Every semester, after my last final exam, I have a ritual: tidy up my living space and pack my bags for a trip home while Michael Jackson’s 1979 Off the Wall album plays in the background. I like to pull up the album’s YouTube playlist so that its music videos display on my laptop screen. The opening track, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” is the perfect end-of-term song. “Lovely, is the feelin’ now,” belts Jackson, as his tuxedoed figure dances superimposed over a series of abstract shapes and colors. This song was Jackson’s leap into independence as an adult recording artist — he penned its lyrics and composed its driving groove himself, and the single was released just after his 21st birthday. The tune creates an aura of exuberance — it feels good to listen to.
Off the Wall has a shimmering airiness that masks the power with which it propelled Jackson’s career forward. Over the next decade, Jackson would moonwalk, zombie-dance and “hee-hee” his way into a superstardom that seemed to transcend reality. The album also masked a concerning development: the descent of a deeply troubled mind whose owner would come to destroy the personal lives of young boys and their families.
In January 2019, HBO released “Leaving Neverland,” a two-part documentary covering the stories of two men who made startling claims about sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of Jackson as children in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their allegations were the biggest brought against Jackson since his child molestation lawsuits in 1993 and 2003, neither of which he faced charges for. Their depictions of abuse and the way Jackson used his celebrity to manipulate families make one’s stomach turn. Unlike previous cases against Jackson, the details in this documentary are cohesive, compelling and hard to ignore. Its release created shockwaves that threatened to finally defame the King of Pop’s legacy and banish his body of work into oblivion.
These threats, however, are illusory. Michael Jackson cannot be erased from society. His cultural mark is too deep. Since his death in 2009, Thriller (1982) has sold millions of copies, and despite the initial backlash against Jackson, online streaming traffic for his music increased following the release of “Leaving Neverland”. In the past month alone, I have heard his songs played at Maizie’s in the League and Computer Showcase at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library. Michael Jackson isn’t going anywhere.
How, then, do we deal with the legacy of someone whose work is so invaluable but whose deeds are so unforgivable?
Legacies are built on what we know – concrete facts and memorable events. Impressive feats associated with Michael Jackson as a professional entertainer are innumerable. He won an unprecedented eight awards at the 1984 Grammys and broke MTV racial barriers with Thriller, one of the best-selling albums of all time. In 1993, he became the first major musical star to headline the Super Bowl Halftime Show. His live performances of “Billie Jean” were clinics in solo excellence: a man with a microphone and an empty stage, working song and dance magic.
Jackson’s public life as an artist was captivating. His precocious talent and demanding father forced him into the recording industry as a young child, depriving him of a normal childhood. He was aware of his immeasurable gifts as an entertainer and worked tirelessly at perfecting his craft. He had ambition and lofty professional expectations for himself. From his mind came timeless musical hits and groundbreaking music video concepts. In his prime, he was one of the most famous and beloved figures in the world, taking stages globally with charm, authority and electrifying energy. This is the side of Jackson the public knew and adored.
Yet behind every spin, every glide, every “cha-mone,” was a man who seemed to be facing internal turmoil. The most obvious manifestation was written on his very face – Jackson was never satisfied with his appearance and consequently destroyed it with dozens of misguided plastic surgeries, looking like a different person every decade. His behaviors became more eccentric and unusual as his career arc descended in the late’90s and early 2000s. He identified with Peter Pan and shared his bed with young boys even after his first child molestation lawsuit, calling his practice “the most loving thing to do.” He was, in short, a very sick man.
Because of the stark contrast between Jackson’s famous stage persona and the reclusive, troubled human behind it, the public has never had a strong grasp of who Michael Jackson truly is. His personality, lifestyle and the numerous child abuse allegations against him are all subjects of mystery. It is challenging to attribute aspects of Jackson’s backstage life to a physical person because we don’t feel we know who that person is. As a consequence, what is forever associated with Jackson are things we do feel we understand – his music, videos and live performances. This, ultimately, is what keeps Jackson immortal. His artistry was phenomenal and therefore will withstand the test of time.
If we will not erase Jackson from our culture, then it is important for us to make sure that nobody with power like Jackson’s is able to use it to cause the kind of harm that he did in the future. Jackson’s legacy is saved from further harm partly because he is deceased – he cannot be put in jail and suffer the reputational injury that comes with a sentencing. The #MeToo movement has been instrumental in bringing awareness to and increasing reporting of sexual misconduct. Its trajectory should continue so that everybody is held accountable for their actions regardless of status. This will help ensure that moving forward, those who use their power for harm are not idolized by future generations.
Dipra Debnath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.