Is the King of Pop too big to cancel? Michael Jackson fans grapple with legacy after Leaving Neverland

After this week's TV debut of Leaving Neverland, many music fans are grappling with their feelings about Michael Jackson amid the documentary's resurfacing of long-standing allegations of child sexual abuse. But is the King of Pop too big to cancel?

'There is no way to not hear the music very differently,' says longtime fan and columnist

A toddler holds Michael Jackson's Thriller album outside the Santa Maria, Calif., courthouse during the singer's arraignment in 2004. Jackson was acquitted of child molestation charges in 2005, and a key part of the Leaving Neverland documentary is focused on that jury trial. (David McNew/Getty Images)

It'll likely happen suddenly when you're in the grocery store or a restaurant, or maybe while you're listening to some random music stream. It could be this week or perhaps next. A song by Michael Jackson will come on.

June will mark 10 years since the pop superstar's death — yet he remains firmly entrenched in our culture.

Music aside, the Cirque du Soleil stages its Michael Jackson-themed show five nights a week in Las Vegas, while Broadway is slated for an MJ musical in 2020.

But after this week's television debut of Leaving Neverland (poised for broadcast worldwide), many music fans are grappling with their feelings about Jackson and his music amid the harrowing documentary's resurfacing of long-standing allegations of child sexual abuse.

"I certainly can't see myself striking up the playlist I had, which was 150 songs long, and playing it and enjoying it in the same way," said Renée Graham, an associate editor and columnist for the Boston Globe.

A self-described Michael Jackson devotee since childhood, Graham recently wrote that after watching Leaving Neverland, she can no longer be counted among the ranks of his defenders.

"There is no way to not hear the music very differently. If you think of the hit The Way You Make Me Feel, there is that line that goes: 'Ain't nobody's business but mine and my baby.' When you hear that [now], you think of the secrecy and how there were these two very different Michael Jacksons," Graham said.

"How do you see [the documentary] and then decide, 'I can just happily dance to Remember the Time? Everything, all his lyrics, sound very different now to me."

Jackson remains one of the bestselling recording artists of all time, with more than 1 billion in total sales worldwide. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

Leaving Neverland has been vigorously denounced by the Jackson family, which launched a $100-million US lawsuit against HBO over its broadcast. And a legion of diehard MJ fans have taken to aggressively trolling anyone who posts favourable comments about the documentary or those who express sympathy for accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck.

Jackson's pervasive presence 

The recent phenomenon of so-called cancel culture — the notion of withholding moral, financial and other support for prominent figures deemed problematic — has grown to become the default reaction in circumstances of troubling allegations or unacceptable behaviour. 

But is the King of Pop too big to cancel?

Jackson remains one of the bestselling recording artists of all time, with more than 100 million in worldwide album sales for 1982's Thriller alone and in excess of 1 billion total sales overallHe released No. 1 singles across four decades, topped the charts in nearly every music market around the globe, and has reigned atop Forbes magazine's annual tally of the highest-earning dead celebrities every year since his death, save one.

He inspired some of the biggest pop, hip-hop and R&B acts of the past few decades — from Beyoncé to Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars to The Weeknd, Drake to Janelle Monáe. His influence continues be heard in new music made today.

Jackson's albums Off the Wall and Thriller still serve as musical blueprints and reference points for so many artists today, according to Odario Williams, a DJ, hip-hop artist and radio broadcaster who hosts CBC Music's Afterdark.

"Not just in a songwriting sense, but mastering and mixing. The drums on Thriller are still unmatched. The way that Off the Wall mixed disco with the future of music in one album is just unprecedented," he said. "There are a ton of Michael Jackson copycats out there — we all know it. There is a ton of Michael Jacksonesque music out there."

Jackson's music continues to serve as a musical blueprint and reference point for many recording artists today, says DJ and broadcaster Odario Williams. (CBC)

Beyond his aural influence, Jackson also forever changed the music video industry with Thriller, said Williams.

Directed by filmmaker John Landis, the 13-minute-long music video was a game changer, boosting the profile of both Jackson and a then-fledgling MTV, and elevating music video production into an art form. Thriller influenced a generation of ambitious directors in the field, as well as spawned a making-of documentary that itself went on to sell more than a million copies.

In 2009, after Jackson's death, Thriller became the first music video ever added to the U.S. National Film Registry for preservation.

As a DJ … you're playing for the people. And I can't see the people wanting to hear any Michael Jackson.- Odario Williams

Leaving aside the horrific allegations outlined in Leaving Neverland for a moment, Williams said, any notion of erasing Jackson's monumental musical history is "horrible and sad."

Any DJ in the world would agree that Jackson's music offers an old-school vibe that once unified everybody on the dance floor, he said. Now, however, "I can definitely see myself hesitating to spin an MJ track … As a DJ, you're not playing for yourself, you're playing for the people. And I can't see the people wanting to hear any Michael Jackson."

The Quebec-based Cogeco Media has pulled Jackson's music from its network's playlists, including three major Montreal radio stations, following the airing of Leaving Neverland, citing audience feedback. But most music programmers seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach, likely anxious about the recent reversals of similar decisions regarding the music of controversial artists like R. Kelly and the holiday season uproar surrounding Baby It's Cold Outside.

Leaving Neverland is among a spate of recent documentaries forcing audiences to re-examine disputed figures of the past under a modern lens. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A cultural shift

Leaving Neverland has arrived amid a broader societal reckoning over sexual misconduct. The current zeitgeist has witnessed the toppling of high-profile celebrities such as Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.

At the same time, recent documentary series and feature films are forcing audiences to re-examine disputed figures of the past under a modern lens — such as with Surviving R. Kelly, which examined a multitude of sex abuse allegations against the R&B hitmaker.

What these instances have underlined is that we have to divorce ourselves from the notion that someone who has made a significant artistic contribution is automatically a good person, says music writer A. Harmony. 

'Michael Jackson made significant contributions to the world of pop music ... But these allegations are also a very large part of his legacy and we have to learn to look at both and accept both,' says Exclaim! contributor and music writer A. Harmony. (CBC)

"That needs to change as we shift the culture to make space for people who come forward with … allegations … that are so serious and so harrowing. We can't give [artists] a pass to treat people any way they want, or behave any way they want, or put them on a pedestal that leaves them exempt from any type of critique just because they made good music," said Harmony, speaking with CBC's Frontburner podcast.

The fact that Michael Jackson made "significant contributions" to the world of music will always be true, she said. "But these allegations are also a very large part of his legacy, and we have to learn to look at both — and accept both — of them," she said.

"[Because Jackson is dead], beyond allowing the victims to tell the story, there's not much we can do to erase or undo those wrongs. But we can go forward and make sure that we're shifting the culture in general," Harmony said.

"There certainly is a responsibility — once you become aware and once you learn some things and unlearn some flawed ways of thinking — to go forward and do better."


Jessica Wong

Senior writer

Jessica Wong is a senior writer for CBC News, based in Toronto.