled, we find the King of Pop himself, Mr Michael Jackson.
Following the release of the hard-hitting HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, there is growing acceptance of what had for years been mere heresy and rumour; that Michael Jackson was a serial abuser of young boys, and over a number of years from the late 80s paid off his victims to prevent the truth from emerging. But given this knowledge, what happens to Jackson’s work? He’s bad, he’s bad, he’s really, really bad – but is it wrong to listen to his music? Can we separate the artist from the art, or should we now think twice before spinning Off the Wall or Thriller? Join me, the philosophical legend known as Michael Goodman, as I delve into the murky moral undergrowth and untangle these questions and more in this, the latest chapter of my tireless crusade for truth, knowledge and justice.
“It might be time to stop listening to Michael Jackson”
Like a Large Hadron Collider of controversy, the release of Leaving Neverland sparked thousands of articles, thinkpieces and tweets debating the appropriate response to Jackson’s alleged crimes. In a cluttered field, one position cuts through the noise for its simplicity and its severity: Michael Jackson was a paedophile who molested children, so we should stop listening to his music.
This stance goes a lot further than those who argue that we should no longer buy or stream Jackson’s music, or that it should be blacklisted by radio stations and nightclubs; here there is a strong case that the continued legitimisation of Jackson as a cultural figure downplays the severity of his crimes, and contributes to a broader culture in which individuals in positions of power feel able to exploit their status to commit vile acts of sexual abuse.
But the argument in question is even bolder – beyond social consequences, it seems to suggest that there is now something inherently wrong with listening to Jackson’s music. Like the committed vegan who won’t eat an animal that died from natural causes, here we have the sense that by listening to Jackson we are breaking some absolute, inviolable moral code. Jackson’s activities have tarnished his music to the point that I can no longer listen to the Earth Song and retain my good virtue, even if I already own the song and no-one else will ever know.
This position, however, opens up a Pandora’s box of moral confusion and uncertainty. For starters, do we split Jackson into two distinct entities, pre and post-paedo? Am I allowed to listen to Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough, but not Dirty Diana? Or must we throw out even the music of the Jackson 5, recorded when Jackson was but a child himself? And has my listening to his music always been wrong, or is it only listening in the light of the allegations made against him that it becomes wrong? If so, if I have a Jacko-mad friend blissfully unaware of the allegations, is it my duty to keep them from her in order to preserve her moral standing? Perversely, could the moral course of action here be to suppress and cover up the charges made against Jackson?
Further, such a stance sees us looming over the slipperiest of moral slopes. For if Jackson’s work is now imbued with some inherent immorality, where do we draw the line with other wrongdoers? We might find broad agreement that we should also throw out our Woody Allen DVDs, burn our R Kelly CDs and rip up our Louis CK tickets. But must we also stop ourselves from re-watching any film produced by Miramax, the company founded by the Weinstein brothers? What about watching a film in which the costume designer once burned down a school, or listening to an orchestral recording in which the second violinist is a war criminal?
These questions are stupid and absurd, but in this we reveal the simple truth of this absolutist stance towards Jackson – that boycotting the work of artists and entertainers based on their moral failings is not a serious position that anyone actually tries to live by. At best, it is a kneejerk response to an individual case, a desperate effort to reassert one’s control over a disappointing and confusing world; at worst, it is simply a cynical ploy to sell newspapers or increase website traffic. This is not a coherent moral system, then, but a position that is fickle, shallow and, ultimately, untenable.
With this, we can discard the idea that Michael Jackson’s music is now absolutely off-limits. However, we are not in the clear just yet – for it still seems like there is something tangibly different about listening to Jackson’s music in light of the recent allegations; that there is a certain darkness, or even dirtiness to his music that was never there before. To put our finger on why exactly this might be, we require a slight change of tack. So saddle up, friend, and pack your pistol, for this philosophical odyssey isn’t over yet; we ride at first light, for one of the meanest, toughest philosophical problems of them all: can we separate the artist from the art?
Art, meet artist
How can one happily listen to Michael Jackson in full knowledge of his deviant ways? One strategy is to insist on the complete separation of the ‘art’ from the ‘artist’; here one might hold that Jackson’s music exists as some pure sonic entity, in complete detachment from his personal history and character. This is a position largely informed by the mid-20th Century movement known as ‘New Criticism.’
