September 18th, 2019

Abusive or not, artists’ work can’t be ignored

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on March 9, 2019.


How does society respond when a revered artist is accused of doing awful things?

This question has been on the minds of many recently, with the airing of HBO’s “Leaving Neverland,” a four-hour documentary in which two men allege they were sexually abused by Michael Jackson when they were children.

It also comes after R. Kelly was arrested for the second time for alleged sexual abuse of young women and the FBI announced they were investigating singer-songwriter Ryan Adams for his alleged lewd texting with an underage girl.

There’s no denying Jackson’s, Kelly’s and Adams’ talent, but how does one approach their work when they’ve each been accused of committing crimes against young people?

With Kelly and Adams, there’s at least an opportunity for justice and redemption, however remote, but Jackson has been deceased for almost a decade.

All three have received high critical praise for their work, but Jackson stands out as a singularly iconic figure in popular culture.

Is it right to erase him from history because of his abusive behaviour? This is a question with no easy answers.

On the one hand, we want to send the message that abuse isn’t OK, regardless of who commits it, but conversely, Jackson’s influence is seen everywhere.

Even one of his accusers in “Leaving Neverland,” Wayne Robson, an accomplished dance choreographer, explicitly references Jackson’s influence on his career, even after all the sexual and emotional abuse he suffered at his hands.

We’re entering relatively uncharted territory. Many of the greatest artists of the 20th century were known abusers – Miles Davis, John Lennon, James Brown and Dr. Dre, to name but a few.

Should we stop listening to their music?

With the #MeToo movement, the dark side of many artists and the celebrity culture that enables them are rightfully coming under scrutiny.

In the second part of “Leaving Neverland,” the question arises of what the kids’ parents were thinking, allowing their children to sleep over at the house of a grown man notorious for his eccentricities (to put it mildly).

The parents, like many Jackson fans worldwide, didn’t want to believe an artist they revered was a serial abuser.

When Jackson was first arrested for child molestation in 1993, his team constructed a narrative that Jackson – who was in the public spotlight since the age of five – never had a childhood, due to his domineering and abusive father, so as a result surrounded himself with children to relive the innocence his lost childhood.

This is no doubt true, but also entirely besides the point.

As W.H. Auden said, “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.”

Jackson was hiding in plain sight. It should surprise nobody that now that he’s deceased more alleged victims are coming forward.

The question of how we re-evaluate his legacy in the face of credible, in-depth accusations, is one to which we must find an answer.

Producers of “The Simpsons” announced Thursday that they would remove from circulation an episode where Jackson’s voice was used, arguably one of the series’ best episodes, and many radio stations are refusing to play his music.

This is overkill. Sure, it’s easy for people who aren’t molestation victims to cite the old adage of separating the artist from their art, but at the same time culture is a contested realm.

We should still listen to Jackson’s music and acknowledge the existence of his unsurpassed impact on popular culture, but do so in a critical light, giving his victims the respect they deserve for their courage to come forward.

What shape this critical re-evaluation looks like is still a work in progress, but acting as if the artist never existed isn’t a healthy way for society to deal with these crucial questions.

(Jeremy Appel is a News reporter. To comment on this and other editorials, go to

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