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How Should We View Michael Jackson’s legacy?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Photo by Mathew Browne on Unsplash
*Updated 2024
It’s been 15 years since Michael Jackson died, yet he still remains the King of Pop – and controversy. With allegations and an HBO documentary painting a picture of a child predator (a picture that has existed for some time, depending upon whom you ask) as opposed to a revolutionary singer, Jackson’s legacy is in question. Hundreds of millions of fans around the world once found the magnetism of his music undeniable; today, the numbers may be fewer. What isn’t in question, though, is that his career spanned four decades, during which he sold over 750 million albums worldwide, scored 13 number-one singles and won 13 Grammy Awards to match.
But statistics alone are not enough to establish a legacy. Even in death, Jackson continues to be dogged by controversy. His eccentricities and accusations of sexual abuse continue to be a source of spectacle and public comment. So, even with serious allegations of child molestation leveled at Jackson, should he be remembered as an artistic and philanthropic giant, as many super fans still think of him, or did Jackson earn the shadow cast upon him? Here are three arguments for each side.

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Jackson’s relationships with children who were not his relatives inappropriately crossed important social boundaries. 

Long before the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland debuted at Sundance in 2018, a 2002 New York Times article traced Jackson’s fading star against the backdrop of his bizarre behavior and accusations of child molestation, correctly noting that while the public is tolerant of artists with addictions, they are intolerant of any form of child abuse. Although Jackson settled the 1993 accusations of sexual abuse out of court and was later acquitted of other accusations laid against him in 2003, Michael’s bizarre and questionable behavior, namely, his unusual relationships with children, underpinned the public’s suspicions. In fact, a 2005 trial in a Gallup poll reported that most Americans believed that the charges leveled against Jackson were true.  Public response has to Leaving Neverland continues the narrative, documenting the accounts of two men who claim that Jackson molested them as boys.


Charges of abuse continue to be filed against the singer’s estate years after his death. 

Even with the allure of a large settlement, the sheer volume of former acquaintances alleging abuse against Jackson is unsettling. It stands to reason that if money were the only basis for filing frivolous lawsuits against celebrities, as Jackson so frequently claimed when he was alive, there would be far more suits against far more celebrities. Indeed, when accusations of a particular crime appear in large number against one individual, as with the dozens of assault accusations brought against entertainer Bill Cosby, (not to mention Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Louis CK, etc.) it is imperative to investigate them and take them seriously.


Jackson used controversy to generate buzz and celebrity.

Michael Jackson’s exploits are well-documented and bizarre, even by Hollywood’s standards. In the 80’s, his chimpanzee, Bubbles, was his constant companion. He built an amusement park in his backyard, had two spur-of-the moment marriages, and frequent changes in his appearance were ever-present in tabloid news. A former Jackson publicist alleged that Jackson’s antics were his version of wagging the dog – that Jackson leaked rumors about himself and behaved strangely to build celebrity through spectacle. Later, he tried to create marketing stunts like seeking knighthood from the late Queen of England to deflect bad press – namely, accusations of sexual abuse against children.



Jackson’s larger than life take on performance chiseled the path of modern artistry.

Jackson revolutionized music videos and live performance. He pioneered a new era in music video, enchanting audiences with the Moonwalk, not to mention cinematic and special effects marvels like “Thriller,” “Black or White” and “Scream.” He even used magic to dazzle audiences on his multi-million-dollar tours. Jackson once said: “An artist’s imagination is his greatest tool. It can… transport you to a different place altogether.” To be sure, Jackson was a master of transporting his audiences to places they’d never imagined. This feat has been globally recognized; in fact, in 2018, London’s National Portrait Gallery  opened an exhibit dedicated to the King of Pop’s artistry, displaying his legacy alongside the likes of other iconic artists like Andy Warhol and Frida Kahlo.


He set the tone of modern celebrity philanthropy.

Jackson gave millions in charity and was one of the first celebrities to establish his own charitable foundation. He used his star power to rally other performers to charity anthems like “Heal the World” and “We Are the World,” an iconic song emphasizing humanity that he co-wrote with Lionel Richie. Jackson’s commitment to social justice was a recurring theme in his music. By setting an example of giving and inspiring social consciousness with songs like “Man in the Mirror” and “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” Jackson popularized an ethos of harmony and shared responsibility.


Controversy had cash value when it came to MJ.

Jackson controversies not related to molestation accusations were (and still are) a multi-million-dollar industry. Tabloids buzzed with “Wacko Jacko’s” sale-boosting antics. One tell-all author, the artist’s former publicist, admitted to writing an unofficial Jackson biography because he was broke.  Headlines suggest that Jackson’s own family, mainly his siblings, were no strangers to attempts at taking advantage of him and his assets – in life and after his death. If such reports are true, and his own family saw the value in creating controversy to milk him for money, it’s easy to believe that so-called friends and certainly strangers looked at Jackson as a potential source of easy money.


The Bottom Line: Despite the controversy surrounding Michael Jackson, his impact on music and popular culture endures. “Thriller” remains among the world’s top-selling album ever sold, despite being more than 40 years old, and Jackson’s signature move, the Moonwalk, is as iconic as ever. However, fans must be wary of conflating talent with decency. What kind of impact did Jackson have on you?

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