Padma Lakshmi's Trojan Horse; Plus, is Michael Jackson un-cancellable?
BRITTANY LUSE, HOST:
You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. And my first guest today - you might know her as the host of Bravo's "Top Chef" or as one of this year's Time 100 honorees. And now Padma Lakshmi is bringing us a top-tier food travel show set in our own backyard, "Taste The Nation" on Hulu.
PADMA LAKSHMI: We were lucky enough to have, like, 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I don't think I've gotten 100% on anything in my life.
LAKSHMI: So I'm very happy about that. So are my relatives in India.
LUSE: "Taste The Nation" just dropped its second season. It's an American food travel show, but it asks a very pointed question - what even is American food? Padma focuses mainly on the food of immigrant communities in the U.S. She tastes dishes from Filipino communities in the Bay Area, Nigerians in Texas and a Greek enclave in Florida. She argues all these different kinds of foods are just as American as apple pie or any other food that we might think of as nonethnic.
LAKSHMI: White people food we think of as hot dogs and apple pie and meatloaf. You know, not one ingredient in apple pie is indigenous to North America - not the apples, not the flour, not the butter or lard, not the cinnamon, not the sugar, not the nutmeg.
LUSE: But Padma doesn't leave indigenous food out, either. And with each dish, the show provides so much context and history that you'll leave feeling both smarter and hungrier.
LAKSHMI: I am just there with a bunch of fellow nerds - you know? - and we all get off on this [expletive].
LAKSHMI: You know? We really do. Like, I love it.
LUSE: I sat down with Padma to talk about the new season of "Taste The Nation" and her Trojan horse of Food.
Padma Lakshmi, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.
LAKSHMI: Hi. Thank you. It's nice to be here.
LUSE: Oh, it's our pleasure to have you. So the new season of your wonderful show, "Taste The Nation," is out now on Hulu. For those who haven't seen season one, could you talk to me about what you do on the show and also what the show's aim is?
LAKSHMI: Sure. The show's title, "Taste The Nation," is actually a play on "Face The Nation." So it is a travel, culture and political show that is masquerading as a food show. It is, of course, also a food show because that is the language with which I process the world. And that's also the language that most people are used to hearing me speak. But, you know, it was really an offshoot of my advocacy work with the ACLU. I've been working with them for 6 or 7 years on immigrant rights. And I'm an immigrant. And I wanted to explore different communities in America through the lens of food as a Trojan horse in a way - you know, just as the thing that would get us into these homes and into these people's lives. We try to look at the big issue of immigration in all of its facets.
LUSE: About "Taste The Nation," you've said that the first season is kind of for people that don't really agree that immigrants have a lot to offer this country. Like, you're keeping them in mind when designing the show. Now, going into the second season, has the framing of the show changed or evolved based upon the work that you did in the first season?
LAKSHMI: No, it hasn't, really. I mean, I created the show specifically for people who don't necessarily think like me. I hope I created it for everybody and that everyone has a lot to learn because I'm a history nerd. And, you know, that's why you get all that stuff in there. And yeah, I created the show to do something artistic with my political views that is more entertaining than me just standing on my soapbox and giving, you know, a speech at an ACLU rally.
LUSE: I want to talk about sort of the different postures that you have on "Top Chef" and also on "Taste The Nation." So, like, on "Top Chef," you are kind of a tough critic. Like, people know that you have a well-honed palate and that you know what tastes good. You know when they're hitting the mark. I mean, it was actually said in your Time 100 dedication that you were described as unafraid of being disliked on the show. But on "Taste The Nation," you take a different approach. You know, you are an adventurer. You're a traveler. And you're not a judge. I wonder - how do you toggle between those two modes in your eating journey, I guess?
LAKSHMI: It's not that hard. First of all, both those shows are very - in different parts of the spectrum of, you know, food programming. But, I mean, I know Ali Wong, who's a friend of mine, wrote that. And I took that as, like, a backhanded...
LAKSHMI: ...Slight that a girlfriend would say about you and get away with. But the truth is, you know, my job, I hope, is many things on "Top Chef," but it's also to give honest feedback in a way that's constructive to the chef and helps them do better in the next challenge should they stay in the show. And I'm rooting for them. I'm rooting for all of my contestants. And, you know, I'm there every day with them, and they're, like, my new sixth-grade class for the season.
