too big to fail
I wrote a piece about my relationship with “problematic” artists like Michael Jackson four days ago, hot off of my viewing of HBO’s Leaving Neverland.
“The End of ‘Problematic’ Artists” urges readers to reconsider they language they’d use to describe pedophiles, rapists, and abusers, and to stop beginning and ending the complex conversations we’re having about those people with a single word: “problematic.”
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “My God, Katie, you click-baiting marketing wunderkind,” (because you are kind and still calling me a kind instead of the solid frau we both know I am).
You’re thinking, “You’re so right, babe! People do love to read about child abuse with the few minutes of spare time they get hiding from their children on the toilet. Won’t you please write another essay about MJ?”
And to you I say:
In “The End of ‘Problematic’ Artists',“ I wrote:
“The use of one magic word — “problematic” — made me fantastically limber; I could keep one foot planted on the knowledge that I would die before I let someone hurt my child like that, and let the other foot out for the occasional Moonwalk. I’m done finding a way to suggest his artistry was more complicated than his abuse, that I have some more profound contextualization that will make his actions… well, not okay, but perhaps okay enough.
It’s not okay. “
But then I went on to say, “I’m done with him,” and that’s where I think I needed to revisit Michael Jackson.
It’s important that you know that the MJ episode of the NY Times podcast Still Processing, with Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, asked the questions that needed asking of every person who came out of Leaving Neverland, went directly to their Spotify playlists, and deleted Michael Jackson.
That’s me, too, by the way. Many, many thanks to Jenna and Wesley for going deeper than anyone else I’ve heard or read so far. You changed the way I think about this… whatever this is.
If you know me at all, you know I have zero compunction about canceling people who reveal themselves to be hive-minded extraterrestrial louse colonies walking up to the Dolby stage in tuxedoed skinbags, and fooling us all.
I remain fresh out of compunction, on a personal level, and I don’t expect a fresh shipment any time soon.
It’s easy for me to “cancel” an artist and abuser like Michael Jackson because the only thing I can think about when I listen to his music is the look on the face of James Safechuck, now an adult man, who said that he will have to spend the rest of his life working on what Michael did to him. And the look on his mother’s face when she said she cheered when she found out Jackson had died. Because he wouldn’t be able to hurt any more kids.
One time I barfed after eating a whole can of Pringles. Wasn’t tough for me to quit that shit, either.
I don’t care how sick the beat is in Billie Jean. The man who made that song delivered life sentences to children. That song smells like Pringles and makes me want to barf now. It’s over. I’m out. Personally speaking.
But that doesn’t answer the broader question of what we, culturally, as a society, can do when we, culturally, as a society, find ourselves finally in the sunshine and able to see what the fuck has been going on under our decidedly closed eyes this whole time. Even though a society is made up of individuals making individual choices, we also have a responsibility to each other to engage in system-level conversations about the issues that (sorry) touch all of our lives, sometimes in ways that leave marks.
Culturally, Michael Jackson is too big to fail. He is. He just is. I wish it weren’t the case. But it is. The man was a fucking culture machine. He drove the rig that poured the foundation for modern music, dance, and celebrity. We’re standing on him right the fuck now.
I make a habit of dealing in fucking realities. It’s the only way to live, baby. Why do I want to pretend that MJ’s legacy can, or should, be deleted, as if that’s the end of it?
Buster, who is 4, has a rather elaborate nightly bedtime wish list. It used to be, “hug and a kiss, then good-night.” Then it grew. And grew. And grew. And now, every night, I go in to turn out his lights looking down the barrel of: “Hug, kiss, idea, back scratch, snuggle, back tickle, buttwhumpus, tiger kiss, good night.”
Lately, he’s been making a significant change to the routine.
After his hug and kiss, I ask him, “What’s your idea?”
He used to say, “Mom, I think I’d like to sign up for karate,” or “Mom, remember that dead bird we found in the snow? I’m sad about that bird.” But the last month or so, when I ask him for his idea, he corrects me.
“Mom, my idea is a question.”
I don’t have any more ideas. I have questions.
