Will the “cancel culture” cancel culture?
Some of us learned a new phrase at a ThinkIn this week: the “cancel culture”. A culture which, when it takes offence or is upset at something, cancels it: cancels a Facebook friendship, ends a streaming subscription, deletes music.
After the Leaving Neverland documentary, Michael Jackson is being cancelled. Not by everyone or everywhere but his songs are being taken off radio station playlists around the world. A spokesperson for the two biggest commercial stations in New Zealand unwittingly summed up what’s going on – as well as some of the contradictions around it – in an interview with The New York Times: “We aren’t deciding whether Michael Jackson is guilty of paedophilia or not. We’re just merely trying to make sure that our radio stations are going to play the music that people want to hear.”
That statement coincided with the release by Billboard of figures which showed that in the days after Leaving Neverland was broadcast in the United States, streaming of Michael Jackson’s songs and videos went up. It’s too soon to know why – it could be fans showing their devotion, it could be a search for overlooked clues – but that week, as radio stations were deciding that Michael Jackson wasn’t what their listeners wanted to hear, listeners left to their own devices were deciding that he was. In a cancel culture, who makes the call?
One of the odd things about Michael Jackson is that we knew. Or at least, if we’d wanted to know we could have known, because allegations about his grooming and sexual abuse of children go back more than 25 years. If we decide to believe them now, on the basis of a TV documentary, not (as some people at the ThinkIn were rightly concerned to remind us) because of a trial in a court of law, we could have made that decision after watching the 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson; or even earlier, in 1994, after Jackson paid $23 million to settle a criminal case brought against him for abusing a 13-year-old boy.
Who’s guilty? Perhaps we’re all a bit guilty for looking the other way for so long. And that sentiment led to some soul-searching at the ThinkIn, by Anisa Subedar among others.
Something has changed to explain why the allegations against Michael Jackson have landed differently this time, and the ThinkIn wrestled with what it might be. Inevitably, social media seemed to be part of the mix. Jackson epitomised the distant, unknowable star. He lived in a ranch called Neverland with a chimp called Bubbles; he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber; the barriers between him and the world seemed unbreachable. Could anyone be so removed in our social media age? The jury is out on that one. It might be harder work to get away with it, but it’s a risk to assume that social media is digital sunlight.
Daniel Swift has written a biography of the poet Ezra Pound, another artist who forces us to weigh aesthetic pleasure on one side of the scales against moral disgust on the other: “There isn’t anyone more morally troubling than Ezra Pound,” he says. “We have to acknowledge that Pound was anti-semitic and a fascist, and acknowledge the seriousness of those things. But that doesn’t mean we should forget Pound, because that would be a forgetting of the seriousness of what he did.” And just as attitudes towards anti-semitism change, so do attitudes towards crimes like the ones which have been laid at Michael Jackson’s door.
Context matters but whatever explains the reaction to Leaving Neverland there’s no mistaking it for what came before. The question of whether we can ever listen to Michael Jackson in the same way again – or should do at all – is real this time.
The case for photoshopping Jackson out of public life and taking him off the radio is powerfully made. Now we know what he was like (now we really, really know?) how can we dance like we used to? How could any parent dress their kid in a Bad outfit with one glove like parents did back in the day? To listen is not to condone what he did, it doesn’t normalise child abuse, but maybe it feels that way. It’s an emotional argument but that seems fair enough when Michael Jackson’s currency was emotion. He brought us – most of us – joy.
So the gut says “turn that music off”. The problem is, while that may be the path of least resistance, it’s not the road to great art. It makes us vulnerable to an unseen, unaccountable form of censorship run by social media pile-ons. The most troubling words at the ThinkIn came in the form of a quote from Dan Franklin, from the publishing house Jonathan Cape, who told an interviewer that he wouldn’t be able to publish Nabokov’s Lolita today: “What’s different today is MeToo and social media. You can organise outrage at the drop of a hat. If Lolita was offered to me today, I’d never be able to get it past the acquisitions team, a committee of 30-year-olds who’d say: ‘If you publish this book, we will all resign’.” That worried Habeeb Akande, a writer and a Michael Jackson fan.
If we “lost” Michael Jackson – if radio stations completely stopped playing his records and Spotify banned him, as some people are saying they should – how great would our loss be? In a narrow sense we’d be a little poorer but we’d get by. But this was a ThinkIn broad enough to take in not just Michael Jackson but Michelangelo, too, so the question was put: if we insist that great art has to be made by good people (“good” according to the morals of the time), and if 16th-century Florence had magicked up some always-on social media, would Michelangelo have been allowed to create? Alastair Donald thought the cancel culture would have nobbled him.
Sometimes it takes a little while after a ThinkIn to process not just what was said, but who said it and what that might mean. Those observations can be telling, too – and this ThinkIn left an impressionistic rather than a strictly journalistic afterthought: it was hard to avoid the sense that gender, age and race had been silent participants in the conversation. To put it bluntly, being older, whiter, and maler seemed to correlate with a willingness to separate the art from the artist (so to carry on listening to Michael Jackson). As ever, questions about who has power in society dictate so much else. Things are on the move.