Michael Jackson

Is Michael Jackson Too Big to Cancel? After 'Neverland,' The Industry Says Yes

Despite the disturbing revelations in Leaving Neverland, the music industry apparently just isn’t quite ready to let go of Michael Jackson and his music. As a wide-ranging informal survey of over three dozen professionals and artists reveals, many aren’t planning to speak out -- and plenty aren’t even willing to watch the documentary.

“It used to be about surviving a few news cycles,” says Jeff Biederman, partner/music group co-chair at law firm Manatt Phelps & Phillips, who hasn’t seen the film. “Now with social media, everyone is a newspaper, and the potential effect on an artist is exponentially greater. Hardcore fans won’t care. With the undecideds, it’s always going to be on your mind. But as a parent, it’s very hard to crank Thriller and not think about those children being abused.”

Thus far, the overwhelming reaction from the industry is “a mix of skepticism, disbelief and outright anger,” in the words of one partner in an urban culture-focused communications firm who watched both parts of the film and found Jackson’s now-adult accusers, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, believable. “Most are refusing to watch the film,” the partner continues, “because, I suspect, they’re afraid to face the possibility that Jackson was a pedophile. But judging from the public outcry against the accusers, I can’t see a massive movement to cancel Jackson taking place anytime soon.”

To date, most of that outcry has stemmed from Jackson’s army of fans, relatives and his estate. But generally, public backlash has been muted compared with that against R. Kelly after Lifetime’s recent Surviving R. Kelly. Like Kelly, Jackson was exonerated of earlier sex abuse charges, but unlike Kelly, he’s not here to defend himself, and since the film’s release, additional accusers have yet to come forward -- both reasons why many of the industry players surveyed for this story say they still haven’t watched the film.

Among that group of entertainment attorneys, radio programmers, label and publishing executives, artists, managers, producers, songwriters, publicists, and touring and marketing executives, only a third opted to participate, and only five did so on the record. Several prominent acts and producers who knew and/or collaborated with Jackson declined to comment.

Overall, artists haven’t been very vocal about the film -- a 180-degree turnaround from celebrity reaction to the six-part Kelly doc. John Legend, who publicly denounced Kelly, is one of the few stars to have addressed Leaving Neverland. “Obviously, Michael’s not here to defend himself, so we can’t hear both sides of the story,” he said during an appearance on iHeartRadio’s syndicated Los Angeles morning show Big Boy’s Neighborhood. “But man, it’s hard not to believe what [Robson and Safechuck] say [because] it’s so graphic and specific.” (Legend’s camp declined further comment when contacted for this piece.)

Since Neverland aired, radio stations in Canada and New Zealand have decided to stop playing Jackson’s music. Drake has cut his Jackson-sampling hit, “Don’t Matter to Me,” from his current U.K. tour setlist. Within the last week, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis removed three Jackson items from its exhibits, and Louis Vuitton -- whose creative director, Virgil Abloh, is close with music artists like Kanye West and Kid Cudi -- pulled Jackson-inspired garments from its fall/winter 2019 men’s collection.

Still, over half of those polled insist they’re still able to appreciate Jackson’s music. “Jackson is a great artist, a complicated person and a damaged child himself,” says Doreen Ringer-Ross, vp film, TV and visual media at BMI. “I take his art on its own terms.”

Laurie Soriano, a partner at law firm King Holmes Paterno & Soriano, likewise says Jackson’s music should persist. “I have difficulty believing the right thing is to banish the person’s art when it comes to light that the artist did awful things while alive,” says the attorney, who has not watched the film. “Each individual can decide whether or not they have the stomach to experience the art.”

Some industry leaders -- including those who haven’t seen the movie, like Fox Rothschild partner Ken Abdo -- do say it’s “not possible or fair” to separate artists from their art. Abdo believes that recording and talent agreements will now “make more use of morals clauses and otherwise provide contractual consequences for behavior that qualifies for termination of employment or breach of contract for good cause.” Still, he adds, “How do you know if an artist will exhibit bad behavior when they’re signed without any prior indication?”

Others polled raised concerns about unfair scrutiny of black artists and the free pass granted to other celebrities who get into trouble. “I fully understand why the [Jackson estate] wants to squash this,” says one publicist who hasn’t viewed the film. “But if Jackson wasn’t famous and [still] sleeping with young boys, he would have been in jail. It’s a double-standard for a celebrity for sure.”

Referencing Jackson, Kelly and Bill Cosby, a label senior vp of promotion says justice must be served when allegations are proved true. “However,” the senior vp adds, “it feels like, ‘Oh, shit. Here comes more dismantling and discarding of black men.’ Even in this taut climate, where there has been an ongoing sensitization to black life, we’re seeing how easily the narrative can change.”

The narrative that Leaving Neverland started will likely develop throughout the year: Britain’s BBC 2 network is slated to air another Jackson documentary, Michael Jackson: The Rise and Fall, in late 2019.

But “ultimately, his legacy will be fine,” predicts an artist manager and self-professed Jackson fan who saw half of Neverland. “It will go through a generation of change. Then those who want to spend time with his legacy will, while others will move on to the next thing.”

Additional reporting by Melinda Newman.

This article originally appeared in the March 23 issue of Billboard.

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