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Michael Jackson was the first African-American musical genius whose unique talent and drive were forceful enough to destroy every cultural barrier in his way. And he was also the first whose style so thoroughly reinvented the cultural landscape that his imprint would be impossible to erase – even if we all agreed never to listen to any of his songs again.

Last weekend, HBO aired Leaving Neverland, a documentary that presents the latest look at allegations that MJ was – take a deep breath – a serial predator who manipulated and sexually abused underage boys. I haven’t watched it: I’ve loved his music since I was a child, but the joy of listening to him has been a complicated experience for years. The King of Pop is dead, so the conversation at hand isn’t about whether he’ll be punished and, if so, how severely. As such, I don’t know if I need specific details.

Observations and insight from critics who have watched the doc, such as The New York Times’s Wesley Morris, are evidence enough for me to move on to what does need to be discussed. That’s his legacy, and how it has to change. I do think Michael Jackson was a genius. Rather than allow that to obscure the devastation he seems to have wrought, it’s time to reconsider how important that is.

When compared with MJ, the talents of other men accused of repulsive behaviour turn into dust. If I was off to a desert island and only allowed to take the work of one disgraced entertainer with me, I’d easily pick Off the Wall, Thriller and a Jackson 5 anthology over a trio of Woody Allen movies or a collection of Cristiano Ronaldo’s best soccer games.

Despite that, the opening bars of Don’t Stop 'Til You Get Enough no longer bring me just kinetic excitement, but an accompanying, stomach-churning meditation on cycles of child abuse. If MJ can’t be salvaged, then there’s truly no genius, dead or alive, whose accomplishments could possibly overcome an indulgence in violence.

While the list of known and suspected offenders is depressingly long, obviously not every male genius is a sexual assailant, child molester or domestic abuser. “Male” is relevant, though, because the label of genius is most often given to men.

Perhaps if women had equal chances to nurture and flaunt their talents, they’d also earn the status that grants implicit permission to abuse others. At this point in history, however, it really seems like a guy thing.

In 2017, National Geographic journalist Claudia Kalb wrote an article, What Makes a Genius, an attempt to define just what a genius is – part of her definition requires a legacy beyond their own lifetime – and how such people appear.

Most, but not all, geniuses have raw talent, she argues, and equally important are time, money and other supports to explore their creativity. Ms. Kalb points out that those things have always been harder to come by for those who are poor and oppressed, as well as women. She mentions Maria Anna Mozart, a “brilliant harpsichordist” whose brother Wolfgang praised her compositions, but whose father ended her career when she reached the "marriageable age” of 18.

But while overcoming poverty and racism often adds lustre to celebrity backstories, it’s not as broadly assumed that misogyny and male violence rob the world of genius, too. Thankfully, as our instinct to look away from bad behaviour fades, there’s been more fury over how much potential it has destroyed.

Soon after Harvey Weinstein’s evisceration in The New York Times kicked off a reckoning, the critic Amanda Hess noted that the hurt inflicted by so-called geniuses might result in a net loss for culture at large.

“Men like Louis C.K. may be creators of art, but they are also destroyers of it,” she wrote. “They have crushed the ambition of women and, in some cases, young men − boys − in the industry, robbing them of their own opportunities.” They’ve also robbed the rest of us of a wider idea of who geniuses are, and what they can do.

Yes, Michael Jackson’s music brought joy to millions, including to me. And no, the cultural barriers he broke can’t be overstated. But neither is greater than the depth of the destruction male genius has left in its wake. Moving forward requires reimagining the entire concept.

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