OPINION: If you’ve even a shred of human compassion, Michael Jackson should be as dead to you as the zombies in his Thriller video.
The first song I ever knew the name of was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It wasn’t the first song I‘d ever heard of course — we’re all born into a world of listening to a background hum of car radios, our parents’ CD collections, advertising jingles. But Thriller stood out.
Thriller grabbed me by the collar and didn’t let me go. Thriller marked the first time I understood that songs existed in their own right, and that someone made them, and when you loved a song you’d come to love the person who made it just as much.
And oh, did I love Thriller, and Michael Jackson by extension. I was only five or six years old but its layered, complex production, its vaudevillian spookiness and crystalline harmonies left me breathless. Jackson instructed his session musicians to make Thriller as if they were “Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel” and they did not miss a brushstroke.
Thriller began my love of music that continues today. I copied my friend’s Thriller cassette using her prized double tape deck. I loved the follow-up album Bad so much that I drew my own version of its cover using red and black textas as a makeshift poster for my bedroom wall (it was not, as you might imagine, the most faithful rendering).
It’s as dead to me as one of the zombies in its groundbreaking film clip, and it should be to anyone else with a shred of compassion and respect for the boys who suffered from Michael Jackson’s predilections.
We can’t prosecute Jackson, who died from a drug overdose in 2009, for what he did to those trusting kids, boys as young as seven, but we can delete him from our cultural consciousness.
That’s how we signal to Jackson’s victims, who have been routinely silenced, shuttered and overshadowed by Jackson’s fame, that we hear them.
That’s how we tell other victims of childhood sexual assault, ones unconnected to Jackson, that we care about their suffering more than we care about their abusers, even if that abuser happens to be someone rich and powerful.
And that’s how we threaten other prominent men with the promise that they are not untouchable. If they victimise children, their crimes will be their only legacy — not their work.
It isn’t an easy ask. It’s impossible to deny the objective genius of any of Jackson’s music, with the exception of those mawkish dirges he made about world peace like Heal The World. No one’s going to miss those. But otherwise art doesn’t suddenly become objectively meritless because its creator turns out to be a creep.
But Jackson himself has destroyed its soul and its beauty. It’s still brilliant but it’s tarnished beyond redemption. Jackson maketh, Jackson taketh away.
It’s appalling to think what we were paying for by purchasing his music back when Jackson was still alive — unless, like me, you were lucky enough to have a friend with a double tape deck for piracy purposes and parents too mean to buy you a poster book.
Jackson’s stardom gave him access to children. The proceeds from his work built the childlike funfair that was Neverland. It led starstruck parents to send their boys to his home for sleepovers, and it allowed him to pay for the best lawyers to crush and quieten his accusers. No more.
Lisa Wilkinson asked a rhetorical question to her fellow panellists on Channel 10’s The Project a couple of weeks ago when the enormity of Michael Jackson evidence was just beginning to come to light. “Next time a Michael Jackson song comes on at a wedding, will we get up and dance?” she wondered.
I’ll never again be at a wedding, a celebration of love and joy, and hear lyrics like “Ain’t nobody’s business but mine and my baby’s” (The Way You Make Me Feel),“You know I’m bad, I’m bad, you know it” (Bad) and feel like eating a slice of cake afterwards.
My toes might mutinously tap. I might reflexively hum a harmony under my breath. But my heart and mind will remember those kids and what they went through.
Michael Jackson was a smooth criminal. And it’s that truth, not his song of the same name, which is the way I will choose to remember him.
— Alex Carlton is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @Alex_Carlton