LAKSHMI: So it's not that I'm afraid to be disliked. I just am afraid not to be truthful.
On "Taste The Nation," I don't have to be a judge. I'm coming to them in their house. They're not coming, knocking on our studio door and asking to be a contestant.
LUSE: To win.
LAKSHMI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like, I am a guest in their home. They're sharing their lives with me. We don't pay them, you know? Like - you know what I'm saying? Like, and so if I want to go there and, you know, sort of disrupt their lives, it's because I think they're very worthwhile, and I want to talk to them and eat their food.
LUSE: One of the things that me and my team noticed when we were preparing to talk to you and watching your show is how many, like, subtle, important details the show picks up on. So I loved your first episode this season on Puerto Rican pasteles. I currently have 20 in my freezer right now.
LAKSHMI: You do? Do you make them, or do you get them?
LUSE: I don't make them. My husband is originally from Santurce in San Juan in Puerto Rico. My husband knows a woman who makes pasteles in Chelsea, and we get them at Christmastime.
LAKSHMI: That's great. Do you think she'd give me her recipe?
LUSE: She might. I could ask him.
LAKSHMI: Please ask him because...
LUSE: Yeah. They're good.
LAKSHMI: ...You know, I really - I'm working on the "Taste The Nation" cookbook, as well, which is going to take me a while because see above. I've been on the road with two shows. But I would love a recipe that - you know, obviously give her credit.
LAKSHMI: I mean, I made it. You saw the episode.
LUSE: I saw it. I saw you make it in the episode.
LAKSHMI: I made it, but Maria's mom, you know, is a tough cookie.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TASTE THE NATION")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
MARIA: She said you put too much dough in there.
LAKSHMI: I'm sorry. And then she just kind of mounds it on top, right?
MARIA: Yeah, the covering.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
LAKSHMI: You know, I'm just curious as part of research, to see...
LUSE: Of course, to see different recipes. But, I mean, you know, in that episode in Puerto Rico, you got into this debate - like, you know, eating pasteles with ketchup or no ketchup. And also, I mean, in another episode, you dive deep into the Afghan community in the D.C. area and how they prepare this rice dish, kabuli pulao. And you show that people make it really differently depending on where they're from when they came to the United States.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TASTE THE NATION")
LAKSHMI: Do you ever have new Afghani refugees who come to Lapis and say, this is not...
SHAMIM POPAL: Yeah, I heard that a lot. I heard that a lot.
LAKSHMI: Really? And what do you say? Do you take out your wooden spoon? Are you like, listen?
POPAL: I say, don't come here.
LAKSHMI: Well, it's also, like, when they lived in Afghanistan...
LAKSHMI: ...Because, you know, there's scarcity, food scarcity with, you know, so many layers of war, from the Russians to the mujahedeen to the Taliban. You know, that - there are certain people who don't think it has carrots and raisins because they've never grown up with carrots and raisins because they just didn't have them.
LUSE: It wasn't available. But, I mean, these subtle differences - the show manages to capture them and turn them into really important parts of conversation, getting into the stories beneath those small differences or differences that seem small until you look deeper into them. I wonder, like, what felt important about investigating those subtle differences in the way that people prepare these dishes they love so much?
LAKSHMI: I think because food can be a metaphor for so many other things, and they also are born out of what that culture has gone through or experiences or where it springs from as far as ingredients. And the choices we make about food are often much more than about our preference or taste or, you know, availability. I mean, a lot of times, it is about food scarcity, but a lot of times, there are reasons, you know, that food kind of permeates every aspect of our lives. You know, the only things that we really need to survive are food, water and love. So, you know, it's really important. It's like, yes, I'm talking about, you know, preference of ketchup or no ketchup, but I'm actually saying like, do you want this Yankee input into something that is so dear to your heart? And so those pasteles are Puerto Rico, and that ketchup is American...
LAKSHMI: ...You know, presence. I'll put it like that. I think Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. We don't like to call it that. We call it a territory, but it's actually a colony. We are colonizing Puerto Rico. And I know people who walk around in New York City thinking when they see a Puerto Rican person, like, ugh, they're immigrants. They're not immigrants. They're Americans. They have an American passport. And we've been occupying their land for a long time.
