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The thrill is gone: Michael Jackson really makes us uncomfortable now, so his music should, too

Michael Jackson performs during his “Dangerous” tour in Singapore in August 1993. AFP/Getty Images

The song — catchy, peppy, and familiar — is the ideal soundtrack for a credit card commercial targeting young professionals. We see them bowling and buzzing on go-karts, smiling in a whirl of millennial exuberance and gleeful consumerism.

But the song in the Capital One credit card commercial is Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” and when I saw the commercial last week I didn’t think, “I want that credit card so I can go bowling.” Instead, I felt a chill.

“Keep on, with the force, don’t stop. Don’t stop ’til you get enough.”

In the wake of the devastating HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which aired in two parts Sunday and Monday, it’s difficult to digest Jackson’s music the way we have for nearly 50 years. His high tenor, punctuated with hiccups, hoos, and “shamones,” has been the soundtrack of our proms, weddings, and quinceañeras. A DJ can fill a dance floor simply by pressing play on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”

But after the gut-curdling allegations of child molestation against Jackson described by Wade Robson and James Safechuck in “Leaving Neverland,” it’s time for a new soundtrack for life events. Radio stations in New Zealand, Canada, and Holland began pulling Jackson’s music from the airwaves this week. US radio stations should do the same.


Since the first allegations of child molestation against Jackson surfaced in 1993, we’ve blithely separated the man from the music.

Those days appear to be over.

“I don’t think people can listen to the songs the same way anymore. They are supposed to make you happy, make you sing and dance,” said Dutch radio editor Arjan Snijders in a broadcast on Tuesday.

The proper response to this news isn’t “Bravo.” It’s “What took so long?”

The allegations of abuse in “Leaving Neverland” are horrifically disturbing, but they’re not new. Jackson was charged with child sexual abuse by 13-year-old Evan Chandler in 1993. The graphic details of that case were just as difficult to stomach. It’s easy to look back 26 years later and wonder why there wasn’t more public outrage. Instead, Jackson, with his changing appearance, soft voice, and costume-like military jackets, simply became a punch line for comedians. Everyone told off-color jokes about Jackson and little boys as if the topic was meant for playground fodder and little else.


There wasn’t a public backlash when investigators found photos of boys with little or no clothing on in a raid of Jackson’s bedroom in August 1993. His record company didn’t drop him. Instead, Jackson’s song “Will You Be There,” from the “Free Willy” soundtrack, hit the Billboard top 10 and stayed there for six weeks.

In the court of public opinion, it was Jackson the man versus Jackson the music. The music won. He appeared to cast a spell over listeners the way Robson and Safechuck say Jackson placed a spell over them. However, the spell the two men described in the HBO documentary was far more insidious.

I was just as complacent. I bought the pretentiously named greatest hits compilation “HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book I,” in 1995 because of the sentimental joy his 1980s catalog brought me. I conveniently compartmentalized the accusations from the music.

Jackson scored hits through the 1990s striking back at accusers from an untouchable platform of CDs and radio, particularly with “Scream,” a pointed duet he performed with his sister Janet. He painted himself as the victim in all of the coverage of his trial. “Stop pressuring me,” he sneered. He tried to explain away his Peter Pan persona in the song “Childhood.” Here was Jackson in full victim mode on the “Free Willy 2” soundtrack.


Jackson was never charged with a crime after the 1993 investigation; he settled with Chandler’s family out of court. But when British journalist Martin Bashir interviewed Jackson for the 2003 documentary “Living with Michael Jackson,” it was hard to look at the singer and simply see a man who giddily listed climbing trees and water balloon fights as his favorite things. He talked about letting boys sleep in his bed, while he said he slept on the floor nearby. He told Bashir he saw nothing wrong with it. He was shown holding hands with 13-year-old Gavin Arivizo in the documentary.

Nearly 40 million Americans tuned in to “Living with Michael Jackson.” It’s difficult to watch now in the wake of “Leaving Neverland,” but if you’re inclined to do so, you can find it on YouTube. While many saw Jackson as an eccentric, the Santa Barbara county attorney’s office saw something else. It began a criminal investigation as soon as the show aired. This brought new charges, and two years later, Arivizo took the stand to talk about being molested by Jackson. But the singer was acquitted on all charges.


It’s difficult to look back now and understand how Jackson’s career not only survived but actually thrived after the initial allegations of abuse. When Anthony Rapp came forward in 2017 to accuse Kevin Spacey of making a sexual advance toward him when he was 14, Spacey was fired from “House of Cards” and edited out of the film “All the Money in the World.” When the #MeToo floodgates opened, the careers of Matt Lauer, Mario Batali, Charlie Rose, Steve Wynn, and Harvey Weinstein were laid to waste.

Perhaps the closest Jackson comparison is R. Kelly, whose career has been ensnared by sexual scandals and child molestation charges for nearly 20 years. After Lifetime aired the searing documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” radio stations from Atlanta to Los Angeles removed R. Kelly’s entire catalog from their playlists. Additionally, Lady Gaga, Chance the Rapper, and Céline Dion have pulled past collaborations with R. Kelly from streaming services.

But the King of Pop was never held to that standard in 1993, or 2003. Instead, the adulation continued through his death in 2009. Listening to his songs now is akin to watching Spacey in “Baby Driver,” which I don’t recommend you do. There is no escaping that Jackson’s canon of work is pop at its best, but it’s time to start connecting the dots between the man and the music. “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” is a silky whirl of disco joy. But the song, which was once a guilty pleasure, now simply feels guilty.


Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com.