In a recent essay for The Nation, David Hajdu recalls listening to Michael Jackson for the first time since watching Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary detailing the pop star’s alleged sexual abuse of young boys. He is on the subway when he listens, and though he has earbuds in, his fellow passengers can hear Jackson’s music coming from his phone. “What are you thinking?” asks a stranger, as if the act of listening to Michael Jackson, once so ordinary, has now become a mark of turpitude, an indication of deep and willful apathy to the reported suffering of children.
If listening to Jackson’s songs after the Leaving Neverland revelations is a symptom of moral lapse, it is a common one. “The deafening backlash to the film by Jackson’s estate and diehard fans appears to have boosted his catalog,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this month. In the week after Leaving Neverland‘s release, “the “Billie Jean” singer … posthumously sold 6,000 albums and 13,000 song downloads … with streams of his songs jumping nearly 300,000 to 16.5 million.”
R. Kelly, another artist in recent headlines for allegedly sexually abusing minors, saw a parallel boost after an interview with Gayle King where he vehemently denied the accusations that have shadowed his star for the past 19 years. The interview followed the Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly, which aired in January. In the week after the interview, radio play of Kelly’s songs surged 71 percent. “His videos got a slick uptick with 9.5 million views (up 3 percent), while his song streams and downloads fell 1 percent and 16 percent, respectively,” reported the Sun-Times. “His album sales (1,000 copies moved) remained consistent both weeks.”
An optimistic reading of the data suggests that fans of both artists were, like Hajdu, listening to beloved music not out of apathy but out of a will to self-discovery, to see how the music hits in light of newly clarified and harrowing information. A more skeptical interpretation points to an immune response flaring up within each artist’s fanbase. A fan, by nature, is defined by the love of a pop star’s music, and when a threat looms over that bond, the fan might reinscribe their identity by listening to the music they love. They might voice tacit support to an artist accused of horrible things by pressing play on the artist’s discography.