LUSE: Getting more into how some of these small differences in food preparation have maybe affected your life or shown up in your life, like, is there a story from your own life where you felt the importance of getting those subtle differences right?
LAKSHMI: Yes. I was 6 years old and living in Queens when they consecrated the temple there, the Ganesh Hindu temple. And then at some point when I moved back from Europe after modeling in my 20s, I had a pied-a-terre here in the city. I started going back to the temple again in Queens. And they opened a canteen in the basement of the Hindu temple. And I got to tell you it made me much more religious.
LAKSHMI: So we would always go there. We would do a lap around upstairs to all the deities, you know, break a coconut, have it blessed by the priest and then go down and chow down in the cafeteria, like, literally with metal folding chairs and orange plastic tray. And I think they still use, like, Styrofoam separated - you know, those segregated plates, which is so heinous. But you can get a mountain of food for, like, three bucks. And, you know, eating that and having had the goody bag from doing the ritual offering upstairs, where you always break a coconut - it's called a puja. And you also give them the name of a relative and stuff. And so we would bring back those items, usually the coconut and other food items, which is called a prasadam, and it's blessed food. And all of a sudden, I had fresh coconut. You know, and now you can get fresh coconut maybe at Whole Foods, but, like, 10, 15 years ago...
LAKSHMI: You would have to go to Spanish Harlem, or you would have to go to Patel Brothers in Queens. So all of a sudden, I had this fresh coconut. And then I started, you know, eating it, because you eat it always - right? - for good luck. But then I started grating it and making coconut chutney. And so the importance of having that coconut in my kitchen is monumental because, honestly, it makes me feel like home. You know, the smell of coconut frying with mustard leaves and curry leaves and sesame oil and that popping sound when it hits the coconut chutney - (imitates popping) - like that, that is such a sensorial, deep, visceral pleasure that takes me back to the bosom of my grandmother's love. And that is why. That is why these foods are important because they contain a multitude. They contain with them all of this experience of being human and being alive and being connected to your ancestors and also to your own identity. You know, food tells you who you are. And it's the way that most immigrant parents pass down their culture when they're out of - you know, away from the country they grew up or were born in.
LUSE: Food is the way that so many of us take pride in, celebrate, communicate our heritage and also pass it down to the younger generation among us. One of my favorite moments in the show was in the first season, the third episode, which was about the Indian diaspora community in New York City, where you are from.
LAKSHMI: Oh, in season one. Yes.
LUSE: Yes, in season one. And there's a moment where you're having breakfast with your daughter. And you're asking her, like, does she prefer dosa or pancakes? And she wrestles with it back and forth. And you're kind of watching her, and she - eventually she's like, sorry. I do like American pancakes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TASTE THE NATION")
KRISHNA LAKSHMI: Well, I think I prefer dosas to waffles.
LAKSHMI: OK, I'll take it.
LUSE: And it reminded me of so many moments with me and my mom. I think about, like, cornbread dressing is a food that is, like, a staple in Black American households at the holidays. I didn't like it until I was 16 or 17 years old. And I know. And it takes forever to make.
LAKSHMI: I know. Some elders, it's like, you don't like - what? I know. I know. It's - and that's what it is. And it happened to me with my kid. And I never understood, like, you know, it has - it's attached with so much baggage and heritage. And so it's like saying, I don't like being Black, right?
LUSE: Right. Yeah.
LAKSHMI: To your - to, maybe...
LUSE: Yeah, it can feel like that.
LAKSHMI: Yeah, it can feel like that...
LUSE: Yeah. To the caretaker or elder. Yeah.
LAKSHMI: ...Yeah, to the person trying to help you remember who you are. You know, my daughter's also a biracial child who's growing up in her father's culture, which is - that is what is dominant in, you know...
LUSE: America. Yeah.
LAKSHMI: ...Her environment. Right. Exactly. So, like, it'd be different if she was biracial, but we were living in downtown New Delhi. You know what I mean?
LUSE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
LAKSHMI: Or Chennai or Kerala.
LUSE: Right. Right, right, right.
LAKSHMI: So really, I have, like, less of a chance of imbuing, you know, whatever I can. And I don't just do it with food, right? You know, I make her sing in Sanskrit, which she's finally said, look. Like, enough now. I've had it for six years.
LAKSHMI: I'm not taking Carnatic music lessons anymore. She doesn't know what she's saying in Sanskrit. By the way, neither do I.
