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Where Is Michael Jackson’s Legacy 10 Years After His Death?

By Lauren Herstik and Elizabeth A. Harris

 
 

There were fedoras and single white gloves and sequinned military jackets. There was lots of moonwalking. Four people danced the choreography of “Smooth Criminal” in perfect sync.

Five dozen Michael Jackson superfans from around the world had come to a gaming arcade on Hollywood Boulevard on Monday, the beginning of two days of dancing, singing and prayers in honour of their hero.

Some remembered singing “A-B-C-1-2-3” as children; others listened to “Thriller” well into their 50s and 60s, but the one who stole the show was just an infant when Jackson died: a 10-year-old boy named Rudey Parra who glided across the arcade floor in his loafers and white glove, a flawless re-creation of moves he’d studied on YouTube. Another dancer, Gowardy Horton, 38, gave Rudey his fedora, crowning him the party’s reigning Michael.

Andrew CullenPeggy Wolf, centre, who runs a Michael Jackson dance troupe in Graz, Austria, with Sekou Barrow, left, and Tanisha Woods, right, at a gathering with two days of dancing, singing and prayers in honour of their hero.
Peggy Wolf, centre, who runs a Michael Jackson dance troupe in Graz, Austria, with Sekou Barrow, left, and Tanisha Woods, right, at a gathering with two days of dancing, singing and prayers in honour of their hero.

On Tuesday, the 10th anniversary of his death, millions of Jackson’s fans and casual listeners recalled where they were when they heard or saw the news. Jackson’s death at age 50, from an overdose of drugs he had been administered to help him sleep, was a generational moment of shock. It also allowed a conflicted public to put off dealing with the uncomfortable rumours about his behaviour with children.

But the anniversary came just months after the airing of the HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” in which two men, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, described years of sexual abuse at Jackson’s hands, beginning when they were as young as 7. Jackson had been acquitted in 2005 of charges he molested a different boy, but the fresh accounts from the two men, at a time of heightened awareness of sexual abuse, made many wonder whether Jackson’s legacy would be tarnished for good.

It could easily take another decade to learn the answer.

HBOMichael Jackson with Wade Robson in 1990, in “Leaving Neverland.”
Michael Jackson with Wade Robson in 1990, in “Leaving Neverland.”

A spokeswoman for HBO said the first of the two parts of “Leaving Neverland” has been watched by 9.2 million viewers, making it the most-seen HBO documentary ever. But at the same time, streams and purchases of Jackson’s music are down just slightly from the beginning of the year, according to Nielsen. And while his radio play dropped off significantly right after the documentary aired in early March, and a few stations said they would ban his songs from their airways, his plays have crept back up, though to lower levels than in January.

Jackson’s estate continues to earn money in other ways, too. “Michael Jackson ONE,” a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas, is still going. A musical based on Jackson’s songs, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” continues working its way toward Broadway. The producers postponed a development session just before the documentary aired, citing a labor dispute, but are still aiming for an opening next summer.

In a small but telling referendum on Jackson’s reputation, a school in Hollywood that Jackson briefly attended as a child, Gardner Street Elementary, held a vote among parents and staff members this spring on whether to remove his name from the auditorium. They kept it.

Margo Jefferson, a former theatre critic at The New York Times who wrote a book about the singer, “On Michael Jackson,” said that she still listened to his music, but she described it as a process stacked with complexity and conflict.

“The question is, I think, less a question of are we buying or watching, but what are we making of it?” Jefferson said. “My mood changes when I think about the way he was mistreated by his father, for example, and sometimes just by the sheer power of the work that went into developing the talent.”

“And sometimes,” she said, “I’m overwhelmed with horror by a cycle of abuse and pain that he didn’t stop.”

Dan Reed, the “Leaving Neverland” director, said he “wouldn’t like to see some kind of moral police vetting every single cultural artefact we have, every song, every book, every poem, because I think we’d end up eliminating a large part of it.”

“I wish I had a formula for what we should do with Michael Jackson’s music,” he said. “But I don’t.”

John Branca, co-executor for the Jackson estate, noted that Jackson had been eulogised by Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown Records, as “the greatest entertainer that ever lived.”

“Ten years later he remains just that,” Branca said, “with new generations embracing the legacy of his cultural contributions and the elegance of his artistry as passionately as ever.”

Noting that the two men in the documentary had sued the estate (so far, unsuccessfully), he added: “No discredited infomercial for a failing lawsuit against a man declared innocent in life is ever going to change that.”

Among many of the fans who gathered on Monday and Tuesday in the Los Angeles area, any mention of the documentary was met with reflexive dismissal. “To be honest, it’s made people more determined to celebrate,” said Rachel Gillard-Tew, 32, a pre-K teacher from New Zealand. “The fans have done the research and we’re quite convinced it’s rubbish.”

Andrew CullenFans taking photos of their Jackson dolls at a gathering organised by Rachel Gillard-Tew, 32, of New Zealand.
Fans taking photos of their Jackson dolls at a gathering organised by Rachel Gillard-Tew, 32, of New Zealand.
Andrew CullenRudey Parra, 10, of Glendale, Calif., with Jackson fans.
Rudey Parra, 10, of Glendale, Calif., with Jackson fans.

Ms. Gillard-Tew organised Monday’s dance party, which drew fans from Germany, Japan, Russia, Argentina, Israel, Australia and elsewhere. There was a 59-year-old woman from São Paulo, Brazil, who runs a Michael Jackson-themed hostel with a silhouette of his head at the bottom of its pool.

Another visitor, Peggy Wolf, 61, runs a Michael Jackson dance troupe, Dancing Dangerous, in Graz, Austria. Her entire wardrobe is inspired by Michael’s stage costumes and his everyday wear. She makes it all herself.

“When he died, I remember I was preparing lunch,” said Ms. Wolf, who was wearing a blue-sequinned jacket. “I was broken. It doesn’t get better over the years.”

She even managed to put a positive spin on the release of “Leaving Neverland.” She said it brought his fans even closer together, and “a lot of people who were never interested in Michael Jackson are starting to look into him.”