10 Years After His Death, Michael Jackson’s Complicated Legacy Is Dividing His Biggest Fans

Conversations about Jackson's personal life have persisted, with four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland making allegations against him earlier this year.

It’s been 10 years to the day since Michael Jackson died at the age of 50, leaving fans, critics and onlookers worldwide completely stunned.

The star – still an icon, albeit a troubled one – had been preparing for a 50-date run of concerts at London’s O2 Arena, which was set to be his big comeback after years of hitting headlines for financial woes, abuse allegations and rumoured health issues.

His untimely death – which was itself marred in controversy with doctor Conrad Murray later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter – abruptly brought Hollywood and the music world to a standstill.

In the decade since, the nature of his legacy has become increasingly unclear, as while his music is for the most part still celebrated, allegations about his personal life have persisted, having never fully disappeared following a 2005 trial, which saw him acquitted on all counts of child molestation.

Having debuted at the Sundance Film Festival (where a small group of protestors gathered), the controversial documentary Leaving Neverland aired on HBO and Channel 4 in March, shining a light on allegations from two men who separately claim Jackson sexually abused them when they were children.

The Jackson estate vehemently denied the claims, describing the four-hour long film as a “public lynching” but their statement did little to stem public interest. In the wake of the documentary airing, radio stations in Canada and New Zealand issued blanket bans on Jackson’s songs.

Here in the UK, plays on many stations have decreased, with Jackson’s five most popular BBC Radio songs now relegated to occasional plays on regional stations, rather than the main national ones, Radio 1, 2 and 6Music.

So now, 10 years on from Jackson’s death, what state is his legacy in? How do fans feel? It’s complicated.

A Twitter callout on the topic resulted in hundreds of replies – in the form of both public posts and private messages – within 24 hours.

The majority of public ones protested Jackson’s innocence and some came from accounts dedicated to doing this, featuring his face as their profile picture and usernames including #JusticeForMJ, MJ4Ever and #MJInnocent.

“His music is more relevant than ever!” one tweet read. “His lyrics are timeless and always fitting. His messages are important! It shows his true feelings and he meant each sentence that he’s ever sung.”

“He is the King of music,” another said. “His legacy will remain and endure. He is the greatest artist of all time. Neither the lies of the press nor false accusations could destroy his legacy of love, peace and incredible talent.”

Jackson with Quincy Jones at the 1984 Grammy Awards
Jackson with Quincy Jones at the 1984 Grammy Awards
Gary Gershoff / MediaPunch/MediaPunch/IPx

One person simply wrote, “[He’s] the greatest entertainer of our generation”, a title for which there are very few contenders (Madonna, Prince and David Bowie are a few of the only other names that spring to mind).

But nobody is denying his phenomenal career achievements.

Thriller, released in 1982, remains the best-selling album of all-time. He was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame twice, won 15 Grammys and more American Music Awards than any other artist.

In a sure sign of his enduring musical appeal, Jackson also became the first artist to have a top 10 single in the Billboard in five different decades.

But for some devotees, the allegations are affecting their ability to enjoy the music.

Jinjja Chai podcast host Girl Davis describes herself as a “lifelong Jackson fan”, telling HuffPost UK: “In regards to his music, he’ll always be my number one artist.

“MJ had so much talent and so much creativity that it made me want to be creative.

“I danced to Michael, learned how to dance like him (and Janet) and would pore over his lyrics and indulge in his music videos. We loved him for his talent and artistry.

“These memories are mine and they don’t endorse his alleged misconduct with children.”

The Jackson Five; Michael, front right, is 10 years old in this picture. With him are his brothers, from left, Tito, 16; Marlon, 11; Jackie, 19; and Jermaine, 14.
The Jackson Five; Michael, front right, is 10 years old in this picture. With him are his brothers, from left, Tito, 16; Marlon, 11; Jackie, 19; and Jermaine, 14.

But Girl – who in 2017 took a trip to America to see the Jackson siblings’ childhood home – describes her thoughts on his legacy as “quite complicated”.