LAKSHMI: But I recognize that music from my grandfather singing to me on the veranda when I was sent back every summer to, you know, Madras, to Chennai. And I never got those music lessons because I, you know, lived mostly in America with a single mom who was a nurse. And, you know, there was nobody to teach me classical Indian vocal training. But hearing those songs, hearing that Sanskrit come out of my, you know, 7-year-old child's mouth and doing, you know, scales and ragas - it gives me a deep pleasure that pierces my soul in a way that is hard to put in words. And that is why you better [expletive] eat that cornbread.
LUSE: (Laughter) I do now. I eat cornbread dressing now.
LAKSHMI: And smile. And smile and be like, thank you, Mama.
LAKSHMI: Or whoever made that cornbread. That's why.
LUSE: I mean, it's like - you're getting at this, but I think it's very similar, like you said, with food. Like, even if your child doesn't like it or has to develop a taste for it as they age, which - now it's like the older I get, it's like, I'll catch myself, like, stirring - like, just staring into a pot of greens, like, on a Sunday. And I'm just like, who is this person? Like, when did she happen? But it's like, eventually, I grew to crave those things. I learned how to prepare them.
LAKSHMI: Because you're craving the warmth of your family.
LUSE: Exactly. Exactly. And...
LAKSHMI: You know, you don't have to - I don't have to be Black to get that.
LAKSHMI: And You don't have to be Indian to get that - you know, what I'm saying about dal. And for the record, she likes dal now.
LAKSHMI: She doesn't like some other stuff, but she does like dal. You know?
LUSE: Well, thank you so, so much for coming on and talking with me today. I'm excited for people to see the new season of "Taste The Nation."
LAKSHMI: Thank you. I'm excited for everyone to see it. Thank you for having me.
LUSE: My pleasure.
Thanks again to Padma Lakshmi. Season two of "Taste The Nation" is out now on Hulu. Coming up, unpacking the complicated legacy of Michael Jackson. Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUSE: I want to turn your attention to something that is always vying for our attention - capital-C celebrity. Specifically, I want to talk about celebrity and legacy - how the famous tell us to remember them, how we actually look back on them and ultimately, what that says about us. And today we are applying this to Michael Jackson.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLIE JEAN")
MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) Billie Jean is not my lover.
LUSE: Oof. "Billie Jean" is and has always been a perfect pop song. But did anyone else cringe a little bit when hearing it, or was that just me? Ever since his death and the release of the searing documentary "Leaving Neverland," many are reconsidering playing Michael Jackson at their wedding or putting him on their playlists. But his influence still reigns supreme. Journalists Jay Smooth and Leon Neyfakh are out with a new investigative podcast about MJ's legacy. It's called "Think Twice," and it's a closer look at how Michael actually sat in the driver's seat with his public persona and how the public grapples - or doesn't - with his memory. Jay, Leon, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.
JAY SMOOTH: Thank you. Great to be here.
LEON NEYFAKH: Thank you, Brittany.
LUSE: OK. So to start off, something that really grabbed me about this series was Michael Jackson's penchant for creating the mythology that existed around him. That was something that I thought I totally understood. I remember being a kid and seeing his face on tabloids, and he was, like, had a veil on and a military jacket. And he was like, you know, people were mobbing him and they're passing out at concerts. And I'm like, oh, my God. Being famous seems terrible. Like, it seems like the worst thing that could happen to a person. So much of Michael's celebrity narrative was about him being hounded by the merciless press. He made a song and a video about it, "Leave Me Alone." I used to watch it all the time when I was a kid. But in reality, he seemed to collaborate with them quite a bit, which is something I did not know and really understand until I listened to this series. I mean, at one point in the series, you speak to the editor of the National Enquirer about the stories that Michael's team fed to the tabloid. I wonder, in what ways did Michael contribute to the hoopla around him? Jay, I want to hear from you first.
SMOOTH: Yeah, there's no question Michael lived with a level of public scrutiny that we could never imagine, and that had to do things to someone's mental health. But we definitely learned while working on this series that he was an active participant in helping to build this mythology. And even as you saw him lamenting how dare they show these pictures of me in a hyperbaric chamber and make it out like something it wasn't...
