The first time I played Thriller was on my sister Jennifer’s record player — complete with flashing disco lights sandwiched between our twin beds.
When the bass line for Jackson’s cautionary jam “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” started to shake the white end table that the kiddie record player sat on, my 8-year-old self broke into an uncontrollable happy dance.
“Jenny! Come upstairs! This song is soooo funny,” I yelled from the top of the banister.
“What are you doing playing my record player?” the saucy 5-year-old yelled back at me. But she came up anyway, and as Jackson sang to the world, “Mama say mama sa mamakusa,” she broke into her own happy dance.
Until last week, these were the kinds of joyful moments that came to mind when I thought of the man, whom, once upon a time, we lovingly referred to as the Gloved One.
By now, most of America is at least aware of HBO’s piercingly disturbing four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland. In it, Wade Robson and James Safechuck painfully recount how Jackson allegedly sexually abused them starting at ages 7 and 10, respectively. If what these men are alleging is true, especially when it comes to the way Jackson groomed them and their parents, the behavior is beyond criminal. It’s evil.
There seem to be two camps: You choose to voluntarily row down the River of Denial and are steadfastly keeping the singer’s legacy intact in your mind, or you choose to cancel all things MJ.
But I’m in the middle: Jackson’s music and superstardom are intertwined with the best memories of my life going far beyond dancing with wild abandon in feet-in pajamas with my sister. To many, and I know I’m not alone in this, Michael Jackson was an institution not much different from the Catholic Church. There is no doubt in my mind Jackson did sexual harm and used fear and intimidation to keep victims silent for his own good. And he got away with it because they were too big to fail until now.
For a hot second, I wanted a Jheri curl so I could play in the pool without wearing a swim cap (thank god my mom put the kibosh on that). My grandmother bought me a pleather knock-off of the red Beat It jacket with her numbers winnings. And then there was the generation of special occasions that Jackson’s music attended: first communions, confirmations, sweet sixteens, graduation cookouts, friends’ baby showers and weddings. I’m not yet married, but how can I have a reception without a heavy dose of tracks from Off the Wall or Thriller? What’s a long road trip without my best of the Jackson 5?
“It’s tough,” said Stacey “FlyGirrl” Wilson, who throws the best old-school hip-hop and R&B parties in Philly. Some of her best unforgettable jammy jams include “Philly Loves the Native Tongues," “Philly Loves Prince,” and, yes, “Philly Loves Michael Jackson.”
“It’s one thing to ban R. Kelly from my playlist, but Michael Jackson …,” said Wilson, who is seriously contemplating nixing the Philly Loves Michael Jackson Night. The parties are often biannual; usually they are held in June to commemorate Jackson’s death, or in August to remember his birthday.
“We are in a space where more and more of these ills are coming out, and we have to make a decision based on what’s right or wrong," Wilson said. “This week, I went on Instagram and I saw people’s ‘stories,’ where I heard Michael Jackson music, and I immediately didn’t feel right.”
Promoters like Wilson throw Jackson-themed parties and DJs populate their playlists with songs from every Michael Jackson era in part because the music is good, and because people will go back to dancing around their bedrooms in feet-in pajamas, back to a time when they were innocent. The irony is, that’s exactly when he was allegedly stealing the innocence of others. That’s really hard to reconcile.
“It’s not that we never got to enjoy it,” said David “Lil Dave” Adams, another DJ, whose mixes tend toward the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s hip-hop and R&B — decidedly Jackson’s most prolific eras as a solo artist. “All of those memories are still with us. But we need to move forward. And it may just be we need to move forward without him.”
In the last week, radio stations in Canada and the UK pulled Jackson’s 50+year catalog off the airwaves.
Closer to home, stations are tight-lipped on the MJ issue, but they admit to having conversations. I reached out to iHeartRadio, the parent station of old-school R&B WDAS I mean, how can you you have the nightly Quiet Storm without “Lady in My Life”? No more “Dirty Diana”? And what about easy-listening 106.1, the Breeze? “Say, Say, Say” or “The Girl is Mine?” — Jackson’s duets with Paul McCartney — would be cancelled from the airwaves. Spokeswoman Angel Aristone didn’t comment.
There is also the prevailing thought that we should be able to separate the man from the allegations. Internationally known Philadelphia DJ Rich Medina is one of them. He still plans to proudly play Jackson in his sets.
“What are people going to do? Run to the door and get their money back? Or stand and pass judgment?” Medina asked. "Michael was a troubled human being who put himself in a real-life fantasy, and there were a lot of people who were afraid of his power, jealous of him, and would be happy to see him fall.
“The man lived a harder life than most of us and is 50,000 times more talented than 90 percent of us. Show me your halo. Show me the dry cleaners where you get your wings cleaned at.”
The question that landed on many a social media status last week, however, was, “Why now?” Why are we dragging Michael Jackson’s name through the mud 10 years after his death? Ten years. Jackson was acquitted in 1993 and 2005. The FBI didn’t find evidence. “Isn’t this is just a careful plot by the powers that be to bring a black man down?” my Facebook feed asked over and over.
The problem is that Jackson, like all institutions, didn’t fall overnight. They topple over time as their power becomes weaker. And through every stage, there is resistance. Because those who resist the most are forced to rethink everything, we’re being forced to rethink our memories and what role we played in trying to keep them intact.
It’s easy to blame Oprah Winfrey for pointing out how Jackson’s predatory behavior was swept under the rug when she interviewed Robson and Safechuck. We didn’t want to look at the man or woman in the mirror pun intended and see how we helped with the sweeping. When Jackson was acquitted, I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t want to see the star go to jail, but I knew somewhere inside that he probably was not completely innocent. Because as long as I believed he was innocent, I could be, too.