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Can the Music of Michael Jackson and R. Kelly Be Canceled?

Grappling with art made by “bad” people isn’t easy when you’re trying to get a ubiquitous pop song unstuck from your brain

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What do we do with art made by “bad” people? That’s been one of the most pressing and widely debated critical questions of our time, and in the past several weeks it has cropped up again with a renewed sense of urgency. In the wake of two devastating televised documentaries about alleged sexual abuse at the hands of incredibly popular musicians—Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland—many people have been left wondering about the fates of their most unavoidable hits. But in debating the future of songs like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” we are asking something more specific than what to do with the art of “bad” people. We’re asking what to do with pop music made by “bad” people. There are differences.

“Music often invades our ears in public, uninvited,” Slate’s music critic Carl Wilson wrote last week, in a thoughtful piece that mused on what might happen to Jackson’s legacy after Leaving Neverland. “In the near future,” he added, “Jackson’s songs shouldn’t be played on the radio or in any other way that might cause people who’ve been abused to encounter his music against their will.” But in the days since the two-part doc aired on HBO, this isn’t exactly what has happened. While some radio stations have pulled Jackson’s music from their playlists, these stations have all been outside the United States. Jackson’s music has been banned from the airwaves from nearly two dozen radio stations in Quebec (which are all a part of the same network) and many of the largest commercial stations in New Zealand. Leon Wratt, the content director of MediaWorks, one of the New Zealand radio networks, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that he believed radio had a particular responsibility in situations like this, as opposed to streaming companies and record stores. “The difference with radio, of course, is that if we play it you don’t have a choice,” he said.

Music is an unusually intimate and fluid art form, often wafting through our awareness like weather. On any given day I actively choose some of what I hear—pulling a record off my shelf, typing a song title or artist’s name into a streaming service search bar—but just as much of my listening, if not more, comes to me via some outside (and/or algorithmic) force. Perhaps a recognizable bass line buzzes from my neighbor’s apartment, or a car passes me on the street, blaring a tune with the windows down. Music is piped into the café where I grab a coffee on the way to work, the lounge area of my building, and, yes, in the bathroom of my performatively hip coworking space. In the cacophonous modern world, popular music is almost as breezy and omnipresent as air.

Aside from the moral concessions the music industry has made for so many years to uphold the toxic stereotype of “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,” the slipperiness of music consumption might also play a part in explaining why the industry hasn’t had as profound a “#MeToo moment” when compared with other entertainment fields. Said the longtime Vanity Fair reporter Maureen Orth, in an interview earlier this week with The Ringer’s Kate Knibbs, “It’s easier not to go to a movie than to shut out all of the great Motown stuff [Jackson] was associated with.” That’s true on a practical, not to mention financial, level too: Although monetizing the sale of music has long been the record industry’s chief concern, so much of what our ears encounter on a daily basis comes to us free of charge. As Orth suggests, a person can easily sit out the latest Woody Allen movie, change the channel when she sees Louis C.K.’s face on TV, and decline to read the next Junot Díaz book. But what about pop music? The notion of “canceling” an artist as ubiquitous as Jackson or even R. Kelly has presented us with highly personal dilemmas we’ve not yet had to grapple with in the #MeToo era. Do I storm out of the gym mid-workout if the instructor starts playing “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”? Do I bang on my neighbors’ door if I can hear them listening to “Billie Jean”? If I catch myself absentmindedly humming an ear worm like “PYT,” what am I supposed to do? Cancel my neurons?

Last week, as I was writing about the powerful experience of watching Surviving R. Kelly, I found myself uncertain of what to “do” with the parts of my brain that had memorized the lyrics and melodies of his songs. As I was thinking about his music in the abstract, avoiding getting some of his more popular songs in my head was like trying not to think of a pink elephant: The worse I felt about the cultural complicity around R. Kelly’s alleged behavior, the more a song like “I’m a Flirt (Remix)” would creep into the private space of my brain and lodge itself there, somehow more naggingly present than a joke, or a line from a book, or a memory of a scene from a movie.

In a Salon op-ed last week, Amanda Marcotte proposed that people turn to so-called cancel culture “because real justice is elusive. Unable to punish the men who actually commit and perpetrate sexual assault, fans instead punish themselves, sacrificing the pleasures of ‘Rock With You’ or ‘Ignition (Remix)’ in a desperate desire to create some consequences in a world that rarely offers any for these kinds of misdeeds.” She suggested that if a musician or director actually serves a sentence for his misdeeds, the public might be less inclined to dole out additional punishment on the music itself, or their own desire to listen to it: “If [Kelly] does real time for his alleged crimes,” she wrote, “it will be a whole lot easier for people to listen to his music without feeling guilty.” I’m not sure I agree with this prediction entirely, but it’s looking like Kelly might give us an opportunity to test it out.

Still, the language that Marcotte uses to articulate this situation is inward: She writes of self-punishment, sacrificing pleasure, “feeling guilty.” If anything, these debates have reinforced the incredible intimacy inherent in listening to music, as well as its particular qualities when compared to other forms of popular art. We allow ourselves to become hypnotized by it; we internalize it; we store it somewhere deep inside our brains. In this particular case, this slipperiness is pop music’s liability, but I also think it’s the source of its power. Music (and especially popular music, which by definition resonates with a large number of people) is a cultural call-and-response, a collective unconscious. It’s larger than any one of us. Maybe, thankfully, that means it can be larger than its creators, too.