SMOOTH: We learned directly that this was something Michael and his team pitched to the Enquirer. Like, put these pictures of me in the hyperbaric chamber. It was in some ways impressive to learn how savvy and sophisticated Michael was about trying to shape and control this persona. But then you see, after a certain point, it becomes bigger than he can control and goes to places he didn't want it to go. And he's sort of eventually being pulled along in this tidal wave of people discovering his levels of peculiarity that are a little more peculiar than he wanted people to think.
LUSE: I think one of Michael Jackson's most enduring narratives was that he was just a big kid who never got a real childhood, and that's why he had to, like, name his, you know, compound Neverland Ranch and, like - or why he felt that he related so deeply to the children's movie "Blank Check," which I saw in theaters because I was 6 when it came out, which was the age-appropriate audience for that movie. He felt like he related to this kid who suddenly came into a bunch of money and was able to just, like, I don't know, like, build a roller coaster in his backyard or something like that. He posited himself as a real-life Peter Pan. But you all found tape and a lot of interviews from friends and business associates that paint him as very much an adult who was intentional about his public persona. Talk to me about that dichotomy. Leon, I'd love to hear from you.
NEYFAKH: Taking a step back from his music, I think he benefited very strongly from the Peter Pan narrative that you were just talking about. I think people wanted to believe that. And it was a very powerful story, and one that I think Michael's camp really endorsed. And there are just these like flashes of - I don't want to say, like, cunning in a bad way, but just, like, a real shrewd kind of sense of the business world, the music industry, how to build an image - like, how to use your power in a room if you're in a room with MTV executives and they're not playing your video because they don't play videos by Black artists, or if you're in a room and you want the world to start calling you the king of pop. How do you flex your muscle as an entertainer? Like, he knew how to move those levers, and I think that doesn't quite square sometimes with the image of the naive Peter Pan that people would prefer to imagine him as.
LUSE: Coming up, we're getting into the effectiveness of Michael Jackson's mythmaking and asking whether or not he's reached a level of fame that makes him uncancelable.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUSE: I think that the effectiveness of his mythmaking is also ultimately what protected him from the type of scrutiny and skepticism, frankly, that some other famous alleged abusers have experienced - that is, until the release of the documentary "Leaving Neverland" back in 2019, in which two men alleged that they were sexually abused by Jackson as children. The documentary was called into question by some fans and others and the Jackson estate. And ultimately, I believe it was removed from HBO at the time. But it was a sensation nonetheless, and it really affected a lot of fans who perhaps didn't believe the previous allegations. And you spoke to one of those people - at least one of those people on the show.
You note in your series that up until that documentary - and I thought this was so pivotal, but up until that documentary, we hadn't really heard from any of the boys who Jackson was alleged to have abused. We'd only really heard from Michael. Jay, how do you think that affected the public's perception of that whole situation?
SMOOTH: It was a crossroads for a lot of us where something we had told ourselves, well, we'll probably never know for sure. It became, well, this feels hard to deny after watching these folks speak about their experience. And that's certainly not the conclusion everyone came to, and I'm not here to prescribe what conclusion anyone should have drawn. But I think for a lot of us, that was a difficult crossroads coming to terms with what we saw.
LUSE: I think part of the reason why thinking about Michael Jackson and what to do with your feelings about him or how you want to think about him or continue to incorporate his music or legacy in your life is just because he's - I mean, the word iconic is thrown around a lot, but he's literally iconic. Everybody knows what it means when you see someone moonwalk or when you see one white glove. Everybody knows what that means. It's iconography. And I think that the series also does a really impressive job of digging into the idea of Michael Jackson as an icon. We had a recent conversation on this show about Marilyn Monroe as a uniquely American icon - like, as in not only was she hugely famous, but her life story intersects with so many other major American institutions and movements. And I think of Michael Jackson the same way. He's got the rags to riches story, the Calvinist work ethic, Motown, Studio 54, MTV, Saturday morning cartoons. I could go on. Leon, how do you think about Michael Jackson as an icon of Americana?
NEYFAKH: What you see is that he has become only more iconic because he's gone. And I think, like, one of the questions I had going into this was, was Michael, quote, unquote, "canceled" or not? Like, I just - I couldn't tell. I feel like there was a period of time after the release of "Leaving Neverland" when people, like, at least in my social circle, were all like, can we still listen to Michael? Can we still have "Billie Jean" on the playlist for our wedding?
