Fans say ‘beat it’ to R. Kelly, but not Michael Jackson 

  • Michael Jackson's song "Smooth Criminal" has a different beat than traditional ballads, but it's still about murder and still makes you want to get up and dance despite its gory subject. (AP Photo/Mark Elias) MARK ELIAS

  • FILE - In this June 30, 2013 file photo, R. Kelly performs at the BET Awards in Los Angeles. In his first interview since being charged with sexually abusing four people, including three underage girls, R. Kelly says he "didn't do this stuff" and he's "fighting for his life. Kelly gave the interview to Gayle King of "CBS This Morning," with excerpts airing Tuesday night, March 5, 2019, and the full interview airing Wednesday and Thursday morning. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Invision/AP, File) Frank Micelotta

  • Ashley Jones is not sure what to make of Michael Jackson and his music after growing up hearing it but after all the recent stories about the music legend. She works at Pitchfork Records in downtown Concord where his work still sells. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Bill Wasuta from Jefferson is the father of five and a deacon at his church and is concerned about the effect on children. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Luke Bonner talks about music legends Michael Jackson and RKelly at Pitchfork Records in downtown Concord on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ashley Jones is not sure what to make of Michael Jackson and his music after growing up hearing it but after all the recent stories about the music legend. She works at Pitchfork Records in downtown Concord where his work still sells. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ashley Jones is not sure what to make of Michael Jackson and his music after growing up hearing it but after all the recent stories about the music legend. She works at Pitchfork Records in downtown Concord where his work still sells. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ashley Jones is not sure what to make of Michael Jackson and his music after growing up hearing it but after all the recent stories about the music legend. She works at Pitchfork Records in downtown Concord where his work still sells. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 3/15/2019 4:08:44 PM

Ashley Jones had trouble saying it.

In fact, she wasn’t even quite sure what to say.

She had been a cheerleader in high school, back about 15 years ago, and the squad had danced to his music, moon-walked to his music, sang his music, loved his music.

She and the girls at Timberlane Regional High School had incorporated his dance step into their routines, even practicing that zombie movement he made famous in his “Thriller” video.

But now the local columnist was greeting her at Pitchfork Records, where she’s worked for owner Michael Cohen for six months. She was asked about Michael Jackson, about the recent two-part HBO documentary Leaving Neverland that portrayed Jackson as a monster.

Two men, both about 40, claimed Jackson had sexually abused them when they were in grade school. They said things that made us cringe, cover our eyes, shake our heads in disbelief.

Could Jones still listen to the King of Pop like she once had? Or had Jackson turned into the King of Flop?

Many of us are asking themselves the same question. Can we, should we separate the artist from the art? This question isn’t new. We’ve grappled with it before with stars like Woody Allen and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 2019 America, we can add Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and R. Kelly to the list. No one, though, captured the world the way Michael Jackson did with his music.

Jones had seen parts of the HBO special on Jackson. She said she’d seen “enough” to realize that Jackson on stage and Jackson in the recording studio most likely were a facade, hiding pitch-black darkness.

And yet Jones hesitated. She wore cat ears and a nose ring and her hair was dyed red, portraying an adventurous spirit and a blinding smile, but commenting on Jackson is a two-way street, and it’s difficult for fans like herself to pinpoint which path to take.

If the allegations are true, he’s bad, and we’re not referring to his album here. But is that enough to stop your toes from tapping when Jackson’s music emerges on a sound system? Do you turn the volume down, change the station, boycott his music forever?

“It’s hard to separate the musician from what they actually did and what they were truly like,” said Jones. “I like his music. I feel like it’s a separate entity from him as a person.

“She paused, then continued. “Would I agree with what he did? No. But that does not mean I’m not going to dance to “Thriller” or “Beat It” when they come on.”

There. She said it. As Cohen chimed in, “We still play Michael Jackson. If it makes you happy, play it.”

