In March 2019, as Leaving Neverland, about Michael Jackson, was about to come out, the Irish Independent rang me. They asked if I could address how wrongdoing by an artist, especially sexual crime, could or should affect our enjoyment or appreciation of their work. I first thought: I can’t add anything. We’d been thinking about this since the 1970s. And I was in clinic and super-busy. So I said no. Fifteen minutes later I called back. Julia Jacklin’s extraordinary Crushing was just out, and I’d figured out how to get a mention of the record into a popular Irish paper. So I wrote the below. I interviewed Julia Jacklin a couple of weeks later. Julia’s 2022 album, Pre Pleasure, is also brilliant. The Indo used pictures of Michael Jackson in the printed paper and online here. I understand why, but I’ve stuck to videos and pics of the people on the other side of this.
Niall Crumlish: ‘Don’t listen to predatory artists’ music – hear the survivors’ stories instead‘. Irish Independent, March 9th, 2019.
Leaving Neverland was the kind of film you cannot ever unsee. In the four-hour documentary, Wade Robson and James Safechuck described being groomed and sexually assaulted by Michael Jackson. They did so in excruciating and incriminating detail. Safechuck said that Jackson took him on the Bad tour and initiated sexual contact with him in June 1988 when he was 10. It is jarring to remember the worshipful welcome Jackson received in Ireland a month later when he played Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
I felt viscerally angry watching these men, still young, describe the egregious abuse of trust and absolute power perpetrated by Michael Jackson and his enablers. I thought of all the people I meet in my work as a psychiatrist who experienced rape as children. I came away from Leaving Neverland feeling that Jackson must finally be made a pariah, and that his work must be expunged from the record. I didn’t want my kids hearing Thriller. Radio stations around the world have already taken Jackson off their playlists and some stations that did not remove him have felt compelled to explain why not.
A central question here is: Does monstrous behaviour by an artist render his work toxic too? The culture at large is confused on this matter and the response partly depends on how long ago the alleged crimes were committed.
In 1977, Roman Polanski was charged with the rape of a 13-year-old girl, Samantha Geimer. He fled the USA to evade justice and continued to work. He won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2003, in absentia, and the Oscars audience erupted into a standing ovation. His victory was announced by Harrison Ford, of The Fugitive, in a possibly unintended irony. Woody Allen, too, continues to make film after film despite longstanding allegations of child abuse, and he won a lifetime achievement Golden Globe award in 2014.
Then there are the myriad accounts of sexual predation of underage girls like Lori Maddox by 1970s rock stars. Far from being erased from history, those men remain some of the most revered names in music. A reckoning with those times must, surely, be coming.
Artists exposed as predators more recently have faced consequences.
The singer Ryan Adams and the comedian Louis CK have both had to take time away after each was accused of sexual misconduct and abuse of power in respective New York Times stories. Adams has denied the allegations, while CK has half-apologised. The Louis CK story was huge news in November 2017, but within six months he was venturing back on stage. So it remains to be seen how enduring the consequences for sexual misconduct are even now, and how much of a deterrent the #MeToo movement will be.
Why is it even a question that we reject the work of men who behave despicably? Why is it not the most obvious thing in the world? Maybe because it’s hard to do.
For instance, I loved Louis CK’s show, Louie, which he starred in, wrote and directed. I identified strongly with the title character, a frequently perplexed father. When I first read the allegations about CK, I prayed there was some awful misunderstanding. Likewise, I watched Woody Allen’s Annie Hall a hundred times in my twenties. It was a blueprint for the romantic, wisecracking life I longed to lead.
What I’m saying is that these works of art do ingrain themselves in you and rejecting them can feel like betraying an important part of yourself. But we don’t have Louis CK or Woody Allen in our house any more.
More broadly, there is the problem of how a culture abandons art that is everywhere. The hosts of a New York Times podcast on Leaving Neverland said Jackson’s music is in the culture “at a molecular level”. They said “You can’t unbake that cake”. But that is a problem of logistics, not ethics, and I’m not sure that response is enough.
I think the culture should do everything it can to turn away from Jackson and other predators. Opposition to sexual violence is too important to be a secondary consideration. If we decide we reject sexual predators in the arts, we’ll find a way to implement that rejection. My kids have already heard Thriller, of course, but maybe their kids will not.
And it’s not enough to turn away from these people. We can make choices about who we turn to.
An Australian singer, Julia Jacklin, has a brilliant song, ‘Body’, which recounts a threat of sexual violence looming over the end of a bad relationship. ‘Body’ closes with a sobering repetition of a couplet that could easily apply to any victim of emotional, physical or sexual abuse: “Well I guess it’s just my life / And it’s just my body.” The way she sings those lines is so resigned that it is enraging: it tells you that the culture that produces the song tolerates this behaviour.
I propose we use what we can, including our cultural choices, to ensure that women now and in future don’t have to sing songs about their bodies being the property of careless men. I propose we cease agonising over whether to keep listening to predatory artists. We can just let go. Perhaps listen instead to the people who survive their predation.
They might have important things to tell us.
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