NEYFAKH: And for some people, that was, like, a very personal question. Like, can I still listen to Michael Jackson and enjoy it and not only think about these allegations? And for other people, it's more about like, is it OK to admit that I still like this? And I think we realized when we started making the show that, like, a lot of the hand-wringing that, like, I remember from the period immediately after "Leaving Neverland" has been much less visible, like, in the years since. Like, there's a musical based on his life story and using all of his hit songs. It's, like, doing amazing on Broadway.
LUSE: Huge. Huge on Broadway. It's opening in Los Angeles soon.
NEYFAKH: Yeah, like, biggest thing ever. Yeah. I'm a big Drake fan.
LUSE: My condolences.
NEYFAKH: Listen. We can talk about that another time. Drake, like, had a song on "Scorpion," I think, where he sampled, like, an old Michael Jackson demo, and he was on tour. And he stopped playing that song. But then, like, fast forward to, like, last year, and Drake is referencing him in the songs again, and it's fine.
NEYFAKH: And so we just wanted to know, like - well, where are we at with this? Like, is there a conventional wisdom that, like, OK, like, we have moved on? Or is it the case that people are still struggling with this privately, even though when you look at, like, something like the "MJ" musical, it does seem like for many, many people, the allegations are at best a footnote, which they are in the musical. I mean, maybe that's even too strong. They don't really talk about the allegations at all in the musical because the plot cuts off right before they were first leveled.
NEYFAKH: If you imagine all these things happening now, post #MeToo, like, most celebrities, I don't think, would survive these kinds of allegations. And he really has. Maybe it helps that he's dead, and we don't have to, like, look at him and make a decision about him. Or maybe it's because the music is just too good - you know? - and we just can't let go. Or maybe it's because of all these different ways that he influenced the world around him and, like, pioneered so many different things that we now take for granted that you couldn't separate him or take him out of our culture or cancel him if you wanted to.
LUSE: That kind of fame, Michael Jackson's fame, is a product of the American monoculture of the past. Pop culture is so fragmented now, I - it's hard to imagine just how immense that sort of recognition was - like, Michael Jackson in the '80s. It's hard for me to fathom. Is there anyone of younger generations - (clearing throat) - is there anyone of younger generations...
LUSE: Let me finish.
NEYFAKH: Sorry. I had a little frog in my throat.
LUSE: But is there anyone of younger generations that you could think of with that kind of all-encompassing, inescapable fame today?
NEYFAKH: Taylor Swift, maybe?
LUSE: I forgot about her. I was - we were naming people yesterday.
NEYFAKH: I guess that proves me wrong.
LUSE: She did not even come to mind. But you're right. I am aware of her. That's true.
SMOOTH: I guess Beyonce is the first that comes to mind for me. But it is so difficult to compare any of these to what a celebrity or any pop culture phenomenon could be back in those days. I was just watching Danny DeVito talking about his early days on the sitcom "Taxi" and how...
LUSE: Oh, yeah.
SMOOTH: ...An episode of "Taxi" might have 30, 40, 50 million people watching it on a particular evening. And the show...
NEYFAKH: So nuts.
SMOOTH: The shows that we all feel like we're obsessing over today might be getting 1/10 of that, so there really was a potential for monoculture that does not exist nowadays. I'm not sure it's possible to have a star of the magnitude of Michael Jackson back in the days, no.
NEYFAKH: Yeah, I feel like there's more people now who feel really famous to the - like, they themselves feel famous because they have a million followers on Instagram, but like, their cultural footprint does not really, like, track with that, you know. I think you're totally right, Brittany, that there is no one as big as him, and there never will be again. You know, the Super Bowl halftime show, I feel like, is, like, the - one of the last remaining, you know, institutions of the monoculture that still...
NEYFAKH: ...Carries weight, and it's not a surprise to learn that, in fact, that began with Michael Jackson in 1993. He was invited to perform at the Super Bowl in what was then a very novel gesture. Like, they weren't doing shows like that in the middle of the Super Bowl before. They were doing, like, little parades and ice-skating routines and stuff, and Michael Jackson took that stage, and he created a new template for what that show could be. And I think you see every year now, like, who's it going to be? Who's big enough, you know?
NEYFAKH: And usually you can't really think of anyone other than a few people. I mean, like Rihanna made perfect sense, but like...
