Michael Jackson was a phenomenally talented individual and entertainer. He also may well have been a pedophile who abused multiple children entrusted to his care. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive, and our complicated relationship with the artist and his art is illustrative of our larger struggle with how to regard the accused, their accusers, and their past creations in the #MeToo era.
Concerns about Jackson’s troubled legacy related to his long-suspected indiscretions have returned with renewed vigor in the wake of the airing of the documentary Leaving Neverland. The four-hour film, which prominently features Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two of Jackson’s accusers, is by many accounts a must-see.
As with any creative work, the movie’s merits may certainly be debated. Some critics have also observed the documentary, in its spotlight on the accusers, is not neutral—though it’s realistically difficult for the people involved with making the film not to take a stand on a matter of such import. Whatever you think of the veracity of the accusers’ accounts, the subject of child abuse and the effect it has on families is a discussion worth having, and to the extent Leaving Neverland can add to this discussion, this suggests its existence has value.
The subsequent backlash has been notable, at any rate. Some radio stations have removed Michael Jackson’s catalog from their programming. Other artists/companies/productions sampling or performing his songs have canceled upcoming projects invoking his image or have likewise moved to retroactively remove his likeness and his music. Perhaps fitting for this era, the backlash itself has seen a backlash, particularly from Jackson’s estate and his avid fans. The former filed a $100 million defamation lawsuit against HBO. Protestors came out in full force outside the office of British television company Channel 4 and at the Sundance Film Festival for showing the movie. To put it mildly, Leaving Neverland has caused a stir.
Most of us are not as close to the events of the documentary or Jackson’s music to have such strong feelings as his accusers, his family and friends, or his loyal supporters. Still, it’s not like the rest of us aren’t familiar with the man and his body of work. After all, they didn’t call him “the King of Pop” for nothing. At his peak popularity, Jackson possessed the kind of fame most of today’s entertainers could only dream of. The allusion to him being pop royalty was especially apt. His stardom rivaled the love and affection the queen of England might receive. Heck, he met with presidents and foreign dignitaries. If not quite larger than life, “MJ” was pretty gosh darn huge nonetheless.
Accordingly, we all possess some degree of connection to Jackson and his music. The question then becomes: how do we regard the artist and his art? For many people, it’s an uncomfortable situation marked by cognitive dissonance. “I like his music. People tell me he’s a pedophile. This upsets me. How do I reconcile these disparate feelings?” I paint this picture as if it’s a wholly conscious decision on our parts, though I am cognizant of the notion it is not. We use coping mechanisms to assuage ourselves of the discordant emotions and ideations within our minds. It’s up to us as individuals to process and sort through how we experience it all.
So, to listen or not to listen? If you ask Kate Maltby, broadcaster, columnist, and theater critic in the UK, the answer—at least for her—is yes. For her part, Maltby believes Robson and Safechuck. Among her reasons is the idea that these accusers would be loath to invite the wrath of the Jackson estate and his fans except for the need to tell the truth. Not to mention their lawsuits against the estate have since been dismissed on effective technicalities or statutes of limitation. If this were a ruse for the sake of money or fame, it wouldn’t appear to serve those ends very well.
Assuming we do believe these men, Maltby feels we are doing ourselves a disservice by negating the greatness of Jackson’s hits alongside adding a new context to his life’s saga. In making this assertion, she is making a key distinction between a figure who has passed on and can’t make any more money off of his creative works and those of disgraced living entertainers who are abusers and whose mere presence would stunt the development of other potential collaborators. Jackson’s family didn’t perpetrate these acts. Why should they suffer as a result?
Ultimately, for Maltby, the recognition that Michael Jackson was a musical “genius” and an active worker for the benefit of charities but also a flawed human being is essential, lest we try to absolve other gifted individuals because of their ability in the future. She directs this argument at Jackson’s “superfans,” specifically the kinds that “wonder why people don’t come out earlier with accusations of abuse, then attack those who do.” She finishes her op-ed on this subject with these thoughts:
Appreciating Jackson’s music should help us see him, and humanity, as susceptible to complex tragedy. Jackson’s own father has been called “one of the most monstrous fathers in pop” — and we know how many children of abuse go on to abuse others in turn. Jackson’s superfans would do well to reflect on how quick they are to believe Jackson’s own tales of childhood abuse — whippings with electric cords and belt buckles — and how quick to disbelieve his accusers.
Jackson’s critics should be open-minded enough to recognize that his impact on our musical landscape can’t be reversed. But his defenders should be open-minded enough to accept he may still have done terrible things. The rest of us should keep playing those tracks — and test how easy it is to lose ourselves in the music.
Though it may be small consolation to some to hear, approaching Jackson’s identity as a peerless talent with a dark side isn’t easy for anyone. Perhaps this is simply the nature of these things. As hard as it is to assign blame or prove guilt in cases of sexual abuse, it’s also difficult to reckon with the emotional and psychological aftermath of these acts in their own way. Child abuse has pervasive negative effects on our psyches and these effects are only magnified in the case of an alleged abuser with the profile of “the King of Pop.” Our collective discomfort only hints at the destructive force of this sort of violence and the sense of shame survivors can feel.
