Remember The Time: Is Michael Jackson Too Omnipresent to Cancel?

Music

Remember The Time: Is Michael Jackson Too Omnipresent to Cancel?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

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his Raksha Bandhan, my family gathered, as it usually does, to tie Chhota Bheem rakhis to adults, and catch up on all the latest gossip about the neighbours we grew up around. As an uncle was telling us the story of a neighbour’s kid who launched a Diwali rocket off the see-saw into a second floor house that morning, my young nephew entered the room humming “Bad”, Michael Jackson’s apparently autobiographical hit.

No one paid much attention to the song, mostly because we could hear very little over the sirens, but soon after, we were invited into the 12-year-old’s room. My nephew’s latest obsession, the “King of Pop”, stared down at us from two of the four walls. A phone was plugged in to a Bluetooth speaker, and the first few lines of “Thriller” played in the background. My nephew started singing along — he knew all the words because his class had done a choreographed routine to the song on the school’s last annual day.

The thought of a group of bright-eyed 12-year-old children dancing to Michael Jackson’s most popular hits, made me cringe. My nephew was obviously unaware — as were the choreographers, his teachers, and his parents — that there have been calls to cancel Michael Jackson and his music in the last few years, over paedophaelia allegations. These calls were raised again just earlier this year by the documentary, Leaving Neverland, which carried the confessions of two men who said they had been sexually abused by the late pop star when they were just young boys. That didn’t occur to two cousins, who began doing the “Thriller” dance.

What exactly is one to do in such a situation? Break the news and ruin everyone’s evening with a vague breakdown of the allegations against the man? Or participate, and maybe end up complicit in supporting a pop star who’s accused of sexual abuse? Today, Michael Jackson would have celebrated his 61st birthday had it not been for his surprise death 10 years ago. But the questions surrounding his private life have made conversations about him today as relevant as they were 30 years ago.

Leaving Neverland was passed off as an attempt to defame a dead man, and cash in on his legacy.

Only this time fans are divided. The Leaving Neverland documentary that was released earlier this year was not appreciated by everyone. Fans of the late pop-star haven’t exactly shied away from calling his two accusers liars, using social media as an outlet to poke various holes  in the accusers’ stories. The documentary was passed off as an attempt to defame a dead man, and cash in on his legacy. 

Last week, Dave Chappelle joined the chorus in his Netflix special, Sticks and Stones. Chapelle claimed that the two accusers (or “motherfuckers”) James Safechuck and Wade Robson had completely fabricated their story, once again shining the spotlight on the man in the mirror. Fans egged the comedian on, while Safechuck and Robson said they were “heartbroken” to hear Chapelle’s comments, and were worried about how it would impact future cases against other high-profile harassers.

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The actual details of MJ’s private life, the known fact that he used to sleep with children in his bed, that he apparently groomed a young boy for years before making his move, are obviously not worthy of worship.

HBO

Meanwhile, for those who believe all the details in Leaving Neverland — and there’s a bunch of pretty damning evidence on display in it — there’s a whole other conundrum to deal with. The actual details of MJ’s private life, the known fact that he used to sleep with children in his bed, that he apparently groomed a young boy for years before making his move, are obviously not worthy of worship. But then there’s the minor fact that he’s everywhere you look. How do you cancel someone who has remained one of the biggest names in music in a country halfway across the world even 10 years after his death?

Another #MeToo accused, Aziz Ansari, made a similar point during his last special and tours to India. While addressing his own allegations, he wondered out loud whether some performers were harder to cancel than others. He compared MJ to rapper R Kelly, who has also been accused by various women of sexual harassment and abuse, though boasts of a more niche following. Both performers have been accused of sexual misconduct, but there’s no points for guessing who it’ll be easier to avoid for a lifetime.

In between the deniers, the unaware, the unsure, and music that still makes its way to 12-year-old kids in Mumbai to wear unitards and groove to, it seems like there’s very little impact even a thousand more Leaving Neverlands can have on the pop star’s reputation. It’s almost like Donald Trump was referring to MJ when said in the run up to the American election that he could shoot a person in the street and not lose any followers. Maybe some figures are too big to cancel.

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