Couples Ban R. Kelly, Michael Jackson Music at Weddings
Planning a wedding successfully is a microcosm of a good relationship: Compromise is key. So Marc Brookland deferred to his fiancée when deciding what music they do and don’t want to hear when they get married at the Fairmount Water Works in September.
The dos: A few throwbacks and oldies, and pop music they know the band can play well. The don’ts: No line dances. No “cliche Bon Jovi stuff.”
And, Brookland said, his betrothed had some additions to which he ultimately acquiesced: Despite their roles as wedding-reception classics, no R. Kelly, and no Michael Jackson.
“She said, ‘Absolutely not,'” said Brookland, 29, of Old City. “She’s like, ‘We can’t play those.'”
These are the conversations couples, DJs, and cover bands are having in the first wedding season to follow the releases of Leaving Neverland, an HBO documentary about sexual abuse claims against Jackson, and Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part Lifetime TV series about allegations against the rapper. Both brought new attention to years-old claims of sexual abuse.
Weddings are now no exception to the seismic cultural shifts spurred by the #MeToo movement that have Americans grappling with whether you can separate art from artist in the case of sexual misconduct allegations: For example, can you stomach a Woody Allen film? Does a Louis C.K. bit still make you laugh?
Let’s say you’re at a wedding reception. Would you miss those funky opening bars of Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” if the couple ditched it for moral reasons? Would you cringe if the wedding party did the “Thriller” dance? Are the Jackson 5 a safe bet? And does anyone want to get down to R. Kelly and his remix to “Ignition”?
“R. Kelly is a one hundred percent no-go at all gigs now,” said Chris Keenan, a Fort Washington-based DJ and owner of Futurescapes Entertainment. He and his colleagues ask clients about Jackson, and Keenan estimated about 10 percent don’t want him because of the controversy.
In interviews, more than half a dozen DJs — black, white, male, female — said some version of the same. Most DJs, especially at a wedding, won’t play R. Kelly as they used to, especially if it isn’t requested. The rapper is facing criminal charges in two states and has been accused of sexually abusing and exploiting women and girls over decades.
Things are more complicated for Jackson, the man who had been accused multiple times of child sexual abuse in the 1990s and 2000s before his death in 2009, which came a decade before Leaving Neverland’s release.
Jackson is one of the most influential and celebrated artists in music history. R. Kelly has, approximately, two songs that could reasonably be played at a wedding reception, compared with MJ’s collection.
Of the top 200 most requested songs from weddings and parties this year, six were by Jackson and two by the Jackson 5, according to an annual list published in June by DJ Intelligence, a national planning and management system for DJs. The highest-rated is “Billie Jean,” which comes in at No. 48 on the chart. R. Kelly’s “Ignition” is No. 56. It’s worth noting the chart is based on a year’s worth of data back to June 2018 — both documentaries were initially released in January 2019.
Nick Spinelli, a Vineland, N.J.-based wedding DJ with SCE Event Group, provides tips to other DJs on the internet and performed an R. Kelly and Michael Jackson “test” this spring after both documentaries were released. He played music by both at a handful of bars, clubs and weddings and gauged audience reaction.
When he played R. Kelly at a wedding, “Everyone was just like, ‘Ooh, he’s playing this right now?’ … And they just kinda walked off the dance floor.” His advice to others: “Definitely stay away from R. Kelly at all costs, unless you get a request from a bride or groom.”
The reaction to Jackson was the same as it’s always been: People dance. Spinelli said he still plays MJ at every wedding and hasn’t had any requests from clients to leave him off the playlist.
When wedding guests ask DJ Steve Croce to play an R. Kelly song, he reminds them of the criminal charges against the rapper. He prefers to not play R. Kelly or Jackson, unless the bride makes a request.