Leaving Neverland, a brand new documentary that features two men who allegedly were sexually abused by Michael Jackson when they were just children, has been the talk of the internet these past few weeks.
While the allegations aren’t exactly new (eg Michael Jackson was acquitted back in 2005 over child molestation charges, he had an out-of-court settlement back in 1994), the level of graphic detail in which the two boys, now full-grown married men, explain the alleged abuses and manipulation that took place is shocking and horrific.
With the two-episode documentary having concluded this past week, the music industry has started to react. Some radio stations have pulled the pop superstar’s music from their playlists, ex-fans are starting to shun his music (aka “cancelled” in internet speak), and even the producers of The Simpsons, which had an episode featuring Michael Jackson himself, have said that they are pulling the episode from future box sets and video streams.
But what about us DJs? We find ourselves in an interesting situation: Michael Jackson’s catalogue is so vast and his songs are so deeply entrenched in pop culture, that playing his music at gigs is an easy (and often surefire) way to appeal to a wide audience demographic. Wedding and mobile DJs know this: Off The Wall, Thriller, The Jackson Five… these are all genuine pop and disco go-tos that have stood the test of time and seemed bound to stay that way.
But now the Michael Jackson legacy is in question in the wake of the sexual abuse allegations, and the backlash has just begun. So it begs the question: Is it still OK to play his music at gigs?
It’s an interesting one. Ultimately isn’t the DJ’s job is to play what his or her audience wants, and trust that the audience will let the DJ know if what they’re playing is culturally unacceptable? Is it a DJ’s job to follow cultural norms, or set them?
A few other points a DJ would have to bear in mind: Has Michael Jackson been proven guilty (yet) of anything? What if the DJ only chose to play tracks recorded by the Jackson Five (when he was a kid) or by extension, any records he made before the alleged abuse? What about Michael Jackson’s collaborations with people who didn’t know (“The Girl Is Mine” with Paul McCartney, for instance)?
What if the DJ had been a victim of abuse? What if any members of his or her audience had (statistically, sadly, pretty likely)? Or the gig was played for an association, company or charity involved in the area?
What if a couple wants a Michael Jackson track as a first dance? What if such tracks are requested continually, or a manager insists they are played? What if a DJ chooses to play an instrumental without his voice, or tracks that sample Michael Jackson’s music?
I don’t have any answers, but what actually ends up happening (and I suspect in 10 years his music will still be being played) will be influenced by how we behave in light of our collective answers to these questions.
Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? In my opinion, no. A painting, a sculpture, a song – all these are tied to the person that created them, making them extensions of the artist, sort of like a representative.
It’s extremely difficult for me not to think of the victims of indicted rapist R. Kelly, for instance, when I play his music so I’ve removed all his tunes from my playlists and collection. When someone requests it, I just say I don’t play music by sexually abusive men and paedophiles. The requester then asks for something else. I’ve not met a punter who has argued with me on this yet.
At a wedding, I rope this off from the get-go by telling the bride and groom way ahead of time that I will not be playing any R. Kelly (you’d be surprised how popular Ignition is at weddings here). Same goes for functions and corporate events – I tell them ahead of time, and if they really want to hear R. Kelly, they can get another DJ instead of me. Again, have not met a client who argued with me on this.
Michael Jackson is a much trickier scenario: For one, he has not been convicted of anything. Is he guilty, or innocent? Will we ever know what really happened? Maybe not – but even then, what do we do with the graphic images of the monstrosity that Jackson allegedly was behind closed doors? How do we listen to his music and not conjure those horrifying acts in our minds? These are the ethical conversation topics that will likely form in the weeks, months and years to come.
Time will be the ultimate judge of Michael Jackson’s legacy, but for now, I’m going to take a tougher stance and refuse to play Michael Jackson’s music, from The Jackson Five all the way to Xscape. It’s difficult, but there are tons of other great songs to play from less “problematic” artists. I have four weddings coming up and I have already told the brides that I’ll be skipping everything MJ. No complaints so far.
I really love his music but now I just can’t bring myself to play Michael Jackson songs anymore
— DJ Joey Santos (@djjoeysantos) March 6, 2019
For me, there is no denying much of his music is brilliant. But that doesn’t mean I want to play it – at least not for now.
• Leaving Neverland is now streaming on HBO. Check the HBO site for details.
So, over to you: Do you think it’s still OK to play Michael Jackson music in your DJ sets? Let us know below.