America loves its celebrities, so when one betrays their image, it can prove a bitter pill to swallow. The legacy of pop titan Michael Jackson has been tarnished for some time due to many allegations of child sexual abuse, but for a long time, these like many other scandals, were forgotten. That has all changed since Leaving Neverland. Now, not only are Jackson’s apparent victims begin given a greater audience, but it also seems that the King of Pop is being stripped of his as radio and TV stations are removing him from their venues. Some have said Jackson and his art cannot be separated.
Jackson’s public image had already taken its share of hits, due in large part to his own bizarre behavior, as well as a slew of accusations of his inappropriate behavior towards children. Like so many before him, Jackson managed to skate through on his stardom. Things are different now in the era of #MeToo. Following the shocking allegations made in Leaving Neverland, many radio stations, such as those in New Zealand and Canada, have stopped airing Jackson’s music. Even in the United States, certain notable works such as his guest appearance on The Simpsons, have been removed from circulation.
The general feeling is that Jackson’s alleged crimes cannot be separated from his entertainment empire. Wouldn’t celebrating the achievements of horrible people be turning a blind eye to their crimes? Along with that, many have come to Jackson’s defence, saying that it would be impossible for a horrible person to create the music that enthralled the public in the 80s. Who is right? The simple answer is neither camp is right. Nobody could explain this better than Roland Barthes in his essay known as Death of the Author.
Death of the Author or La mort de l’auteur is the name of a 1967 theoretical essay by French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. In this essay, Barthes discouraged the common practice of interpreting art according to the biography or intentions of the artist.
Criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.
Instead argued that a piece of art should be viewed as largely unrelated to its creator. He argued that it was the interpretation of the viewer rather than an author’s intentions that gave a piece its power.
The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.
This essay’s philosophy not only helps open a text to greater interpretation than most contemporary criticism allows, but it also reconciles the often unpleasant nature of celebrity. Sometimes great art is made by horrible people. Death of the Author offers a good argument as to why that doesn’t matter and criticizes the nature of celebrity.
Western culture has an often obsessive and unhealthy fixation on celebrities, where people feel the need to love a person along with their art. I won’t lie. It’s something I’ve been guilty of. People of my generation fell in love with the image of Michael Jackson. The music he sang and his ability to deliver a lively and exciting performance enthralled the public in a way we hadn’t been perhaps since the British Invasion. So naturally, we wanted to love the man behind it. According to Barthe’s logic, it’s the performance, rather than the person, that should be revered.
Nevertheless, the feeling about this phenomenon has been variable; in primitive societies, narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose “performance” may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his “genius.”
The allegations against Jackson are nothing new in the arts. There are many great works that were done by not so great people. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are both talented filmmakers, but both have been accused of molesting children. Polanski himself was convicted of having sex with a minor, a crime for which he fled the United States and became a fugitive from justice since the 1970s. However, the films of Allen and Polanski have not been removed from circulation. In fact, Polanksi’s Chinatown is itself a condemnation of the very kind of crime for which he was convicted. Does that invalidate the film, or is Polanksi irrelevant? Just because I love Chinatown doesn’t mean I have to love Polanski along with it.
We love to think of Sean Connery as a sophisticated gentleman, but what of his abuses against his ex-wives and girlfriends? The writings of Lovecraft continue to provoke and astonish, but what about Lovecraft’s white supremacist beliefs? Alfred Hitchcock set a gold standard for cinema, but how long before the stories of his treatment of Tippi Hedren start to make us uneasy? So many wonderful works of art tied to so many not so wonderful people. Should we erase everything they’ve done from history? If every author’s sin condemned a work to destruction, how much cultural wealth would we lose?
But that doesn’t mean we should ignore what is ugly. I have not discussed my opinion on what Jackson has been accused of. I certainly don’t want to believe he’s guilty, but Leaving Neverland is only the latest in a string of disturbing allegations. Even removing all the suspicions of Jackson’s behavior towards children, there is plenty more about the man that painted a picture of a deeply disturbed individual. Given the often erratic and bizarre public behavior in his later years, it’s not too hard to imagine others were hurt along the way.
It can be hard to imagine what Michael Jackson was to people of my generation. When I was a child, MJ set the gold standard for being a star. He was a man who seemed young at heart, and so he appealed to the young. But the image I grew up with is just that. An image. And that goes not just for him, but for every author for every work of art we’ve ever enjoyed. Some artists live up to that image, but the vast majority always fall short. Jackson isn’t the first artist to have that image called into question, and he certainly won’t be the last. Still, when it comes to the work itself, the sins of the parent shouldn’t matter. But that’s a double-edged sword. Just because an art is great, doesn’t mean a person is. Even if we enjoy a work of art, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t face some often unpleasant or even horrifying things about those behind it.
Even if we revere Michael Jackson the myth, we shouldn’t be afraid to condemn Michael Jackson the man.
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