This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
We’ve all experienced it: you’re in an elevator, restaurant lobby, or the final hour of your cousin’s wedding; and Michael Jackson’s “Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough” comes on. Your body moves like it’s under a spell, and he’s got you like a jolt of caffeine to the veins.
Can this still happen in 2019? Well, that’s a question many prior fans are still asking themselves after HBO’s Michael Jackson expose, Leaving Neverland aired to the masses—cataloguing the alleged abuse of two male victims of the artist. Thus far, it’s separated viewers between two camps: he did it, or didn’t do it.
For some who believe in the accounts of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, canceling Michael Jackson is as simple as a deletion from a playlist. But for professionals who rely on Michael’s musical awe as a form of danceable currency—particularly DJs of the wedding persuasion—the decision to delete his footprint is more complicated: Is his guilt unmistakable? Do we stop playing his music like some radio stations have? And will omitting him hurt our business? Will playing Michael Jackson piss someone off on the ‘best day of their life?’
To find out some of the answers to these questions, I sought out a few prominent DJs from the US and Canada to ask them these questions and more.
DJ’d at weddings and clubs for 8 years
So you’re at wedding and you see Michael Jackson in your playlist. How important are his joints?
Is that an honest question? It’s Michael Jackson. He’s the go-to each and every time. It’s difficult to see him as anything but that actually. In fact, aside from my wedding gigs, I played in a few clubs over the last week after Leaving Neverland, and to be honest, it was almost as if the enthusiasm for his music increased. I guess you can say, his biggest fans are probably more supportive and defiant than ever before. But if I paid attention to the crowd, I would notice a few here and there that wouldn’t dance. They’d be sitting or standing straight faced.
Do you believe he did it, and based on that, will you continue to play his music?
Do I believe he did it? It’s a complicated question. My memories of who he was won’t allow me fall completely on the guilty end of the spectrum. As a black man, it’s also another kind of difficult. He’s an idol of ours. And over the years, I have to admit that many of us have built a distrust of the media. Everytime one of our heroes fall, we’ll see who’s telling these stories or building these narratives, and it’s most often white voices. What made the R.Kelly situation different, is that it was black women speaking their truths. The space for disbelief was far smaller in our communities. So yeah, do I believe he did it? Well let’s just say I wouldn’t trust my own kids with him. Will I still play his music? It will depend on what the audience wants, but I’ll second guess myself more than I normally would.
Maren Hancock, Dialed In DJs
DJ’d for Diplo, CSS, Chromeo, Felix da Housecat, Peaches, Lady Miss Kier (Dee-lite), Stonebridge, and Keoki who has been in business for the past 20 years.
What’s your relationship with Michael Jackson’s music personally and professionally?
Michael Jackson growing up was everything. Him and Prince, I mean he was my first poster, my first crush was on Michael Jackson. He meant everything to my generation, and subsequent generations. He was a huge part of my musical soundscape. As a DJ, and I'm sure you'll hear other DJs say this, but when your floor is dying and you need to repack that floor, you play Michael Jackson. He's a real go-to for DJs. Don't Stop ‘Til You Get Enough is probably in every DJs arsenal of tracks to get people on the floor.
Leaving Neverland, has a lot of people are soul searching with what they believe. What are your thoughts?
I’ve always thought Michael Jackson abused those boys. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. I’m a feminist, and when I started DJing in the late 90s and early 2000s, I said to myself that I would end up playing music from artists that I know are problematic, like James Brown and Rick James who all abused people. I think the question for DJs now is, is it going to make our audiences uncomfortable? I made peace with it because I love funk. I’m not saying all terrible people do funk music, but honestly, Prince is the only saint. As a wedding DJ however, I won’t play them right now, especially around survivors of abuse. It’s triggering.
So where do you draw the line?
I put in hours last night, it was wild. It went from 2am to 7am, and everyone was doing drugs. I don’t think a single person gave a fuck about Michael Jackson. With weddings, it’s different. I wouldn’t play him unless my clients asked me to. Depending on the climate a year from now, I might start asking my clients if they’re actually cool with Michael Jackson. But still, won’t play a song that’s overtly misogynous or racist of any kind. I won’t play “A Bitch Iz A Bitch” from NWA for example, or anything homophobic. But the bottom line is, I love many of the songs I won’t play. Hell, I’m still going to listen to Michael at home, and I’m still going to dance to him. I still love him and Rick James so much. There’s no way I can have a life without those two in it. I’m sorry. I’ll just do it in my house.
Do you believe we can cancel a person like Michael Jackson out?
Yes, because we've been doing it with other artists, with actors like Kevin Spacey and I agree with you, but I just can't see Michael Jackson get taken down as this singular monster. I just see him as a whole fabric of society that promotes oppression. It's because we live in a white supremacist, heterosexual patriarchy, it's rack, and it's wack, and everyone gets fucked up by it. (laughs) I think we've always done that. Though I don't think we should publicly celebrate him any longer. We need to really look at how our culture aids and embeds abusers.
