How should we think about Michael Jackson's music? A new podcast explores his legacy.
More than a decade after his death, Michael Jackson continues to inspire new art — from a hit Broadway show to an upcoming biopic — in spite of the decades of controversy that have plagued him.
Sexual-abuse accusations, investigations and lawsuits against the "King of Pop" date back decades. They resurfaced prominently in the 2019 HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, in which two men share their stories of allegedly being sexually abused by the singer as children (which his estate denies).
But even though much has already been said about the singer and his complicated legacy, journalist Leon Neyfakh and hip-hop commentator Jay Smooth wanted to take another look.
"If you make an effort to see the story with fresh eyes and talk to people who watched it unfold from up close, but who haven't necessarily been interviewed a million times, you're going to end up surfacing so much that's going to feel new to most of your listeners," says Neyfakh, who hosts the podcast Fiasco and hosted the first two seasons of Slow Burn, about Watergate and the Clinton impeachment.
"And it might not be like breaking news, but it goes some way towards bringing back to life a story that, in many cases, has sort of calcified or become frozen in amber over time."
The result is Think Twice: Michael Jackson, a 10-part podcast from Audible and Wondery now available exclusively on Audible and Amazon Music. The name is a lyric from Jackson's hit song "Billie Jean."
The series explores Jackson's staying power despite the disturbing allegations, offering new perspectives on how he was shaped by American culture and vice versa. Listeners will hear from over 100 people who played some part in Jackson's story, Smooth told Morning Edition: musicians who came up with him in Gary, Ind., and fans who showed up to support him at trial.
It's not a biography of Jackson, says Neyfakh, "rather a social history about the world he operated in and the people who loved him and the consumers of his art."
"This is as much a story about us and about how American culture works, how global culture works, and how history and memory work, as much as it is a story about Michael himself," he adds.
Where to begin?
The series starts in 1993, what the hosts consider the middle of Jackson's story. He was at the height of his fame — "he was as big as he'd ever been," they say — when he had the first allegations of child sexual abuse leveled against him.
"In 1993, you see both sides of the Michael story," Neyfakh says. "The meteoric rise and the incredible cultural status, but then also this tragic and difficult period that followed where, regardless of what you thought about the allegations, you couldn't really look at him the same way."
One of the central storylines of that first episode is a short film called "Is This Scary," which Jackson co-authored with horror writer Stephen King but never released (though parts are still viewable on YouTube).
In the film, Jackson plays a strange man in a haunted house, accused of scaring children from the nearby town with his magic and jokes. A mob of angry parents goes after him with pitchforks. Neyfakh calls the video a "forgotten artifact" and says what's most striking about it is that it was made before anyone had accused Jackson of anything.
"In fact, the accusations happened during the production, which was called off when the first media reports about Jordan Chandler came out," he added. "And I was just so fascinated that this was the story Michael wanted to tell in a very public form."
The series also delves into race, unpacking how Jackson thought about his racial identity and what role he played in larger cultural conversations (including his 1994 NAACP Image Awards speech). Smooth says Jackson had more of an "investment and a connection to his Blackness" than most people assume, while also striving to "be this universal figure for everyone as well."
"And I think that that tug-of-war over time, along with all the other ways he was trying to navigate being in the brightest spotlight anyone's ever been in, I think you see that reverberate through his life in so many ways," he says.
How should we think about Jackson's music?
The hosts bring different perspectives to the project. Neyfakh didn't grow up listening to Jackson's music, but Smooth did. In fact, he says he feels like "I knew him since I was a baby and ... since he was a baby."
Over the years, Smooth says, he came to see Jackson as "this sort of heartbreaking, tragic figure and someone who may well have done awful things to others." And he's still not sure what to think now.
"That remains really unsettled for me," Smooth says. "What to do with all of that, in a way that's different from a lot of other artists, where I could more easily sort of compartmentalize and either walk away from them or find a way to keep holding on to them."
And he's not alone in those feelings. Neyfakh says that, especially in the wake of Leaving Neverland, he didn't know what to feel when he encountered Jackson's music.
"People just don't know what to do with his greatness and his genius, on the one hand, [or] with the profound damage that he's alleged to have done to the people in his life," Neyfakh says. "I wanted to give people new ways to process those contradictions by providing all this new raw material, all this firsthand testimony, about how Michael Jackson became Michael Jackson."
What broader lessons can we learn from Jackson's story?
The hosts say they're not trying to persuade anyone to either boycott or support Jackson's music, just as they're not aiming to prove or disprove the allegations against him. But they want to explore how individuals — and society as a whole — approach the idea of separating the art from the artist.
Smooth admits that he feels a rush of joy he feels when "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" comes on the radio, evidence of his emotional relationship to Jackson.
"I think it's important to always question how successfully we can compartmentalize," Smooth says. "But realistically, that compartmentalization is always going to be a part of our relationship with art."
Reena Advani and Adam Bearne edited and produced the audio version of this story.
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