Canceling Michael and Woody by
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At a pre-COVID wedding, the DJ played the obligatory Michael Jackson songs. My first reaction after having seen the Leaving Neverland documentary was to tell my husband, “I can’t believe they’re playing his music.” Truth be told, when Billie Jean came on I really wanted to dance. Is it still acceptable to dance to the music of a pedophile? Probably not, but his music was amazing.

Jackson Five

Michael Jackson’s actions were so unforgivable that I cringe when I hear his music. But now that he’s gone, is it okay to dance? I’m not sure.

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Beat It, Bad, Man in the Mirror, Thriller, Black or White, and those Jackson Five favorites Never Can Say Goodbye, I’ll Be There, I Want You Back, and ABC (the ones my grandkids loved when they were young) — all cancelled and yet somehow embedded in my dancing shoes. Do we blame Michael for the songs he sang with his brothers at age five? In 1972, Congress awarded a special commendation to the Jackson Five for being positive role models when Michael was 14. Is it okay to admire his solo music dating back to then? At what point does his music die?

Then there’s Woody Allen. I must confess to having laughed through Bananas, Sleeper, Take the Money and Run, Love and Death, and Zelig. And who can forget Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, Hannah and her Sisters, and Manhattan. After watching the documentary Allen v. Farrow, however, I look at his works through a different lens. Woody romancing the 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway in 1979’s Manhattan is too close for comfort to his affair with Farrow’s daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, when she was in college and his suspected molestation of Dylan Farrow when she was seven.

Separating the art from the artist is a tricky proposition. For some reason, it is much easier for me to do with performing artists than with great painters and composers. When I was married in August, 1968, I was 23 years-old and rather naïve. In that era, most brides still made their entrance to Here Comes the Bride from Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. That was my vision. No one consulted me in advance about the music for the ceremony, so I was surprised when my father made a feeble, last-minute effort to tell me that this choice was not appropriate for a Jewish wedding. He neglected to explain that Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings made him a favorite of Hitler. So, I won that battle, but looking back, I wonder what I would have done if I had known. Would I have given up my dream of walking down the aisle to this music or would I have cancelled Wagner?

Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens raised some thought-provoking questions about whether we can enjoy and appreciate art created by an artist whose behavior is reprehensible. She writes about the current trend in which we are “… debating whether we can enjoy, or even abide, the works of deeply flawed humans. The comedy of Louis C.K. The films of Woody Allen. The full canon of Harvey Weinstein.”

Stevens warns of the “slippery slope of excising artists whose private lives we abhor. What about Picasso? What about Wagner? What about Jerry Lee Lewis? Am I no longer allowed to enjoy Million Dollar Quartet?”

If I refuse to dance to Michael Jackson or support Woody Allen by watching one of his movies, where does it end for me? I can easily skip Kevin Spacey’s work. I would not watch Cosby show reruns. Yet I am troubled by Norton’s decision not to continuing to publish the Blake Bailey biography of Philip Roth because Bailey was accused of assaulting two women. Of course, Skyhorse Publishing picked up that book. When Woody Allen’s biography was dropped by its original publisher, he soon found another one. I have decided not to buy it, as I don’t want to contribute a penny to Woody’s income, but I’m not comfortable with a publisher telling me what I should not read. Is that not my decision to make?

Perhaps that makes me a hypocrite, but it is hard to know where to draw the line. In a music class I am taking via zoom, this week’s topic was performances by great tenors. The lecturer showed YouTube videos of Enrique Caruso, who fathered many children out of wedlock, and Placido Domingo, who was accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual advances to younger women. He did give a trigger warning but I listened because their music was beautiful.

For me, the issue is the nature of the crime and whether my support of the artists will profit them. I will not watch the works of Woody Allen and some of his fellow artists like Roman Polanski because their actions were criminal and I do not want to contribute to their income. Michael Jackson’s actions were so unforgivable that I cringe when I hear his music. But now that he’s gone, is it okay to dance? I’m not sure.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real, join my Facebook community, and visit my website.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. All well-said Laurie, and this slippery slope question well laid-out. I seemed to have missed allegations about Jerry Lee Lewis but I’ve seen Million Dollar Quartet on Bway and regionally, and would hate to have missed that!