What do believe professionals and fans alike should take away from revelations?
That we really need to believe survivors. I think where there's smoke there's fire. It always seemed very possible to me that the accusations and charges were true. It's really sad but I hope this provokes some discussion like the one we're currently having about child abuse, oppression and how we let powerful people get away with it because they're powerful. We're a society of enablers.
Rod McMahon, Maximum Music DJ Service
DJ’d at weddings for over 30 years.
What’s your stance on playing music from artists made controversial like Michael Jackson?
For us, it’s pretty unanimous that unless requested specifically by a client, paying the bill, that R.Kelly for example is a no go. Ignition and Step in the Name of Love are great songs, but it’s easy to pass them over at events. Michael Jackson, however, was not found guilty, so there’s more speculation around his guilt and innocence. That makes Michael, like so many celebrities, is a bit of an oddity and it seems with many mega stars they have strange ways of dealing with fame, being genuine to who they really are and not getting into negative publicity. Think Chris Brown and Rihanna abuse scenario. It’s something we often have to consider with our music choices.
Does it affect the business in any way when you have to omit music from an artist with such a beloved catalogue?
We do about 400 weddings in Toronto a year, and we aren’t going to be making any decisions on Michael’s music. It’s up to each individual DJ at this point. Like R.Kelly, there are a ton of great Michael Jackson songs that would be great for a dance party, but won’t cause a party to flop for simply having them absent. We have a ton of other music in our toolbox.
DJ'd at weddings for over 10 years, averaging up to 45 gigs a year
How integral is Michael Jackson’s music to your profession?
Michael Jackson is a staple standard. He’s at every single wedding pretty much. If I threw in a number, I’d say about 8 out of 10 weddings want Michael Jackson playing in the background.
So did you see Leaving Neverland ? And on a personal note, how do you feel about Michael Jackson at this point?
On a legal note, Michael Jackson hasn’t been convicted, so the allegations are just that. At the end of the day, in my opinion, there’s been some personal vendetta by Wade Robson with the Jackson estate. He has a bit of an insatiable appetite for fame. But what I did notice though, is that when an accuser gets outed, there’s a domino effect. It’s rarely isolated because they don’t simply do it once or twice, it’s an appetite. Michael had ample opportunities to sexually assault kids, so you’d expect to see this same domino effect of 10 or 20 accusers coming out, telling their own stories. In Jackson’s case however, several kids claimed that nothing happened. So I’m not here to judge, but at the end of the day, you’d think there would be far more accusers. It’s just not happening.
So I’m guessing you’d have no issues playing his music from here on out?
When it comes to wedding DJing, I’m always under the philosophy that it’s the wedding’s party. Having said that, I encourage grooms and brides to create lists of music they want to hear, and that includes no fly playlists for what they don’t. Most recently, I did a wedding, and one of the requests was to not play R.Kelly or Chris Brown. I didn’t question it. I don’t care.
So assuming he did it, do you feel like you’d be able to separate the art from the man?
The way I personally see it, everyone is a sinner in one way or another. If crimes required moral bans, we’d ban Tupac by now. He was convicted of sexual assault and served time. No one is out here saying you can’t play Tupac, Lil Wayne or Chuck Berry because he had sex with a 13 year old. From a DJ perspective, to me, we aren't artists, especially wedding DJs. You're playing other people's music. Whether you like it or not, that's not artistry, you're just a party conductor in a sense. But from my point of view, let's put it this way. If I saw Michael do it myself, there would be a problem with that. I wouldn't be able to separate the two because you know who it is.
10 year wedding DJ in Toronto.
What’s your view of playing Michael Jackson’s music every all revelations from Leaving Neverland.
I know of someone that was abused by an elder, so at this point, I’m going to make the decision to just not play his music. It may affect my gigs a bit, but in my eyes, if some of us don’t take a stand as professionals, we’re kind of enabling him. That’s just my opinion.
I’m guessing you believe he did what many are saying he did.
Of course I do. I don’t see why these two guys after so many years would have a reason to lie. There’s a lot more they can lose, and when you match that up with all the previous accusations, and completely weird behaviour on behalf of Michael. I don’t know why it’s such a stretch of the imagination to believe that he did it versus his innocence. I’m sorry, I just believe them.
Professionally, just how much may it hurt?
It’s going to hurt. I don’t think I’ve ever DJd at a function where a Michael Jackson song didn’t keep the party going. There are certain songs that you’ll play that even the stiffest guy will move to, and “Thriller” to “Don’t Stop Til You Had Enough” kill it each time. But on a personal level, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where I won’t be able to morally play a song of his, where my entire body being used to moving to his tunes won’t react in some way. I’ll admit, it’s going to take some time before I can shut him out completely.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.