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How Michael Jackson's Complicated Legacy Impacts The Family's Music

The Jackson brothers — Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, Michael and Randy — in London in 1972. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Jackson brothers — Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, Michael and Randy — in London in 1972. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Music is hard to cancel.

That’s the sentiment from writer Jody Rosen, who says even when you don’t summon music, it’s everywhere — from cars blasting tunes with the open window to grocery stores and restaurants.

Rosen recently explored the intersection of music and accountability for The Los Angeles Times after the re-release this year of expanded digital versions of the Jacksons’ albums. Almost every genre of music and dance has been influenced by Michael Jackson, the trailblazer of the group that first called themselves The Jackson 5.

But before and after his death in 2009, Michael Jackson was accused of child sexual abuse. He was never convicted of a crime.

As he writes, Rosen says listening to music in general is sort of a calculation of moral math. And in the case of the Jackson family, he asks whether it’s possible to separate Michael Jackson from the music.

Michael Jackson’s cultural status and death complicate the conversation, he says. Charges of child sexual abuse and allegations that resurfaced in the documentary “Leaving Neverland” have disturbed many people who were once devoted fans, he says.

“The question is: What [do] we do with those feelings about his personal behavior and this incredible body of work that he’s left behind now that he’s no longer with us?” Rosen asks.

It’s a question that listeners and the industry will have to grapple with “on and off for the foreseeable future,” he predicts. Michael Jackson left behind a massively popular body of work that continues to make record companies large sums of money. There’s a Michael Jackson musical planned for Broadway — another opportunity for people to reckon with how society should conceptualize his music and legacy.

The re-release of the Jackson albums puts some disturbing themes into perspective, he says.

Themes of sexual paranoia are sprinkled through the Jacksons’ most popular music from the ‘80s. Take “This Place Hotel,” for example, a song about a man who brings his girlfriend to a hotel room and discovers a setup — all his ex-girlfriends are waiting in the room.

This paranoia can be traced throughout Michael Jackson’s solo discography as well, Rosen says, such as “Billie Jean.”

“I think that’s one of the things that makes the re-release, from a historical point of view, at least, extremely interesting. It’s a chance to kind of trace these themes,” he says. “And he’s a person whose personal demons were right there in the music.”

As Rosen revisits the Jacksons’ music, he says there was a pretty clear distinction that Michael Jackson was “the star” with “supernatural talent” — something that led to immense tension within the group over the years, especially when Michael Jackson released his debut solo album, “Off The Wall.”

“He suddenly wasn’t just little Michael Jackson, the lead singer of the Jacksons or The Jackson 5,” he says. “He was this bona fide superstar.”

By 1984, the other Jackson brothers were an afterthought during their Victory Tour. That tour eventually broke up the group, he says, and the strain of Michael Jackson’s “King of Pop” status on the rest of the brothers is “something you hear listening back” to the re-release.

There is something almost redemptive that happens to the complicated legacy of famous people when they die — and it’s why Rosen took a deep dive into Michael Jackson’s legacy specifically.

When he personally listens to music or experiences art, he toggles between where to draw the line between the artist and the art.

“One of the things, as I say, that makes Jackson’s music so interesting is the fact that you can get the whole messy picture of Michael Jackson — the man and the artist — in the music itself,” he says. “So I can’t claim to take some indignant stand and not listen to Michael Jackson’s music. I don’t want to deny myself the pleasure of his music because that pleasure remains acute despite uncomfortable things about his personal behavior.”

And because the music industry has an “exploitative history” and isn’t “moral arbiters of almost anything,” listeners can’t rely on the music business to sort out the morally compromised lives of their artists.

And he says wiping music off the internet is “not even technologically possible” once it’s released to the world.

“I think that it’s not even realistic to ask that the music industry ban this or that artist,” Rosen concludes. “It comes down to a decision that the individual listener consumer of music has to make.”

Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.