    What a thought-provoking prompt this is!
    And Wagner be damned, you look heavenly in your wedding dress!

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Laurie, you very nicely set out the dilemma that all of us (thoughtful) people have. And, not surprisingly, your focus is on artists whom the other Retro writers have also addresed –and struggled with.

    I fully agree with this ambivalence you so well express in your last paragraph. We are all trying so hard not to be hypocrites and to draw clear lines in the sand. But it’s (so) complicated……

    • Laurie Levy says:

      It is complicated, John. And reading other stories I can see that we all have our own lines that we personally choose not to cross. We can all agree to disagree about individual artists, or even the cocnept of boycotting any artists at all.

  3. Your tale, like others I have read so far, bespeaks a sensitive approach to the issue. This prompt has been particularly productive of good stories, which probably is not surprising. But I’ll pick this nit: raising the question intimates that there is a “norm”, a right answer for us as a general matter. There isn’t. We each get to choose on a case by case basis. And there is no need for consistency in our choices, I believe. That would be the prototypical foolish consistency. Well done.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I agree, Tom, that there is no right answer. I was speaking for myself and reflecting my own inconsistent impulses and reactions. As we are seeing, each writer has their own views and preferences.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    We do “speak” with our wallets, Laurie, so by not buying tickets to a movie, or purchasing a book, we express our outrage for the behavior of the person in question. Once that person is deceased, the question takes on a different tone. Yes, Wagner was an anti-Semite, and was Hitler’s favorite, but is Wagner around to feel the sting of our outrage? Are his heirs still getting royalties for his music? So who gets hurt when we don’t play his music? We can feel virtuous, and that is something, but is it everything? I don’t have the answers. As Tom points out, these are complicated questions, but these are some of the questions I grapple with.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      You raise good points here, Betsy. For artists who are long-gone, what difference does my personal boycott make? Even with Michael Jackson, if his children benefit from the sale of his music, is that such a bad thing?

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    So glad you included the wedding picture! I didn’t realize the “Wedding March” was Wagner either. When my sister was choosing entrance music for her wedding, the planner suggested “Fanfare”. She turned it down because she said she refused to get married to the strains of “Masterpiece Theater”. The choices we make are so personal, and based on associations with our values. Probably good to examine them and be aware, but give ourselves some slack.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Given my age and inexperience back then, I do cut myself some slack. Perhaps that’s why, when my daughters were married, we spent lots of time together selecting the music. Of course, by in their day we were in the era of brides making entrances to Vivaldi’s Four seasons or Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. Don’t have any idea what’s popular these days.

  6. Suzy says:

    A very thoughtful story, Laurie, as yours always are. You should be a professional columnist! In general I agree with what you said, although we have different views about Woody Allen. And I love that picture of you in your wedding gown – we can’t hear the music playing, so no need to feel guilty. (Plus, Wagner didn’t make any money from your wedding, so it wasn’t as if you were encouraging him.)

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Good points on my Wagner guilt, Suzy. As many have pointed out, we all have personal feelings about this and we can agree to disagree about Woody. The more I think about it, once the artist is dead, what difference does my boycott of their art make?

  7. As you say, Laurie, it is hard to know where to draw the line…especially in the sand. Because sand shifts. When does questionable behavior become unquestionable…when a judge renders a verdict? What if someone lied? I could never be a judge…and I’m a Libra!

    Such a thought-provoking prompt!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Great analogy to shifting sands, Barb. In the future, people may cease to care about Kevin Spacey or even Bill Cosby. I’ve read many different points of view and, of course, my thinking about some of this may change. And true confession: I did dance to Billie Jean but felt a bit guilty about it later.

  8. Marian says:

    Very well presented, Laurie, and we can see your thought and feeling process, and the dilemma these issues present. I do love Michael Jackson’s music, what a difficult call that one is.

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