No one epitomizes the phrase “complicated legacy” quite like Michael Jackson. On one hand, he released some of the most enduring music of the 20th century, and essentially redefined what pop music was. On the other hand, he was accused of child molestation multiple times (although never convicted), and spent the last 15 years of his life coming off like the creepiest man on the face of the planet. So, what do we make of him? Depending on who you ask, he could be a hero, a monster, a misunderstood soul, or some maddeningly frustrating combination of all three.
After Jackson’s death in 2009, we collectively chose to focus entirely on the positive aspects of Jackson’s legacy. His videos played endlessly on Fuse and VH1 Classic, and we shared stories of what his music meant to us. We didn’t want to think about the ugly details of who Michael Jackson: Human Being may or may not have been; we simply wanted to bask in the endless brilliance that was Michael Jackson: Pop Star.
Of course, this isn’t particularly surprising. When a person dies, it’s considered polite to focus only the good things they did in their time on Earth. Furthermore, when a famous entertainer dies, we tend to focus on the joy they brought to the general public rather than their shortcomings. A fine example of this would be how we reacted to the suicide of Robin Williams just over a year ago. During his life, Williams was often called out for stealing jokes, and movies like Patch Adams were ripped to shreds by critics. In the wake of his death, we ignored that, and simply focused on all the times he made us laugh.
Obviously, however, the situation with Jackson is a lot different. It’s one thing to say “hey, let’s not talk about how bad License To Wed was,” it’s quite another to say “hey, let’s not talk about the fact that this guy has been accused of molesting children multiple times.” To be fair, they are merely accusations, and we’ll never know for sure if Jackson actually did anything. It’s not totally unreasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Perhaps we’re looking to give him the benefit of the doubt because was just want to enjoy his music. The more you like an entertainer or an athlete, the harder it is to believe they committed a terrible crime. The problem with this attitude, of course, is that it’s the exact reason why Bill Cosby was able to get away with his crimes for so long. When we like a performer, we desperately want to believe that they’re a good person, and most of the time, we’ll ignore the evidence against them until it piles up so much that it can’t be denied.
After the accusations against Cosby were brought into the current public light, and became so numerous that only a conspiracy theorist of the highest order could possibly believe he might be innocent, TV Land decided to pull The Cosby Show from its late-night lineup. To most people, this was the right decision; how could we laugh at Cliff Huxtable’s silly antics when the man playing him was a serial rapist? As Roxanne Gay put it in an op-ed for The Toast, humanity trumps art. None of the brilliant work Cosby created in his lifetime could possibly outweigh the number of women he had scarred for life.
Now, there are two key differences between Cosby and Michael Jackson: a lot of people still believe Jackson was innocent, Cosby is still alive. That latter point seems important here. Perhaps the reason why we just couldn’t watch The Cosby Show after his crimes were out in the open is because we knew Cosby himself would be profiting from it. Sure, you could argue that you were merely appreciating a great work of comedy in spite of the monster behind it, but like it or not, that monster was getting residual checks, and that understandably makes a lot of people feel dirty.
Similar things could be said about the likes of R. Kelly, Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski, all of whom have been accused of horrible sex crimes, and all of whom are still alive. Maybe you just want to jam to “Ignition (Remix),” or appreciate Rosemary’s Baby for the cinematic masterpiece that it is, regardless of how awful its creator might be- but when you do that, the creator is still benefiting from it.
Of course, with Michael Jackson, that’s not a concern. He’s been dead for six years, so there’s no worry that if you rock out to “Billie Jean” on Spotify, you’ll be putting money in a pedophile’s pocket (you know, if people actually made money on Spotify). But this doesn’t quite explain why so many people still presume Jackson’s innocence. The answer to that likely comes in a classic Chappelle’s Show sketch. When Dave is a prospective juror for the Michael Jackson trial of 2005, he maintains Jackson’s innocence at all times, and when asked why, he simply says “he made Thriller.”
Ultimately, the problem here isn’t that people believe Michael Jackson is innocent, but instead why they believe it, because it has very little to do with looking at the actual evidence and coming to that conclusion, and almost everything to do with not wanting to believe that the guy who made Thriller could have molested children. It’s an incredibly discomforting thing to deal with, and if we can deny it for any reason, we will.
We’ll never know if Jackson was actually guilty. And I’ve played “P.Y.T.” far too many times over the years to judge anyone for still listening to his music. Mostly, I’m just saying that if you firmly believe beyond a shadow a doubt that Michael Jackson did not commit these crimes, ask yourself why you feel that way. If you can’t come up with anything other than “he made Thriller,” you may want to dig a little deeper.