I don’t care how many of us delete him from our playlists; are we going to cancel the artists whom he inspired, or who inspired him? Which is, honestly, MOST OF THEM? (Listen to that Still Processing podcast episode for a partial but outstanding list!)
Are we going to cancel the movies that used his music - too many for me to even think about, from 13 Going on 30 to Despicable Me 3 to Rush Hour 2? What about the opening scene in Now & Then when Rita Wilson lip syncs to “I’ll Be There”? Canceled?
You can, personally, if they hurt you. I am not planning to watch them anytime soon. I won’t judge.
On the other hand, culturally, it’s dangerous for all of us to agree to say “What a monster! Quick, turn away, turn him off, delete him, cancel him. From now on, he never, ever happened.”
But he did happen. And more importantly, people like him are still happening.
I have so many questions.
If we don’t ask those questions, those of us who are able to do that on some kind of platform and without triggering deep personal pain, are we not acting as the Sarah Huckabee Sanderses (or is it Sarah Huckabees Sanders?) of Michael Jackson’s behavior?
Look, when it comes to sexual violence, silence hasn’t worked yet.
Jackson silenced the boys because he wanted to avoid shame and consequences; if we silence him, even after his death, someone is going to need to make a strong argument that we aren’t simply doing the same thing to avoid our own shame and consequences.
Silencing him also silences what he did. If we cancel Michael Jackson, we will stop talking about him because it hurts now. But if we stop talking about him, we will stop talking about what he did to those children, which deserves our fucking rapt attention.
I have so many questions.
What will the musical artists who have been influenced by his style, some more deeply than others, do now? Will Bruno Mars’ next album be 1970’s German electronic krautrock in the style of Kraftwerk? Will The Weeknd learn to sing again with private lessons from Ja Rule’s voice coach?
Is this stylistic proximity a problem felt by actors who might resemble now notorious abusers? Does Kevin Spacey’s stand-in have a hard time getting a gig?
I doubt it, at least for the artists who have fan bases. Kevin Spacey’s stand-in might be fucked.
But follow-up question: Is it fair to ask artists to disassemble their creative origin stories? Why, so we can all continue to agree to pretend that Michael Jackson never existed?
But he did.
We simply do not treat the problem of power-based sexual violence as if it’s a cancer.
We treat it like it’s a mole.
Whoops, there’s another one. Quick, get rid of it!
Whew. I feel better.
(We’re not better.)
I get it. Nobody wants cancer. Not when you can just cut off a piddly little mole. No matter how long it’s been there. No matter how many years of your life it was part of you. I danced with my best friend at my wedding. Ask me what was playing. Ask me how we danced. Ask me where we learned to express our joy just that way.
Can the tremendous pain of these survivors really be solutionless? Fucking… no. I refuse to accept it. There must be a solution.
So I rush to remove not the harm, but the reminders of the harm, mistaking the removal of visible pain for some kind of justice. I cut off my flow of pennies to known shitbirds, because I can and because the idea of paying them is ethically unbearable.
Personally, that’s my choice to make. Socially, it’s a start. Culturally, “stop paying them” is the capitalist equivalent of “problematic".” It acknowledges that there is a problem, and hopes that’s enough.
But how many non-famous people hurt children? How many neighbors who’ve never even asked you for a cup of sugar, much less to buy a copy of their book, album, or movie?
So money isn’t it. Silence isn’t it. What’s it? What’s to be done when the problem is rooted in something that is too big to fail?
Buster, who is 4, says, “Mom, my idea is a question.”
What if, instead of trying to have ideas, we had questions.
What if I stopped trying to have ideas, the beginnings of solutions, for problems that are solutionless: infinite, alive, and evolving even as I type these words?
What if we accepted that pain is solutionless? That, as James Safechuck said, we will all be grappling with this pain for the rest of our lives?
What if we all agreed to recognize that the issue isn’t a mole, but a cancer, and that cancer is power, which no one will surrender bloodlessly? And that the cancer is in our fucking blood and bones, and that the treatment will hurt as much as it helps?
This is a time for questions, not ideas. It’s time for James Safechuck and Wade Robson to have space to speak the truth, and to ask the questions that need to be asked of all of us.
That’s me, too.
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