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.
“And that’s strictly because I don’t want her to have negative memories on her wedding day,” said Croce, general manager of Malvern-based Silver Sound DJs. “Everyone else gets pacified with ‘Let me see what I can do.’”
Fishtown-based DJ Jane Elizabeth, owner of Stylus DJ Entertainment, said she’ll throw in a “P.Y.T.” or a “Don’t Stop 'Til You Get Enough” if someone requests it. She said that before the documentaries this year, the only song she routinely had clients nix because it’s controversial was “Blurred Lines,” the 2013 Robin Thicke hit that was criticized as promoting dangerous ideas about sexual consent.
Owner of Philly Star Events and DJ Joe Broscoe said a handful of clients had asked him to leave out Jackson, but he probably would, anyway. Luckily, “nowadays you have a plethora of music to pull from,” he said. Today, Broscoe’s go-to artists to pack the dance floor are Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake. (Both pop stars have channeled Jackson — there was even a very-untrue internet rumor started by a fake news website claiming that MJ fathered Bruno Mars.)
Jamie Grimble, a West Philly DJ who plays clubs, events and weddings, doesn’t play R. Kelly. The question of whether to pump Michael Jackson through the speakers at a wedding has been eating at him since the #MeToo movement made him think more about how to be an ally to survivors of sexual violence. He said he’d rather not play his music.
When a couple puts Jackson on their request list ahead of the wedding, Grimble explains that the music could be a trigger for a guest who’s experienced sexual violence, and it might be best to avoid it. He’s never had pushback and said his clients appreciate the thoughtfulness.
“It is a slight loss to me, to my repertoire,” he said, “but on the greater scale, there’s so much more music out there that can be enjoyable and pleasurable.”