Following the star’s death, fans and critics have often stitched together conclusions for themselves and Girl rationalises that “in my opinion, it’s very clear Michael had an issue with boundaries when it came to other people’s children”.

“I believe people let it carry on for so long simply because of who he was,” she says. “This is why it’s hard for me to play his music without feeling guilty.

I still own all his albums and DVDs with every music video on them. I love Michael Jackson the artist, I have no idea who Michael Jackson the person was.”

Jackson’s success means many of his songs hold special places in people’s hearts, having soundtracked everything from school dances to weddings, and another fan who asks to be identified by his first name, Darren, says he has been “a massive MJ fan since I can remember”.

I danced to Thriller in my junior school at the end of year event,” he says. “I went to three concerts with my mum and dad, I’m friends on Facebook with a lot of MJ’s musicians and people he’s worked with.

I have so many memories tied up with him and his music [but] since watching Leaving Neverland I’ve not been able to listen to or watch any of his music.”

Admitting his frustration at people who refuse to acknowledge the accusations against Jackson, he adds: “I still can’t believe how many of his fans won’t believe any of it, I think they’ve invested so much over the years defending him that they will never accept it.”

For some, Jackson tracks have also soundtracked the tougher moments in life, making the cloud the allegations have brought about feel even darker.

A 25-year-old, who asks to remain anonymous, describes themselves and their family as “huge Jackson fans”, explaining that their brother chose I Just Can’t Stop Loving You to play during their mother’s funeral.

“It’s a lovely song and has such weight behind it,” they explain. “Now for me, it’s tainted. I can’t play that song and think about happy memories with my mum anymore. Now all I can think about is MJ and what he’s allegedly done.

“Every time his or a Jackson 5 song comes on Spotify I skip it, because I just can’t bring myself to enjoy it the way I used to.”

Floral tributes placed on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame to mark the 5th anniversary of Jackson's death in a 2014
Floral tributes placed on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame to mark the 5th anniversary of Jackson's death in a 2014
FREDERIC J. BROWN via Getty Images

But the numbers suggest support remains steadfast and for every fan tuning out, there seem to be plenty more pressing play on Jackson’s hits.

In March, Billboard reported that after the release of Leaving Neverland, streams of Jackson’s music actually increased by nearly 10 percent (it had initially been reported there had been a drop, before this error was rectified). Meanwhile, Spotify’s This Is Michael Jackson playlist still has over 1.2million subscribers (the David Bowie equivalent has 600,000 and Prince’s 544,000).

The West End production of Thriller Live is continuing its indefinite run (you can currently book tickets for dates up to April 2020) and if you can’t make it to that, Jackson tribute acts are still booking dates up and down the UK.

Speaking over the weekend, Janet Jackson made a rare comment on her brother’s legacy, telling The Times that she’s certain it “will continue”.

“I love it when I see kids emulating him, when adults still listen to his music,” she said. “It just lets you know the impact that my family has had on the world.

“I hope I’m not sounding arrogant in any way — I’m just stating what is. It’s really all God’s doing and I’m just thankful for that.”

The statistics side with Janet. A final fan, 33-year-old Dean, says he believes the allegations in Leaving Neverland. But he reasons: “MJ’s music is good and important, but that’s not why it’s possible to separate the music and the man.

“The reason why we *have to* separate the music and the man is because of its prevalence in our (globalised) culture.

“Whether it’s his influence on modern R’n’B and pop music, or Bollywood, it is now too late to remove his mark on our world.”

The discourse online is overwhelming and the hundreds of replies to this one tweet about Jackson’s legacy would surely be enough to put many people off discussing him online.

But putting Jackson ‘the artist’ to one side, Dean concludes this is exactly what we need to do.

“I’m not gonna stop listening to Billie Jean,” he says. “It means more to me [now] because I think of a specific moment in my life, with my family… His [Jackson’s] reach is too deep, too wide and too late for society to extricate itself from his work.

“[The] best thing we, as adjusted and good people, can do is to have open conversations about the man.”


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