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Michael Jackson's legacy 15 years later

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

It's been 15 years since the death of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. His music is singular, with blockbuster hits like "Thriller"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRILLER")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) 'Cause this is thriller, thriller night.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: ...And "Billie Jean."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLIE JEAN")

JACKSON: (Singing) Billie Jean is not my lover. She's just a girl...

FLORIDO: Jackson was and remains one of the world's biggest stars, but to some people, Jackson was a monster. He was accused of sexually abusing children. The allegations followed him for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LEAVING NEVERLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's no thoughts of this is wrong or anything like that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He told me if they ever found out what we were doing, he and I would go to jail for the rest of our lives.

FLORIDO: That's a clip of the trailer for the 2019 HBO doc series "Leaving Neverland," in which two men alleged Jackson sexually abused them when they were children. His estate denies these allegations. And the only time he faced criminal prosecution for alleged sexual abuse of a minor, he was acquitted of all charges. Today the question of how to reconcile Jackson's musical genius with his alleged misconduct is still a fraught one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JAY SMOOTH: Growing up in Harlem, listening to him with my cousins is connected to so many memories and relationships in my life.

FLORIDO: That's hip-hop commentator Jay Smooth, speaking with NPR last year. He's co-host of the podcast "Think Twice: Michael Jackson."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SMOOTH: And yet at the same time, over the course of Michael's life and career, I came to see him in many ways as this sort of heartbreaking, tragic figure and someone who may well have done awful things to others. And that remains really unsettled for me, what to do with all of that.

FLORIDO: Despite the lingering shadow of these allegations, high-profile projects that celebrate Jackson's career have continued to pop up without necessarily addressing these controversies, like "MJ The Musical," which is currently on Broadway. The musical highlights the making of Jackson's 1992 Dangerous tour, when he was at the peak of his career. That time period also predated the first public accusations against Jackson, which came to light in 1993. So those and any other allegations against Jackson are not addressed on stage. And next spring, there's a biopic starring Jackson's own nephew, Jaafar. Jackson's estate has been heavily involved in the film. Several executors are listed as producers. And Neverland Ranch, Jackson's infamous former home where alleged child sexual abuse occurred, is going to be a major filming location. It remains to be seen how the film will address Jackson's tumultuous career.

Here to reflect on Michael Jackson's legacy are NPR's Eric Deggans and NPR's Ann Powers. Hi, Eric. Hi, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey. How are you doing?

DEGGANS: Hey.

POWERS: Good to talk.

FLORIDO: Good to have you here. Thanks so much. I want to start by hearing from each of you about your relationship to Michael Jackson's music growing up and throughout your life. Ann, do you want to start?

POWERS: Well, the first album I ever bought was a Jackson 5 album. So really, Michael Jackson has been a constant in my listening life for - you know, for my whole life. But at the same time, I was in Los Angeles working for the LA Times when he passed away. I saw all of the mourning that happened, but also every controversy that arose and, you know, have been acutely aware of, you know, the issues that have surrounded him. So I have to say I've had a troubled fanship or troubled appreciation with him for many, many years now. And I've thought a lot about what it means to love the music and the art of someone who makes you question their place in history.

FLORIDO: Eric, what about you? Growing up, what was your relationship with Michael Jackson?

DEGGANS: So I'll apologize for this being a little long. But I grew up in Gary, Ind. My grandmother lived about five blocks away from where the Jacksons lived when they were in Gary. Now, they moved to LA when I was about 6 years old, so I didn't really know any of them. But I felt like Michael Jackson was an avatar for me when I was growing up because he was living the life that I kind of wanted to have. You know, I wanted to become a performer and eventually became a musician. And so I would do Michael Jackson impersonations for my family at Christmas time and things like that, you know, back in the day, back when I was little, when I was, say, 10 years old. So he was very much an inspiration.

And then cut to - I'm in college in the '80s, and I form a band called The Voyage Band at Indiana University, and we get signed to Motown. And so I'm a professional musician. And we were all very inspired by "Off The Wall," his, you know, solo record, and then "Thriller" - the production of it, the songwriting of it and, of course, the success of it.

And then cut to when he gets older and these molestation allegations. I was a pop music critic for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. And then, of course, when he died, I helped cover that as well. So I've seen him as a pop music critic. I've seen him as a musician. And I've seen him as a fan. And I think a lot of people have had that kind of long-standing experience with him where he was the soundtrack of their youth or he was the soundtrack of their lives. And then all of a sudden, towards the end of his life, we get these, you know, really serious allegations that make us all think twice about all the things that we thought we knew about him.

FLORIDO: It's been 15 years since Michael Jackson died now, and these new projects keep popping up, pretty high-profile ones, including a Broadway musical, a biopic. Do you think it's fair to say that the passage of this time has sort of tilted in Jackson's favor and that his legacy is actually being expanded to a new generation?

POWERS: I do, and I think that's partly because the music is so undeniable. Its influence remains so great. And this isn't so much about the singularity of his genius as a performer. It's about what Eric was saying. You know, "Thriller" alone changed music, and R&B, it's still using that template.

