In the wake of the Leaving Neverland documentary there have been attempts to erase Michael Jackson from the contemporary collective consciousness by removing his music from commercial radio airwaves.
The media has reported that radio stations in at least four nations have pulled Jackson’s music from their playlists.
We might expect the Canadians to lead the charge, and indeed they have, along with stations and networks in Australia, New Zealand, and possibly the UK. These reactions appear to be driven primarily by commercial sensitivities with regard to advertisers and audience perceptions.
However there are more serious questions about how we should deal with Jackson’s legacy in education generally, and in the music classroom in particular.
It is now normal practice in the secondary school classroom to take a ‘socio-cultural’ approach to studying music, which means we get to know music in its wider setting rather than studying it as a separate ‘object’ comprised purely of sound or notation.
It is important to take account of the social, cultural, and political contexts; where music comes from, how it is created, and how it affects us. However, if we let this ‘social’ approach dominate, there is the possibility of losing sight of the music itself – the sonic events that presumably we found so enticing in the first place.
With too great an emphasis on socio-cultural aspects our music class could be more like a social studies, history or political studies class. For many people though, it’s the extra-musical dimensions that are just as important as the sounds themselves; the image or prestige of the performer, the lyrics, the fashion, the establishment or anti-establishment associations – everything that surrounds and goes with the music.
In the case of pop music, music students the world over want to emulate artists’ songs by playing covers and by composing music in a similar style. These are now key activities in the modern music classroom.
So where does this leave Michael Jackson’s music? Education involves studying the work of all sorts of human beings for ‘educational’ reasons. In Aotearoa New Zealand we have what can be described as a localised curriculum. Teachers get to choose what content to include in the classroom as the New Zealand Curriculum is only a guide.
This can be both a strength and a weakness. It’s good when teachers balance a range of factors when deciding what to include, but if they respond only to the pressure for the curriculum to be instantly appealing, students can end up missing out on all sorts of important and empowering content. So how should we choose content for teaching, and would Michael Jackson make the cut for the classroom?
Firstly, teachers need to decide what it is they want students to learn when choosing a particular topic and then they need to decide what the best content to explore that topic is. Curriculum time is short and valuable, so teachers need to select the best examples music can offer for educational rather than entertainment outcomes.
Was any single song of Jackson’s sufficiently innovative and musically significant enough to warrant a precious place in the crowded curriculum of a New Zealand classroom? Apparently not, according to colleagues in the know. No single song quite makes the cut for our educational purposes in terms of being innovative and influential. There’s no question that Jackson’s body of work overall is impressive and certainly had great impact, but there are songs by others that are better examples of musical innovation and influence.
Former NZ Herald editor Gavin Ellis commented on Radio New Zealand recently that removing public access to artists’ work because of lines they may have crossed in their private lives is a slippery slope.
The more difficult question he poses is, where would you draw the line? Perhaps in relation to popular music it’s the lyrics that might be a clearer indication of what’s acceptable in a given context. And perhaps Jackson’s Bad now resonates with a new darker significance.
But from an educational point of view, it’s the quality and significance of the music that counts. Music teachers alone, who are qualified to make that judgement, will decide if Jackson gets air time in their classrooms or not.
Dr Graham McPhail is a senior lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy at the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland.