TORONTO — Nothing floods the dance floor like a classic Michael Jackson track, says Montreal DJ Stefan Jez.
Whenever the party is losing its spark, or too many people have stepped away to grab a drink, the owner of wedding entertainment company Uptown Xpress throws on one of Jackson’s funky faithfuls and watches as it pulls everyone back into the groove.
“Everybody knows the words,” he says. “He’s one of those go-to artists you can use to reignite a crowd and it’s because most of his hits are almost timeless.”
Grandparents, teenagers and even the younger kids are almost guaranteed to know the songs, he says, and the disco-infused Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough is one of Jez’s favourites. He’s incorporated it into his wedding warm-up set for years and plans to keep it that way.
But renewed accusations of child sex abuse levelled against Jackson in the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland are giving some DJs reason to reconsider whether his songs can — or should — still be the life of the party.
Hollywood DJ Michelle Pesce addressed the question in trade magazine Variety as part of an opinion piece on why she’s decided to remove Jackson’s music from her club nights after years of wavering on the decision.
“I choose to believe that… you cannot separate the art from the artist when it comes to using your public platform,” she wrote.
“I personally don’t want my irresponsibility on song selection to be the cause of something that’s highly triggering to somebody who has been sexually abused or mentally beaten in the same way.”
Members of Jackson’s family have denounced the documentary, saying they were not given a chance to defend the singer. Jackson’s estate has also launched a lawsuit against HBO.
Since the film’s broadcast, other corners of the music community have removed Jackson from their rotation. Three major Montreal radio stations said they’d stop playing his music after considering listener feedback, while Toronto music store Tiny Record Shop announced on social media they would no longer stock his records.
What hasn’t been tested much yet is how Jackson will be received in other public spaces, such as dance schools, karaoke bars and bar and bat mitzvahs.
Toronto DJ Sum Wong, who performs under the name DJ Sumation, says Jackson is usually a winner at parties — but he’s also seen a crowd turn against his music.
It happened around the time of his 2004 criminal trial when Wong threw on Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ at a wedding, and watched as many women evacuated the dance floor.
“I was surprised by that — and then somebody told me ‘Don’t you know what’s going on?’” he says.
“I guess as a parent they felt very offended.”
Wong says it taught him a lesson about how partygoers react to certain artists. He’s seen it happen more often in recent years as the #MeToo movement and other public conversations ripple into the DJ booth.
“When people dislike something, they’ll actually come to you and say, ‘You offended me by playing this song,’” he says.
Similar reactions recently convinced Wong to pull R. Kelly’s music from his set lists, as the singer faces another round of sexual abuse accusations. But he says the allegations against Jackson — who died in 2009 — can’t be compared with Kelly, because Jackson isn’t able to defend himself.
For now, Wong plans to continue playing Jackson’s music when the time feels right. He says the real test of Jackson’s staying power will be this October when many DJs will likely want to spin Thriller.
“It’s one of the biggest Halloween songs,” he says.
“People like it because you get the crowd going, you do the dance together… everybody asks for it.”
As wedding season ramps up, Montreal DJ Jez says he’ll also be attuned to his clients’ feelings. If a couple specifically asks for no Jackson at their wedding, he’s going to honour their wishes, but otherwise he plans to keep the songs in his rotation.
“If no one tells me so, I will play it that first time, and if someone runs up to me and says, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re playing that,’ then I’ll note it,” he says.
“The song is the song. If it makes you feel good, and you like the music, look at it as an artist’s piece of music… we definitely know his positive side was the art he created — there’s no doubt in that.”