Can You Still Play Michael Jackson at a Wedding? How DJs, Brides & Grooms Re-Thought Their Post #MeToo Playlists in 2019

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Over the past 15 years, if you were at a party and there was a DJ, there was a good chance you would hear R. Kelly’s “Ignition” (Remix) or Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” at some point in the evening.    

Jackson dominated the charts and headlines in the 1980s and 90s with the biggest solo album of all-time (Thriller), and an unprecedented string of hits that helped break the color barrier at MTV and re-aligned the parameters of pop stardom. As Jackson crowned himself the King of Pop, Kelly rose to the King of R&B throne in the ‘90s and ‘00s, thanks to a mix of inspiring and/or lascivious hits, such as “I Believe I Can Fly,” “Bump N’ Grind,” “I’m a Flirt” and “Your Body’s Callin’.”  

But in the wake of documentaries that explored renewed allegations of sexual abuse against both artists -- HBO’s Leaving Neverland (in which two now-grown men accuse Jackson of molesting them as children) and the Surviving R. Kelly Lifetime docuseries (containing more than a dozen testimonials from women who claim Kelly abused them) -- some DJs, along with brides- and grooms-to-be, put the pair on a do-not-play list this year. And they were not alone, as a number of other artists facing accusations of misconduct also found themselves iced out of some celebrations; Kelly and Jackson's estate have denied the allegations against them in the respective documentaries.

Beyond couples rolling their eyes at such played-out party-starters as “I Gotta Feeling” and “Party Rock Anthem,” the #MeToo movement inspired some deeper thinking about whether some iconic artists might need to drop off the roster for weddings, bar mitzvahs, proms and corporate events. That led to hand-wringing for some, hard choices for others and lots of conversation about whether some formerly slam-dunk dancefloor classics should be retired.

While preparing for her August wedding, 27-year-old New Yorker Tara Diana described how she and her fiancé -- both of whom self-identify as “very feminist” -- thought about the “unpleasant taste” they might leave in their guest’s mouths if they played artists such as Jackson or Chris Brown, who has faced a number of assault allegations in the wake of his 2009 attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna.

“It’s your happiest moment, and if it makes people uncomfortable knowing what we know about that artist… it’s sad that some people have R. Kelly songs as important first dances for them and now that’s looked at in a different light,” she tells Billboard. “It puts a damper on it.” 

Tara and her fiancé decided before even meeting with their DJ that there would be no Jackson, Kelly or Brown at their wedding. They’re the kind of clients that Jesse Kivel, co-owner of Los Angeles DJ company Dart Collective DJ, “absolutely” sees more of these days. His clients are increasingly requesting that he not play certain artists, with Kelly -- currently behind bars facing allegations of sexual misconduct in three states -- at the top of that list. “We used to play all of them… ‘Ignition’ was a mandatory end-of-the-night song prior to these more recent cases,” he says. 

Dart works with clients to craft a song list -- and at this point, the company’s crew of eight regular DJs in Northern California, four in the Bay Area and four in Austin, Texas, only play Kelly and Jackson by request. “We won’t say no, and we all have our personal opinions too, but as a policy we don’t play those artists.” 

And while Jackson’s music has taken a “slight hit” compared to Kelly’s, Kivel says that other artists have been added to the list as well -- including, this summer, Ryan Adams, after the singer/songwriter/producer was accused by several women of emotional abuse and harassment; Adams had denied the allegations. 

After more than a decade of allegations involving alleged assaults of both men and women, Kivel said that only one or two clients have asked him to leave Brown’s music off party playlists recently. On the other hand, “some clients specifically ask for MJ and R. Kelly, as a kind of double-down on the disconnect between what they allegedly did in their personal lives and their music,” he says. 

As with every couple, every DJ has to make their own mental calculation on where they stand. Cincinnati-based DJ Toad (Douglas Scholten) says he’s not gotten any specific requests to dump certain singers, or received blowback for playing those artists -- and has even had some pointedly ask for them by name. “I wouldn’t take any of those songs out, other than purely hating the track or feeling it was played out,” says Toad. [Editor’s note: this writer has hired Toad for several private events.

Scholten admits to some internal disagreements about whether it’s okay to play older Jackson tracks such as The Jackson 5's classic 1969 breakthrough hit “I Want You Back,” versus the singer’s later material. “It really just comes down to the client, and if they ask for it, I will not be judgmental about it,” he says. “If they say they don’t want the big three [Jackson, Kelly, Brown], I will avoid them… there’s plenty to play otherwise.” 

