Canceling Michael Jackson, it seems, may not be so easy.
Since HBO’s broadcast last week of “Leaving Neverland” — a two-part, four-hour spotlight on two men who said Jackson had abused them when they were young boys — reams of commentary have been devoted to whether fans could ever listen to “Off the Wall” or “Thriller” again in good conscience.
But the numbers show that, at least so far, the popularity of Jackson’s music has not budged.
Since the beginning of the year, songs from Jackson’s solo catalog have been streamed 16 million to 17 million times each week in the United States on services like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal, according to Nielsen. Last week, including the period immediately after the documentary’s premiere March 3 and 4, the total was 16,497,000 streams.
Even the daily listening pattern did not vary since the HBO documentary was shown. On the two days of the “Leaving Neverland” premiere, a Sunday and a Monday, Jackson’s streaming numbers dipped below his typical daily average of about 2.3 million — but that was in line with the usual streaming pattern of his songs, which tends to peak in the middle of the week.
In the three days after the film, those numbers climbed back up. By Thursday — the last day for which complete information is available — they had risen to 2.5 million. Particularly popular, as always, were hits like “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and “Thriller.”
A rival music data service, BuzzAngle, traced a similar pattern. According to BuzzAngle, weekly streams for Jackson this year hovered around 16 million until the middle of February, when they shot up to 22.8 million, suggesting that publicity for the documentary had stirred interest. By last week the totals had settled down, to 17.1 million.
Could those numbers fall? In the days after the film, news blips suggested that Jackson’s legacy was slowly being affected. The producers of “The Simpsons” pulled a 28-year-old episode featuring Jackson’s voice from circulation. Radio stations in Canada and New Zealand said they would stop playing Jackson’s music. A statue of the star was removed from a British soccer museum.
Radio stations in the United States have been cautious, significantly reducing the number of plays of Jackson’s music. According to Nielsen, Jackson’s songs have been played about 2,000 times a day on American radio stations in recent months. That number began to slip in February, and since the documentary aired it has dropped sharply, to about 1,500 a day through Sunday.
“The court of public opinion seems to have convicted Michael, but at the same time, he has supporters who love him,” said David Bakula, a senior analyst at Nielsen. “For the long term, it might take two or three weeks for this to settle into a pattern.”
Comedian Pete Davidson described what fans of Jackson and R. Kelly, who faces accusations of sexual misconduct with underage girls, have been wrestling with on the most recent episode of “Saturday Night Live.” “You don’t know how good someone’s music really is until you find out they’re a pedophile,” Davidson said during a “Weekend Update” segment.
The recent business performance of Kelly may provide clues on how Jackson’s musical legacy may be affected by “Leaving Neverland.” Like Jackson, Kelly was tried and acquitted of sexual misconduct with minors.
In early January, the popularity of Lifetime’s documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” caused a quick jump in the streams of his songs. But in the weeks since, even with frequent news developments in the Kelly story — he was dropped by RCA Records, was indicted and gave a bizarre television interview — his numbers have plummeted.
In the first week of the year, Kelly had 13.2 million streams. The week after the documentary, that figure fell to 10.8 million. Over the last six weeks, his average has been about 6 million, and sales of his CDs and downloads have fallen by more than half.
HBO’s premiere of “Leaving Neverland” drew an audience of 1.3 million, Nielsen reported. The next night, the second part had 927,000 viewers, and the Oprah Winfrey-led “After Neverland” discussion had 780,000.
As of Monday, the total audience for Part 1 had risen to a healthy 3.7 million, thanks to delayed viewing on television, DVR and HBO platforms HBO Go and HBO Now, and the second part of “Leaving Neverland” had been watched by 2.5 million viewers.