Wedding trends come and go, but while the popularity of bouquet tosses and hashtags may wax and wane, for decades there was one reception ritual that seemed evergreen: playing Michael Jackson. Party anthems were the King of Pop’s forte, and songs like “Billie Jean” and “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” have long been DJ favorites designed to rouse party guests out of their assigned seats and onto dance floors. But the renewed accusations of sexual abuse in Leaving Neverland leave DJs with a new question to consider: Is it OK to play Michael Jackson at weddings?
On Spotify’s Top 50 Wedding Songs of 2018 playlist, Michael Jackson songs appear twice, with a third spot occupied by the Jackson 5. Why has his catalog remained so popular for so long? “It hits all the decades. It hits all the genres. It hits all the age groups,” said DJ Scott Smokin’ Silz, who has played at luxury weddings in Chicago for more than 35 years. “The brides love ‘P.Y.T.’ [Pretty Young Thing].”
Charleston, South Carolina–based DJ Mike Bills, who wrote a blog post last year about the best Jackson songs for weddings, says he hasn’t seen Jackson’s party popularity diminish over time, with younger audiences responding just as enthusiastically to the artist’s music: “A lot of the millennial couples weren’t even born when Michael Jackson released songs like ‘Billie Jean’ or ‘The Way You Make Me Feel.’ ”
The music played at any given wedding reception often comes down to a combination of selections pre-provided by the newlyweds and requests from guests on the floor, with the DJ inserting his or her own choices to fill in gaps. For many DJs, whether Jackson continues to dominate wedding playlists will depend less on their own personal tastes than on popular demand. “It becomes a case of, are people comfortable hearing his music? Is there backlash to playing the music? Are people going to be like, ‘Oh, I’m walking off the dance floor’ or are they going to continue to party?” said Silz. “Ultimately, the client is the person paying you,” he added, so any Jackson songs specifically requested by them will stay. “If everybody walks off, well, technically that’s not really our fault.”
Even before the HBO documentary’s release, some clients have already specifically banned Jackson’s music. “I have actually done weddings that requested no Michael Jackson,” said Bills. “And they were not nearly as fun as weddings that had Michael Jackson in them.”
“While I do have clients who specifically say, ‘Hey, no Michael Jackson, no R. Kelly,’ because of those reasons, I have the same amount of young couples who specifically request Michael Jackson,” said Los Angeles DJ Bibi Quiles, who performs under the name DJ Keelez. But even R. Kelly, who saw a similar outpouring of disgust following the release of Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly, can’t serve as a precise point of reference. In Quiles’ experience, “when it comes to R. Kelly, at least in relation to weddings, there’s only one or two songs that have the kind of pull that Michael Jackson has.” When requesting Jackson songs, she said, “people dig really deep.”
Despite the tidal wave of responses both in support of and against the testimonies of Wade Robson and James Safechuck in Leaving Neverland, the documentary has only been out for a short time, and the impact on public opinion will not be fully felt by DJs until May or June, when wedding season comes into full swing. Quiles said that it will at least make her more mindful about when she plays Jackson’s music. “I would have had to make that decision a long time ago, if I wasn’t going to play his music,” said Quiles, who had watched the first half of the documentary when we spoke. “To be 100 percent honest with you, I think I’m going to think twice about how often, and when and where I play it, but I more than likely will ultimately have to play his music—just given that people typically dance to it.”
Bills, who hadn’t yet seen the documentary, thinks that the controversy is unlikely to change anything. “People hire me to be a DJ. They don’t hire me for personal choices,” he said. “Michael Jackson is going to continue to be played regardless of what happens. I don’t see him being removed from any playlists anytime soon.”
Subscribe to Slate’s Culture newsletter for the best of movies, TV, books, music, and more, delivered twice a week.