“Is it okay to still listen to the music of Michael Jackson?”
Over the past few days, I’ve seen many different variations of that headline. The Guardian asked, “Can We Still Listen To Michael Jackson?” From Slate: “Will Michael Jackson songs still play at weddings? We asked three DJs.” And, of course, Entertainment Weekly chimed in with: “Can we still listen to Michael Jackson’s music after HBO doc Leaving Neverland?” As far as I know, the Guardian has yet to accuse Entertainment Weekly of headline plagiarism. That’s how seriously this question is being considered.
Fortunately, for me, it’s not a question that I have to answer. Michael Jackson’s music has never been an important part of my life. All of the songs and albums that people rave about — Thriller, Bad, that song about the rat — were all pretty much before my time. Usually, whenever I have heard any of those so-called classics, my usual reaction has been that 1) they’re ludicrously overproduced and 2) they tend to drag on forever. (Seriously, there’s no reason to ask Annie if she’s okay that many times.) Some people grew up with the idea of Michael Jackson being the King of Pop and a musical innovator. I grew up with the idea of Michael Jackson being a rather frightening eccentric who didn’t appear to have a nose and who wrote songs about how unfair it was that the world wouldn’t accept that he just really, really enjoyed the company of children. Since neither Jackson nor his music have ever been an important part of my life, it’s rather easy for me to shrug and say, “Sure, let us never hear his music again.”
Still, there are many people debating the question of whether or not it’s time to cancel the legacy of Michael Jackson. That’s because of Leaving Neverland, a 4-hour documentary that premiered at Sundance and which recently aired on HBO. Leaving Neverland deals with two men — choreographer Wade Robson and former actor Jimmy Safechuck — who claim that they were both sexually abused by Michael Jackson as children. Interviewed separately, both Robson and Safechuck tell nearly identical stories about first meeting Jackson, being invited into the sanctuary of Jackson’s Neverland, and eventually being brainwashed, abused, and eventually abandoned by Jackson. It’s not just that Robson and Safechuck both separately tell the same story. It’s also that the details will be familiar to anyone who has ever been abused. The grooming. The manipulation. The thrill of sharing a secret eventually giving way to the guilt of feeling that you’re somehow at fault. And, of course, the combination of fear and denial that both Robson and Safechuck say initially caused them to lie and deny having been abused by Jackson. Both men talk about how Jackson used their own broken families to control them, suggesting that only he understood what they were going through and that they were only truly safe when they were with him. Jimmy Safechuck, in particular, speaks in the haunted manner and nervous cadences of a survivor. Their stories are frequently harrowing and, watching the documentary, one can understand why counselors were on hand for the Sundance showing.
That said, those who have complained that Leaving Neverland is a very one-sided affair do have a point. (To see what many of Michael Jackson’s supporters have to say about the men and their stories, check out #mjinnocent on twitter.) Leaving Neverland is very much a product of our current cancel culture. From the start it clearly chooses a side and, for four hours, it focuses only on that side. Far more attention is paid to the civil suit that Jackson settled out of court than the criminal trial in which Jackson was acquitted. Much has been made on twitter about inconsistencies in Safechuck and Robson’s stories. Yet, are those inconsistencies the result of an intentional attempt to subvert the truth or are they the result of the trauma that the two men suffered at the hands of their abuser? When I checked in on twitter during the documentary’s airing, it was fascinating to watch as the two camps debated who should be cancelled, Michael Jackson for being accused of pedophilia or Wade Robson for saying that Jackson’s hair felt like a brillo pad.
Ultimately, Leaving Neverland is a portrait of the power of fame. One imagines that if a stranger had approached the mothers of Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck and said that he wanted to spend a weekend sleeping in the same bed as their sons, the mothers would have a very different response than they did when Michael Jackson did essentially just that. For all the red flags to be found in Jackson’s public behavior, he was often dismissed as just being an eccentric artist, a harmless Peter Pan-like figure. (You have to wonder if there was no one in his camp who was willing to say, “Y’know, Michael, maybe you should stop being photographed with little boys for a while.”) One of the more interesting things about the documentary is to see how quickly Jackson recovered from the 1993 abuse allegations. The same reporters who very gravely report the allegations about Jackson in ’93 are later seen glibly referring to Jackson as being the “king of pop,” just a few years later.
Leaving Neverland is a powerful documentary but I doubt it will change anyone’s mind. That’s one of the dangers that comes from picking a side as deliberately and unapologetically as this documentary does. Your argument may be great but only those who agree with you are going to listen. Those who support Jackson will see it as being a hit piece. Those who believe Jackson was guilty will see the documentary as being validation. Ultimately, whether or not it’s still okay to listen to Michael Jackson’s music is a decision that only you can make for yourself.