DEGGANS: Yeah. And I would also say that Michael Jackson formed the template for the modern pop star - you know, what Taylor Swift is doing now in terms of being expected to be the main songwriter and the lead singer and the person in control of her career and the guiding force for all of these gigantic, massive records - and the expectation that that success would continue on. You know, he had a creative vision and voice that was different. So that's what's so singular about him. And, of course, we're returning to it because we're at this point where we're looking back at a lot of stuff that was important to us in the '80s and the '90s with many decades of sort of understanding and context.

POWERS: One example would be that documentary "The Greatest Night In Pop" that everybody's been watching lately on Netflix. In that documentary, we see how Michael basically wrote "We Are The World" - not only that, but stands around in the studio watching all these massive stars flub it or not do that well, you know? I mean, those images have eclipsed the more disturbing images in the public consciousness at this time.

FLORIDO: Why do you think there is less stigma on Michael Jackson than on, say, celebrities like R. Kelly or Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein, these other men who have, in some ways, been, you know, sort of excised from our popular culture? Is he just too beloved, too huge, to embedded in our cultural DNA to be totally canceled?

POWERS: I mean, the march of time is one thing as these other stories have accrued. And today we're dealing with another very upsetting story involving Diddy. As they accrue. Our memories can only hold so much, I think, you know? And then all kinds of things can happen - rationalization, forgetfulness, that temptation to contextualize - oh, everyone was doing that. But what I think is missing is a sense of the larger system that created this troubled soul in many ways and also gave him carte blanche to do so many things.

DEGGANS: I think it's important to note that Michael Jackson is dead.

POWERS: Yes. Yes.

DEGGANS: And that is a big difference between all the other people that you mentioned, where there's not a living person to be made to be held accountable...

POWERS: Right, to be jailed or whatever, right?

DEGGANS: To be jailed, to - or - and there's not a living person who will profit if you keep listening to their records or you keep, you know, patronizing projects that are associated with their legacy. But I would also say the allegations against Michael Jackson hit the courts when we had a very different outlook on these kinds of allegations involving sex and abuse and molestation against celebrities. And I think the - one thing the #MeToo movement has done that's really amazing is it has pushed us to listen to the victims more, to be more exacting about saying, if there's multiple people who say someone was abusive, we really have to dig into this, no matter how powerful they are.

And so I think the big distinction between Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly and Michael Jackson is that the allegations against these men who are now being held accountable came much later. And we, as a public, are much more willing to hold them accountable, despite their celebrities, despite their influence, despite how much people might love their work. And that wasn't necessarily the case in the 1990s.

POWERS: That's definitely true. You know, it's funny. I was looking back at something I wrote in the very early days when these allegations first arose. And I myself said Michael Jackson was just human, and humans aren't perfect. The dialogue around this has really evolved, thank goodness, to, you know, wash away that tendency to excuse, to accept alleged wrongdoing simply because someone is a celebrity.

FLORIDO: Yeah. I mean, the public's view of him evolved significantly during his life, and his legacy has continued to evolve since his death. Do you think that his legacy is going to continue evolving going forward?

POWERS: Oh, do you want to take that one first, Eric? (Laughter).

DEGGANS: Sure, sure.

POWERS: Yeah, you...

DEGGANS: Absolutely. I think it will because he had a seismic impact on music, but he also had a seismic impact on fame and what it can do to you. And how do you survive it or not survive it? I mean, the other part of his story is we see his face change. We see him apparently go through all these operations to alter his appearance and lighten his skin tone and change what his nose looks like. You know, obviously fame, the tremendous amount of fame that he earned in the wake of particularly the success of "Thriller," but the fact that he had been world famous since he was a little kid obviously was a burden for him.

And the way he died, even, you know, taking propofol to sleep and having, you know, a horrific accident with that lead to his death, you know, gives you the sense that not only is he someone who had a great effect on music, but his personal life was a cautionary tale about the ravages of fame. I think that's another thing that's different about this moment, is that we look at celebrities like Taylor Swift and we understand that as fans in the public, we almost have a duty to be careful about how we worship these people and about how much we expect of them. And so I think we're processing all of that in a different way now than we did even five or six years ago.

POWERS: Eric, I feel that you are being the optimist in this conversation. I think that's all true. We do have more tools to understand fame, and there is more public discourse around the costs of fame, but at the same time, look at the entertainment industry now, and particularly the music industry. So many of our pop stars start their careers in childhood. You know, so many of them are clearly suffering from struggles with mental health. I'll just mention that Chappell Roan, an amazing new pop star whom I love, recently broke down in public, saying, this has all happened so fast. I have no tools. I can't deal with this. The machine is still cutting off limbs, costing lives.

And what I would hope the ultimate legacy of not Michael Jackson's music - the ultimate legacy of Michael Jackson's music is genius. It's beauty. It should be preserved. But the legacy of his personal story should be an ongoing assessment of the star-making machinery that costs the people whom we supposedly love their humanity sometimes, their lives, even.

FLORIDO: Well, I've been speaking with NPR's Eric Deggans and Ann Powers about the legacy of Michael Jackson 15 years after his death. Thanks to you both.

POWERS: Thank you so much.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.