Why has Michael Jackson not been canceled? Think about it. In 2021 alone, male entertainers, including Chris Noth, Armie Hammer and Marilyn Manson, had film or record contracts scrapped after accusations of unfavorable behavior. J.K. Rowling, Sharon Osbourne and Ellen Degeneres have either been dropped from shows, had invitations withdrawn or not had series renewed after expressing views that are out of sync with the ideas and beliefs of today.
Jackson, by contrast, has, since his death, suffered reputational harm over child sexual abuse allegations, but not so irreparable that he — or, more accurately, his character — has been dragged down from the showbusiness pantheon.
What If Michael Jackson Had Lived?
Earlier in February, a musical devoted to his life and work opened at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. “It’s unfortunate he is not alive to witness the flawless production of MJ the Musical, a model biographical musical,” wrote Ayanna Prescod, of the New York Theatre Guide, who awarded the show the maximum five stars. The review was typical of others, which range from positive to rhapsodic.
Only one reviewer, Michael Appler of Variety, had the temerity to raise questions about Jackson’s sexual abuse allegations with cast members. He was shown the door. “The show’s backers were quick to shut down any mention of the scandal that still clouds the King of Pop’s life and legacy at the red-carpet premiere of the musical,” wrote Appler.
When Jackson died in 2009, there was an immediate upturn in the already formidable sales of his records and a period when some radio stations played nothing but his music, whether as a solo artist or as part of the Jackson 5. Even after death, he continued to mesmerize audiences. He was rarely out of the news and even appeared as a hologram in 2014.
But in 2019, “Leaving Neverland,” a 4-hour documentary focusing on two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, offered a startling account of Jackson, not as the world’s onetime most popular entertainer but as a sexual predator. The testimonies of the two men were delivered with such conviction that they were accepted by many as credible. There was no headlong rush from others claiming to be victims. Robson and Safechuck were known to be close to Jackson, and their claims were detailed enough to persuade many to reevaluate the singer and, by implication, his legacy.
For a while, it appeared that Jackson’s afterlife would end abruptly. Less than a year before, the arrest of Harvey Weinstein, a powerful Hollywood producer, had initiated a dramatic cultural mood shift. The #MeToo movement surged to prominence and, in the years since, every man or woman accused of untoward behavior, including verbal harassment, was castigated. Often, their contracts were revoked and their overall status downgraded — in other words, canceled.
Yet Jackson’s stature, though affected, has not suffered comparably. He was the highest-earning dead entertainer in the world for eight straight years, from 2013 through 2020, slipping to number three with $75 million made last year, according to Forbes. His music continues to sell. His estate has many other income streams, including Cirque du Soleil’s show, “Michael Jackson ONE,” a spectacular success in Las Vegas. Michael Jackson is still with us, shows no signs of going away and most decidedly has not been canceled. Why?
Don’t Speak Ill of the Dead
Obviously, many people just don’t believe Jackson’s accusers, and some assume they are fortune hunters. Jackson is unable to defend himself and thus any allegation is destined to remain only that — an allegation, a claim, an assertion or a contention. The supporting evidence, however direct and believable, derives from the remembrances of two men, both of whom were privy to Jackson’s life but whose statements can’t be refuted by the accused.
This is further complicated by the time lapse between his death and the revelations. Jackson had been subject to rumors and accusations, some of which had traction enough to land him in court. But he was cleared in 2005 and died an innocent man, legally speaking. Had he been alive at the time of the 2019 documentary, Jackson would almost certainly have denied all allegations and set a legal team on the case.
In view of the way he handled the media during his life, he would probably have appeared on television and in other media, issuing his own version of events. He would probably have pointed out that both men were treated kindly as friends and, for reasons best known to them, never uttered their complaints during his lifetime.