Sarah Lepley, 32, a social producer at MTV, says she and her fiancé spent months talking about who would make the cut for their late August wedding playlist, including revisiting the New York Times article containing the allegations against Adams as they reconsidered the songs for their cocktail hour. “He [Adams] came up, and we were like, ‘Didn’t he get #MeToo’d?’,” she says. “That one was the hardest for me, because I love his music.” 

An admittedly “pretty selective” music fan already before the emergence of #MeToo, Lepley says the Jackson exposé came out right after the couple got engaged -- and like the Kelly miniseries, it changed her relationship to those artist’s music overnight. “We walked into a karaoke bar after Surviving R. Kelly came out and I gasped when someone was singing ‘I Believe I Can Fly,'” she recalls. “It’s hard to even imagine I used to rock to ‘Ignition’ so much, because now my relationship to it has changed so thoroughly.” 

The couple put together a running list of songs they explicitly told their DJ not to play, which included Kelly, Jackson and Brown, as well as a hard discussion of some acts they love -- such as Katy Perry, Kesha and Lady Gaga -- who have worked with producer Dr. Luke, who has been accused of sexual and emotional abuse by Kesha; Dr. Luke has denied the allegations. 

“A lot of female artists’ music has been produced by Dr. Luke, so are you supporting female artists or an alleged sexual predator?” she wonders, with her fiancé adding that the couple even had long talks about which venues to use in Richmond, Virginia -- given the lingering tensions in the city over its checkered racial history and ongoing quarrels over Confederate statues

Some DJs haven’t been asked, and aren’t changing their tune at all so far. Earlier this year, James Andrea, director of operations for Staten Island’s 15 year-old Music to the Max DJ crew -- which provides entertainment for 50+ corporate events, weddings, sweet 16s and bar mitzvahs every month -- said he hadn't had anyone ask to strike Jackson, or anyone else, from their playlist. “We have a section on our music sheet that says ‘top 10 must plays and top 4 do not plays,’ and most people aren’t really doing that [dropping Kelly and Jackson], because some people feel that way and some don’t. Every client is different.”

It’s not just DJs, brides and grooms who are contemplating where, if anywhere, it’s still okay to listen to Jackson and Kelly now. In his recent Netflix special, Right Now, comedian Aziz Ansari -- who went quiet for a while after being accused of sexual misconduct himself in January 2018 -- had an extended riff on the allegations against Kelly and MJ, marveling at the different audience reactions to the claims against the men. He asked the audience to clap if they were equally convinced of the allegations against Jackson as they were of the ones against Kelly and if they were done with MJ.

“What happened to all them R. Kelly claps?!" he asks in the special. "That was wayyyy less people. You guys are all collectively like, ‘I don’t know what to tell you Aziz, the music’s way better, sorry.... I’ll take the hit on Kels, but Michael’s a bridge I’m not willing to cross. I got a wedding next month, let’s be serious.'”

Though the music industry has not yet seen the same level of fallout as the film/TV community and the political realm so far from #metoo allegations, the debate over which acts are appropriate to play and which should be permanently exiled will likely rage on, with artists added to and dropped from the no-play list as headlines rise and recede. 

The effects could be seen on the screen as well, with the Jackson and Kelly biopics raising renewed anger and questions from some about their subjects, even as they spurred an increase in streaming figures. In the case of Surviving R. Kelly, the multi-part special resulted in a 116% increase in Kelly's streams on the final day (Jan. 5) of its three-day roll-out, with two of Kelly's biggest hits, "Ignition (Remix)" and "I Believe I Can Fly" briefly returning to Billboard's R&B Digital Song Sales chart. 

Similarly, some in Jackson’s fan base have been vocal on social media about continuing to stream and purchase his music as a way of maintaining his once-positive public image. During the 31-week period after the documentary aired, on-demand streams of Jackson’s catalog increased by 22.1%, outpacing the industry’s 21.8% growth. And at Halloween, “Thriller” still benefited from its seasonal bump, returning to the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 44.

With someone like Michael Jackson, there’s this feeling that his music transcends the individual,” says Kivel when asked if he thinks MJ might be permanently party-canceled. “Someone will be like, ‘I know the documentary is disturbing, but I have to have MJ at my wedding.’ They can acknowledge it, but they still want him. But something like ‘Ignition,’ which used to be a classic end-of-the-night tune, is all but gone.” 

2019 Billboard Year in Music