Michael Jackson’s complicated legacy 10 years after his death
Sadly, there are some Michael Jackson songs that — 10 years after the King of Pop’s death rocked the world on June 25, 2009 — just don’t sound the same anymore.
One of them would be “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” — the bumping, sure-to-start-the-party jam from his 1982 blockbuster LP, “Thriller” — on which Jackson sings, “Tenderoni, you’ve got to be/Spark my nature, sugar, fly with me” with clenched, crotch-grabbing desire.
That song — and, for some, all of MJ’s music — will never have the same pure thrill after “Leaving Neverland,” the documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and then aired on HBO in March. The film examines, in graphic detail, the allegations by Wade Robson and James Safechuck that they were sexually abused by Jackson at his Neverland Ranch when they were young boys.
“ ‘P.Y.T.’ is one of my favorite songs, and now it has this whole other subtext to it,” says Bill Coleman, a Brooklyn-based DJ and owner of Peace Bisquit Productions & Management. “It’s probably the last song I would play right now because it could be perceived as having a whole other meaning.”
On today’s anniversary, there’s a dark cloud hanging over Jackson’s legacy, with some wondering exactly how they should feel about the late legend and his music. While his songs can still be heard just about everywhere you go, many who believe the allegations will never listen to him the same way again. And even among some of his biggest fans, it brings up conflicting emotions about how to commemorate his passing from an accidental overdose at age 50.
“You kind of need to mark it,” says Manhattan-based writer Alan Light, a former editor of both Vibe and Spin magazines who now co-hosts “Debatable” on SiriusXM Volume.
“It’s a significant anniversary of an unforgettable and really important moment in music history. You can’t just blow it off,” Light says. “There was nobody who had the imagination of the entire world in the same way that he did. We grew up with him. There’s still the part of you that’s 10, 12 or 14 years old and grew up with those records in such a central and beloved place in your life.”
After the allegations made in “Leaving Neverland,” is it possible to separate the man from the art?
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame certainly thinks so. After the film damaged Jackson’s legacy, the hall stood by his place in its exclusive club. None of his display was changed at the Cleveland-based institution, while a RRHOF spokesperson explained that Jackson had been “recognized for musical excellence and talent.”
Other Jackson tributes also remain, from the East Village mural by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra at East 11th Street and First Avenue to the upcoming MJ musical that is still set to open on Broadway next year. His music is available on all major streaming services, while his groundbreaking videos can be found on YouTube. Certainly, many DJs — whether or not they believe the “Leaving Neverland” allegations — have been able to separate his classic songs from his alleged crimes.
Anastasia “DJ Stacy” Ledwith — who played an MJ marathon at the West Village gay bar Stonewall on the day that he died as people were crying — hasn’t stopped pumping his music. “I play him all the time,” she says. “I love to do ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,’ ‘Rock with You,’ ‘Off the Wall.’ You can play him anytime, anywhere. It’s all about the music.”
For this Manhattan resident, though, the jury is still out after watching “Leaving Neverland.” “It didn’t sway me either way from when all the allegations came out when he was alive,” says DJ Stacy, who now plays everywhere from Brother Jimmy’s in Murray Hill to Cherry’s On The Bay on Fire Island.
“I’m not sure if I believe it or not,” DJ Stacy says. “If it is true, it’s sad for him and for the victims. However, he’s one of the most talented musicians of our time. There will never be anyone like him. Ever. Nobody will even come close.”
And it’s not just Jackson’s music that has forever changed the culture — it’s also his moves.
Astoria-based Kirsten Genovese — who, at 26, wasn’t around for the peak of Jackson mania — was inspired by him as a young dancer-in-the-making. “ ‘Thriller’ was the first video I ever saw,” she says. “I watched it over and over and over again. Like, could not get enough.”
Although Genovese believes Jackson’s accusers, feeling “sick the entire time” she watched “Leaving Neverland,” she still recognizes his impact as “the best of our time.”
She hasn’t stopped playing Jackson’s music when teaching young dancers, mostly ages 8 to 12, at Merrick Dance Centre on Long Island, and D3 Dance Academy in Clifton, NJ. “They feel it automatically with his music.”
She has taken “a little pause” in teaching the choreography to “Beat It” and “Thriller,” but says it will eventually return.
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“The Michael Jackson choreography and movement, it’s not going anywhere,” she says. “It’s awful what he did, but it’s dance history.”
While there were child molestation allegations in the past — Jackson was found not guilty after a trial in 2005 — “Leaving Neverland” struck a deeper nerve in the court of public opinion, largely because of the disturbing details revealed by Robson and Safechuck. Even Oprah Winfrey came down on the side of Jackson’s accusers.
In the film’s aftermath, some have said “beat it” to the icon. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis removed three Jackson items from exhibits. Chris Carron, the museum’s director of collections, said that the museum only wanted to show “people of high character.”
Meanwhile, Coleman — who, for years, had rocked Jackson’s music at everything from weddings to clubs and considers his songs to be “part of my DNA” — has been “taking a break” from him since “Leaving Neverland.”
“I’ve purposely not been playing his music,” he says. “It makes me feel a little weird, let’s be honest, right now. It’s more out of respect for other people. Clubs are a public space; parties are not just about me, how I feel or how I process information. You’re playing for a bunch of people, and you’re not taking inventory [about how they feel] right before you DJ.”
In addition, Coleman says this summer’s “Michael Jackson vs. Prince” roller-disco party — with him set to spin at the LeFrak Center in Prospect Park— was canceled at his suggestion to event producer Lola Star.
“I was like, ‘You might wanna skip that this year,’ ” says Coleman, who has played at various such Jackson-themed soirées for years. “I was just watching what was happening on social media and the press and was like, ‘Ooh, girl, I don’t know if this is a good year to do this.’ ”
But even if the King of Pop’s crown has been forever tarnished, many fans are able to compartmentalize a place for his music, although their feelings about Jackson himself may be far more complicated than they were when he died.
“To be looking at the 10th anniversary of his passing right at this moment — when I think we’re all still trying to process ‘Leaving Neverland’ and determine what that does or doesn’t change about the way that we think about this guy — it’s inevitably going to be confusing and frustrating,” Light says.
“Whether we can still listen to [his music] and separate our feelings about the person from our feelings about the work, or whether we can’t, it’s not something that fits comfortably.”
But Light, who describes Jackson’s life as “the great American tragedy,” doesn’t see his music dying off. “You still hear him on the radio; you still hear him out in clubs and in the world. You still hear him coming out of food trucks,” he says. “But I do think that a lot of people hear him and there’s something else that comes into their head now.”
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