Tainted Legends

Can the good work of a person who’s done monstrous things be redeemed?

I’ve been hemming and hawing for the past couple of weeks about whether I should spend four hours on the couch watching Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary about Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of two boys in the mid-80s. At the moment, I’m tilting toward not watching it; for one, time is a valuable commodity these days, and should I find myself with four spare hours, I’d rather they not be spent wading through a swamp of human awfulness.

But the documentary is of the moment, for a culture still ploughing through the muck of #MeToo stories and allegations. Indeed, its subject is particularly compelling because Michael Jackson is about as big as it gets, in terms of global celebrity and cultural influence. 

Yes, I know he’s been dead for 10 years. And that he hasn’t had a charting single, for, well, at least that long. But his enduring prominence in popular culture is undeniable, and I’d say it’s for reasons more substantial than mere, vapid celebrity worship. To hear him, to see him perform – especially in that late 70s to late 80s peak – was to see a human being fully alive, bursting with culture-shaping creativity and charisma. Who was more famous in those days? Whose work had broader appeal? As a result, his work, and the man himself, is inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture. I doubt we could unravel his influence without pulling apart pieces of ourselves. 

It’s easier to renounce celebrities of lesser stature. When their misdeeds are exposed, they’re “canceled,” to borrow a term from social media, through a kind of cultural surgery, a removal of a malignant growth. They lose their jobs, concert tours are cancelled, their TV shows are pulled from streaming services, and, I suspect, with time a willful cultural amnesia will set in and they’ll be largely forgotten. That’s not the worst course of action – it’s swiftly efficient, and the least painful of the options on the table. Less complicated than some disingenuous stab at rehabilitation or dodgy attempt to gloss over major failings. And really, does anyone harbour any lingering fondness for a Matt Lauer or a Kevin Spacey or some Hollywood producer whose name we barely knew in the first place?

But what do we do with someone who’s work is part of who we are? What do we do with that work when it was indeed truly good work, work of outsize cultural influence? Dispensing with the man is one thing, especially when his body lies in the ground. But what of that body of work? Must it swirl the drain after him? All of it? Those soulful, earnest notes, sung back in 1970 by that 11-year-old kid from Gary Indiana – are they tainted too?

I suppose so. And I suppose there’s a lesson here about the nature of sin, of how it spreads, like some hideous tendril, corrupting even the very good. Of how it’s indifferent to the idea of time as some linear, forward-moving thing. It’ll corrupt our present and future, but taint the past, too. That 11-year-old’s voice doesn’t ring out as clearly as it once did.

Can the good work of a person who’s done monstrous things be redeemed? That’s the question I thought I could write my way to answering, but I’m more at a loss now than I was when I sat down. I guess it’s a question that’s even bigger than Michael Jackson, bigger than a four-hour documentary. It’s one for all of us, the inheritors of a culture handed down to us by terribly brilliant, horrifically flawed people.

Easter is coming, and with it comes a yearning that all things will be set right. Will there be playlists in the new creation with songs from Thriller or Off the Wall? If so, what transfiguration will have taken place that could make us want to sing along again? 

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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