It sounds crass, but being dead does not guarantee innocence. British TV personality Jimmy Savile was enormously popular in his life and raised about £40 million with his charitable work. After he died in 2011, Pandora’s box was prised open: All manner of people advanced accusations of misconduct, including having sex with the corpses of dead patients at a hospital mortuary. The weight of testimony convinced all but Savile’s family and most devoted fans of his guilt. While he was well-liked, Savile was not in Jackson’s class. The King of Pop’s approval was global and worshipful. Correction: It is global and worshipful.
Don’t Trust the Media
Another factor in Jackson’s continued popularity is a lack of trust in the media. Research indicates that 56% of Americans agreed with the statement, “Journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.”
The rise of Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic and the circulation of what many now call fake news have made people distrustful of mainstream media. Even if we leave aside the bizarre beliefs that Jackson is still alive — and probably sharing a home with Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and JFK — there are many who are likely to question practically everything they learn from the media about the star.
It’s no longer necessary to be a conspiracy theorist to be a cynic. Questioning newspapers and TV news is commonplace, so the fact that the seemingly incriminating documentary was shown on mainstream channels — Channel 4 in the UK, HBO in the US — no longer validates its authenticity.
Don’t Forget That He Was Black
Bill Cosby, a once-legendary black comedian, has been well and truly canceled. But Cosby was tried in court and, after initially being released after a jury failed to reach a decision, was later convicted, sentenced and spent over two years in prison before the conviction for sexual assault was overturned. He is finished as both an entertainer and the educator he seemed to aspire to be. He is now 84.
Whoopi Goldberg’s recent argument that the Holocaust wasn’t about race was baffling and surprising, coming as it did from an African American. An apology followed, along with a two-week suspension from the ABC show, “The View.” Cancelation looks likely. Her opinions are often provocative and often well-intended. But, in this instance, she simply sounded foolish and ignorant. It’s unlikely we’ll hear much from her in the future.
Jackson was also black. On occasion, he proudly announced himself to be so. But his ever-changing appearance persuaded some that he was blanching his skin and undergoing plastic surgery in an effort to disguise his blackness. Jackson himself would have objected to this. On more than one occasion, he pointed out that he suffered from vitiligo, a condition that affects skin pigmentation.
Jackson’s stalwart supporters would probably refer to the historical cases of Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson and Clarence Thomas, all of whom were conspicuously successful black men whose careers or reputations were damaged after high-profile cases. Jackson, they could argue, is part of a tradition in which black men who rise to the top are brought back to earth, as if to remind white America of the self-destructive element in black males.
It would be naïve to assume Jackson’s blackness has not been a factor in deterring cancelation. In Cosby’s case, a court of law considered evidence of his wrongdoing. Goldberg’s contretemps was made in full view of millions. There is no definitive proof of Jackson’s alleged transgressions, so anyone or any organization that makes decisions on his culpability is forced to conjecture. Much as they may deny the conjectures are affected by Jackson’s blackness, who would believe it?
Awareness of the unequal treatment and abuse of women has been complemented by the recognition that black people have, over the decades, been suppressed and, on many occasions, brutalized. They’ve been unheard and underrepresented in many spheres of social activity, though not always in entertainment. The revival of the shibboleth of white privilege that was first aired in the 1980s served notice that castigation of blacks for deeds that might have gone unpunished if performed by whites has been commonplace.
This doesn’t suggest Jackson has been granted a free pass. Heaven knows, he has plenty of vilifiers. Yet there is understandable caution. This prompts an awkward question: Are we less likely to condemn people of color for suspected or actual transgressions? And perhaps an even more awkward question: Does “we” usually mean “whites”? The legal precept of innocent until proved guilty has been reversed in recent years, allegation alone becoming potent enough to denounce celebrities and annul their careers.
Jackson has his detractors, for sure. Yet somehow his legacy actually grows in stature. Thirteen years after his death, he continues to fascinate just as he did in life. It seems impossible to harm or damage his — what shall I call it? — revenant. There is probably no other celebrity, living or dead, so insusceptible to cancelation.
*[Ellis Cashmore’s “The Destruction and Creation of Michael Jackson” will be published by Bloomsbury in May.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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