Following T.S Eliot, who argued that poetry should be taken as impersonal and autonomous, the New Critics attempted to rid literary interpretation of its focus on context, on the ways in which an author’s character, personal life and position in history might alter the meaning of their work; this, they hoped, would allow us to move towards more ‘objective’ interpretations of texts, and with this literary criticism would prove itself not as an art, but as a science.
But can we really imagine this pure, independent plane of objective literary meaning? For even if we separate an author from their work, we are still faced with the thorny problem of the reader – no stable, objective interpreter, but an ever-changing, partial creature with their own personal history, a creature whose biases, beliefs and emotions will always colour their reading of a text, and even their use of language itself.
“Even if we separate an author from their work, we are still faced with the thorny problem of the reader.”
And this, make no mistake, is a wonderful feature of that being we call man; it explains why I can fall in and out of love with certain books at different points in my life; why my interpretation of a text might be radically different from yours; and why I might come to appreciate the books of James Patterson after suffering a massive head injury. But once we accept that – even if we’re trying really hard – we will never be objective interpreters, the entire project of the New Critics falls into question. For, once the mythical plane of textual autonomy is revealed as a mirage, we find no compelling reason to maintain this strict distinction between artist and art, the context of an author’s life an equally valid interpretative tool amongst others.
Postmodern Philosopher DESTROYED by FACTS and LOGIC
Turning the work of the New Critics on its head, the sneaky postmodernist philosopher Roland Barthes argued that this lack of objective meaning in a work of literature is precisely why we should separate an author from their work; the meaning of any work is entirely relative to the reader, independent of the intentions of its creator – this is the so called ‘Death of the Author.’ However, if the meaning of a text is now entirely for the reader to decide, can the reader not nonetheless choose to incorporate the background and intentions of an author within their interpretation? For whether or not this leads to a more ‘complete’ or ‘objective’ account, it might still provide us with a richer one.
Imagine, for example, a note left on a kitchen table reading ‘gone to get milk, back soon.’ Taken alone this object may strike us as rather unremarkable, warranting little more than a cursory glance; when told that this was the last thing someone’s partner wrote before going out and jumping off a bridge, suddenly the text is positively enchanted, rippling with a bleak, tragic pathos; an apparently simple statement turned haunting goodbye. And it is this capacity to completely transform our interpretation of a text, or a work of art, that leads us to seek out the context of its creation; the tales of love and loss that enhance our appreciation of a painting, the pain and angst that colour our interpretation of a song.
“It is not a question of whether I am allowed to carry on listening to his music, but whether I personally feel able to.”
Of course, this contextual element is not of equal importance for all works of art; we know little of Shakespeare’s life, but his works still captivate us more than 400 years on. Equally, we know a lot of John Lennon’s life, but the sheer brilliance of his songs allows us to forget what an absolute bellend he was. Others, however, are not so lucky – no Picasso, former celebrity artist Rolf Harris found his paintings plummeting in value after he was convicted of the sexual abuse of underage boys, while glam rock nonce Gary Glitter found that his work wasn’t up to the standard of David Bowie, and so found himself swiftly and brutally sacrificed at the altar of cancellation.
The way you make me feel
With this, we see the real issue at stake in the Jackson case – it is not a question of whether I am allowed to carry on listening to his music, but whether I personally feel able to; whether the dark and troubling associations my mind now jumps to whenever I play Smooth Criminal so ruin my enjoyment of the track that I have to stop it and put on some Enya instead. Does my love of Jackson’s music overpower any negative connotations which it may now give rise to?
There is, then, no hard and fast rule as to whether or not one can carry on listening to Michael Jackson; it entirely comes down to personal taste and preference, the extent to which one’s sense of disgust and moral horror informs their aesthetic engagement with Jackson’s music. And, of course, there will even be a handful of rare individuals for whom Jackson’s music sounds better with the knowledge that he was a paedophile – just as ‘dark tourists’ flock to asylums and extermination camps, and freaks pay top dollar for Hitler’s shitty paintings, unremarkable things can become incredibly powerful with a twisted backstory.
And so then, traveller, we have reached our journey’s end. The question of whether or not we can still listen to Michael Jackson is one for you and you alone. While Jackson’s crimes may be abhorrent by any metric, the status of his music is far from settled; and whether one finds it joyous or repellent, there is no ‘wrong’ answer here. So whether you can’t get the allegations out of your head when you listen to Thriller, or whether you think the man is ‘still a LEDGE’ regardless, you are more than justified in your position; just resist those who would project their position on to you, and resist the urge to project yours onto others.