Long before Leaving Neverland, Dave Chappelle invoked Michael Jackson’s trials in a sketch for his hit eponymous comedy show. The premise is that Chappelle is a potential juror in various courtroom proceedings of high-profile black celebrities, a premise of which the genesis could be found in his conversations with one of the show’s writers about the notion that he (Chappelle) almost never believes these stars are guilty. Chappelle’s character goes to great lengths to absolve Jackson of any culpability, downplaying accounts of his accusers describing Jackson’s genitalia as well as Jackson’s own admissions that he slept in the same bed as children who stayed at his Neverland ranch. He also reasons Jackson can’t be guilty because “the man made Thriller.”
Of course, this is comedy and Chappelle’s juror, when asked by the prosecutor if he’d let his children sleep in the same bed, responds with a disgusted “F**k no!” Still, this sketch arguably hasn’t aged very well. Regardless of the character’s sincerity, these are real arguments used against survivors of sexual abuse. Why didn’t they come forward sooner? What’s in it for them? Are they doing it for the money? For the attention? Where’s the evidence?
In Jackson’s case, while not the only ones to cast aspersions on Wade Robson’s and James Safechuck’s accounts, those “superfans” Kate Maltby describes take it to an extreme. Mike Pesca, writing for Slate, is among those who say Jackson’s steadfast defenders “sound like conspiracy theorists” way past impartiality more so than discerning consumers of news and entertainment media. Pesca likens these fanatics to so-called 9/11 “truthers” who aver that this tragedy was an inside job. He points out that he doesn’t know “for certain” that Jackson is an abuser, but that a preponderance of evidence suggests he is and that Robson and Safechuck are telling the truth.
That hasn’t resonated with Jackson’s defenders, however. As Pesca characterizes their defenses of their beloved pop idol, there are three major points by which his accusers can be refuted: 1) there were plenty of boys Jackson didn’t molest, 2) Robson testified on Jackson’s behalf back in the 2004-2005 trial against him, and 3) they are after Jackson’s money.
Let’s start with #3, which we’ve already addressed in part with discussion of the fact Robson’s and Safechuck’s lawsuits against the Jackson estate have been thrown out. We may be eager to discount the accusers as motivated by money, but what about the Jackson’s estate’s lawyers? What about the relatives who, in defending Michael, neglect to mention that their public profiles and musical relevance are intimately connected with his image? If Robson and Safechuck are fair game, certainly, those with a material interest in Michael Jackson’s marketability making public statements on his behalf are too.
As for the other proverbial prongs in the trident that is Jackson’s defense, on the first count—that Jackson didn’t molest many children—this doesn’t prove he couldn’t have violated other young people. The same kind of defense was used by Brett Kavanaugh’s apologizers after multiple accusations of sexual impropriety not long ago. If it seemed suspicious then, it should seem equally specious now if not more so given the irregularity of Jackson’s behavior during the period in question. On #2? Very simply, Robson could’ve been lying then and is telling the truth now, and not the other way around.
For Pesca, that Jackson’s staunchest defenders take to ramblings on Medium and YouTube doesn’t damn them absolutely, but it doesn’t speak highly of them either. Even when those who stand by Jackson possess a veneer of greater respectability—in name-checking music journalist Joe Vogel, Pesca confesses he doesn’t possess a high regard for Forbes—they still might be reliant on character references who themselves may be blind to or uncapable of entertaining the thought that Jackson molested children.
Another defense Pesca underscores is that Jackson was black and his accusers are white, reminiscent of Dave Chappelle’s hyperbolic characterization. Vogel awkwardly tries to make this case too, citing—of all things—To Kill a Mockingbird. Mr. Vogel, ahem, you are no Harper Lee. Ditto for will.i.am, who threw out the idea that the backlash against Jackson is a “smear campaign” and that black artists are targeted disproportionately over white artists.
Even if will.i.am—I hate that I have to keep writing his name this way—has a point about the inherent hypocrisy in the ability of corporations and certain other individuals to reclaim their standing after heinous acts, the perceived lack of empathy here undermines the strength of his argument. Why is it so much easier to believe that Jackson is innocent and that his accusers are opportunists than the reverse? Or espouse the belief that their mothers were terrible parents and say nothing of Jackson’s alleged misdeeds? Because, as Chappelle joked, he made Thriller? Should it matter if the accused is, as the song goes, black or white?
As with sorting out our feelings on these matters, answering these questions isn’t easy either. Despite the controversy related to Leaving Neverland and radio station bans, streams of Michael Jackson’s music increased following the documentary’s premiere. Maybe listeners are simply able to separate the art from the artist. Maybe it’s a show of defiance from the fans who have never lost faith. For those of us in between and victims of physical and sexual abuse everywhere, the reasons may change but the song remains the same.