NEYFAKH: ...I think the people booking those halftime shows will have an increasingly hard time finding people who are that universal.
LUSE: I also think that, to a certain extent, that his uncancelability (ph) is kind of as related to that, like, monocultural fame. It's like, for someone to be that big, it's really difficult to cancel them. Some people - they can delete their Twitter account, their Instagram. It'll be like they were never here. You know, on that note, to close, you all have made this series. You even saw the Michael Jackson Broadway musical together for the show.
LUSE: I wonder, do you still listen to Michael Jackson's music? Like, is Michael Jackson canceled to you?
NEYFAKH: No, he's not canceled to me. Like, I do still really happily listen to my favorite Michael Jackson songs, and I think, like, this question of, like - can you separate the art from the artists? Like, my short answer is yes, at least in theory, right? I think in practice, the truth is we bring so much to the art we consume. We bring our own memories. We bring everything we know about the artist. We can't not, and so I guess my feeling is like, we might as well know as much as we can, and my belief is that you enrich your experience of art by knowing more. You don't, like, somehow contaminate it with impurity by bringing to it, like, whatever it is you happen to know. And there's probably people out there who haven't been listening to Michael Jackson since leaving Neverland, and I kind of, like, imagine someone listening to this podcast and being able to again, not because, like, we have set out to exonerate him or...
NEYFAKH: Because we've, like, set out to make an argument that it doesn't matter. I want to believe that hearing the whole story and hearing it at the level of depth that we've presented it like actually makes it easier to not just have this binary reaction of, like, can't engage.
LUSE: What about you, Jay?
SMOOTH: I can't say that I pull up his music and listen to it on my headphones by myself that often anymore, but I obviously encounter his music every day out in the world, and how it hits me will vary pretty widely. I might be sitting in an Uber one day, and he puts Michael on, and I think to myself, OK, we're really doing that. Or another time I'll be at a party, and they'll mix in "Baby Be Mine" after some other '70s joints, and it'll just make sense. It'll fit with the vibe of the party, and I'll be rocking along with it. And I definitely can't say that there's a correct way to compartmentalize these things. There's so much compartmentalization we do with most of the pop culture that we enjoy, especially - you know, I've said before, I think compartmentalizing is like the sixth element of hip-hop. I mean...
SMOOTH: ...You know, you can't be a lifelong hip-hopper (ph) and not have spent time listening to music you love where they're saying things you don't love.
SMOOTH: There's a line from Stevie Wonder that I quote often - make sure when you say you're in it, but not of it, you're not making to make this world a place sometimes called hell. I can't say there's a right or wrong way to draw those lines for yourself, but I think trying to be aware and ask yourself - am I engaging with this in a way that's really healthy and is making sure that the world I share with survivors of abuse are going to feel safe to share space with me and feel safe to come out and tell their stories? I don't think there's an easy answer to that, but I think that's something we all try to figure out, and I think this series, in some ways, is a documentation of that process.
LUSE: Those are both very thoughtful answers, and thank you so much for the series and also for coming here today to talking with me about it. I really, really appreciate it.
SMOOTH: Yeah, thank you so much. It was great talking with you.
NEYFAKH: Thank you, Brittany. Really appreciate you having us on.
LUSE: Oh, my gosh. My pleasure.
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LUSE: That was Jay Smooth and Leon Neyfakh, the hosts of "Think Twice," a new investigative podcast looking at Michael Jackson's legacy. This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...
BARTON GIRDWOOD, BYLINE: Barton Girdwood.
ALEXIS WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Alexis Williams.
LIAM MCBAIN, BYLINE: Liam McBain.
COREY ANTONIO ROSE, BYLINE: Corey Antonio Rose.
LUSE: This episode was edited by...
JESSICA PLACZEK, BYLINE: Jessica Placzek.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Bilal Qureshi.
LUSE: Engineering support came from...
NEAL RAUCH, BYLINE: Neal Rauch.
MAGGIE LUTHAR, BYLINE: Maggie Luthar.
LUSE: Our executive producer is...
VERALYN WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Veralyn Williams.
LUSE: Our VP of programming is...
YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.
LUSE: Our senior VP of programming is...
ANYA GRUNDMANN, BYLINE: Anya Grundmann.
LUSE: All right. That's all for this episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. Talk soon.
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