To their credit, they answered. I asked that question to a handful of people in the local music industry – local DJs and radio program directors. Those I reached didn’t want to talk to me. Those I couldn’t never called me back. They didn’t want to touch this topic with a 10-foot vinyl record.

The reality, though, is you’re likely to still hear Jackson on local airwaves.

Stars like Jackson and R. Kelly have tested America’s loyalty. But Kelly’s music hadn’t been selling at all in Concord and Manchester anyway, and at least one person said Kelly’s alleged behavior – rape and possession of child porn – has ended his allegiance to the R&B star forever.

Also mentioned was rocker Ryan Adams, another well-known musician who’s been followed by a trail of negativity and blacklisted by customers. He’s been accused by at least seven women of using his star power to help their careers while expecting sex in return.

Jackson, it seems, is different. Cohen will tell you that record sales for Jackson’s music haven’t changed one bit since the HBO series hit TV last month.

“He’s still a consistent seller. It has not made a difference,” Cohen said. “People are numb to the Michael Jackson story and listen to him for his music more than his life. People just shrug their shoulders at this point. That is what it’s like here. I can’t speak for other places.”

So I visited John Benedict, owner of the Music Connection on South Willow Street in Manchester. I asked him the same thing, about Jackson’s music. Does it still sell there?

Yes, it does.

“It’s the same, he’s selling, no change,” Benedict told me. “There isn’t even a discussion when someone buys his music. ‘I love Michael Jackson’ is pretty much the feeling. It’s as if (the HBO special) never aired.”

Compared to other artists, it seemed, Jackson is getting the benefit of the doubt. Or at least music fans I ran into at the two stores preferred to add an artistic prism with which to view him.

At Pitchfork, Mary Gingras told me, “Much of his behavior is very disturbing, but I wouldn’t turn him off.”

Kelly’s wasn’t selling much music around here before a recent investigative TV series, Surviving R. Kelly, included several women who claimed The R&B and hip-hop star had sexually abused them. He was subsequently charged last month with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

Before that, Kelly had been charged with possession of child pornography and marrying an underaged girl. But when you were a cash cow like he was, enablers were everywhere, and that, according to music insiders and published reports, is how and why he got away with this sort of behavior for so long. Money.

Luke Bonner said he’s heard enough. He used to be a giant on the basketball court as a professional player, and now the 7-footer has a giant interest in music. I ran into him Wednesday at Pitchfork. He was buying a few dozen cassettes. Once, he admired Kelly.

“The R. Kelly stuff from my generation, you would go out dancing and R. Kelly always had a presence,” Bonner said. “It was a pop-dance kind of vibe. He’s an R&B legend.”

Bonner had heard about Kelly’s alleged bad behavior from years past.

“It was a little more unknown until recently, when it became more of a real thing,” Bonner told me. “With him, it’s hard to separate the artist from the individual. It’s pretty troubling.”

Asked if he’d buy Kelly’s music today, Bonner said, “No,” without skipping a beat.

Adams, too, has suffered a backlash.

“No one’s buying him anymore,” Benedict said. “We’ve pulled his records off the floor.”

Not so for the King of Pop. His alleged crimes turn your stomach, but people I met Wednesday at the music stores felt compelled to mention talent.

“Whenever you saw him he was strange,” said Bruce Rotenberg, a customer at Music Connection. “His music was very good and his (“Thriller”) video was great, but he went over the edge. He went over the cliff.”

Benedict said his customers are forever asking him for a copy of “Thriller.”

“At least once a week,” he said.

Back at Pitchfork, Jones’s wrestling match with herself continued, as she tried to come to grips with her view of Jackson since this latest, graphic news broke.

Jackson on stage was great. Jackson at Neverland was not.

“I don’t think he was innocent and I don’t think he was necessarily a good person,” Jones said. “If he were alive, I wouldn’t go to see him in concert. I wouldn’t want to be around him.

“But I like the way his voice sounds. I like his musical talents very much.”




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