After ‘Leaving Neverland’, How Do We Grapple with the Life and Legacy of Michael Jackson?
The HBO documentary Finding Neverland screened this weekend following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The series, wherein two men (Wade Robson and James Safechuck) describe in agonizing detail their allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson, has inspired exactly the kinds of reactions everyone expected it to. Reviews, which have been universally positive in terms of the quality of the work itself, express shock and disgust with what Jackson has been accused of. His fans have taken to social media to virulently lambaste anyone who dares to speak on the matter. The Jackson family, who run his immensely profitable estate, have already dismissed the film as nothing but lies and smears and are attempting to sue HBO.
We’ve spent the past couple of years dealing with a series of reckonings in regards to abusive men and their power. For the most part, this has been related to the sexual harassment and assault of women at the hands of powerful men in the entertainment industry. There have been notable examples centered on male accusers, such as the cases involving Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer, but those moments have further highlighted how unequipped our society is to deal with such matters. Besides, we all knew about these stories. We knew about Harvey Weinstein. We knew about Bryan Singer. We knew about Michael Jackson.
I won’t go into detail the sheer horror of what Jackson is accused of doing to Robson and Safechuck. You can find all of that in the documentary itself as well as various review and reports. A lot of it will sound very familiar to you if you’re in any way acquainted with this story. But that won’t dilute the sensation of being wholly gutted by what is revealed. These were not the actions of a man who never matured beyond adolescence, as so many of his defenders like to claim. This was concerted manipulation, the work of someone who knew exactly what they were doing. And we all knew about it. We’d all heard the myriad allegations, seen the stomach-twisting interviews he gave while holding a young boy’s hand, listened to him admit to sleepovers with pre-adolescent children, gawked at the shrine of Neverland full of murals of Jackson surrounded by fawning kids. It didn’t stop anyone from listening to Thriller. I’ve always believed his alleged victims and it didn’t stop me from listening to Thriller.
Nobody will ever be as famous as Michael Jackson was at his peak. We do not have the foundations of celebrity or the possibility of pure undivided worldwide attention in the same way Jackson had when he was the biggest star on the planet. Thriller remains the biggest selling album of all time, with claimed sales of over 66 million records. Nothing else comes close. If all he ever made was that one album then his place in cultural history would still be assured. The influence of that record can be found everywhere in modern music, seeped into the very pores of the medium. The Jackson life, story, body of work is legend by this point in time, in part because the Jackson brand designed it to be. His abusive childhood at the hands of his father is well-known, and we’ve all seen the videos of the bubblegum pop joy of the Jackson Five performing those songs you’ll never be able to get out of your head. When he matured into that handsome solo singer with the records you just had to own, everyone was a fan.
He meant so much to so many people and it was easy to buy into his toe-tapping self-victimization thanks to songs like Leave Me Alone and Scream that positioned Jackson himself as the persecuted underdog fighting the system. There’s an entire short movie called Michael Jackson’s Ghosts that practically taunts his doubters over the allegations. Directed by Stan Winston, co-written by Stephen King and made on a $15 million budget, the film features Jackson as The Maestro, a kindly man who entertains children in his foreboding mansion on top of a hill. When the town’s parents panic, the children rush to his defence, while the town Mayor (played by Jackson under heavy prosthetics) tries to get him to leave. The Maestro scares everyone at one point by ripping his skin from his skull, revealing he is a ghost, then after possessing the Mayor and leaving him with a deformed face, he wins over the townspeople and the kids celebrate. What probably would have played as quirky a decade earlier now seemed callous, calculated, the ego strutting of a man who knew his most dedicated fans would never say anything in protest.
Before Jackson died, he was firmly a public pariah, the fallen idol turned full-time ‘weirdo’ who was so very uncool. I have oddly clear memories of the day he died. Every news channel covered the story, minute-by-minute, including the ambulance transporting his dying body to hospital like it was OJ Simpson’s white Ford Bronco. I remember Joe Pesci calling into Fox News to talk about it. when the lavish and consciously public funeral happened, I recall seeing two Jackson fans being surprised with tickets to the ceremony and them jumping up and down with joy, possibly the first time anyone’s been excited to see a dead man’s children cry in front of them. Nobody said anything less than glowing. It’s wrong to speak ill of the dead. It was too soon. But a decade later and it’s still too soon, apparently. Jackson’s death deified him in ways we’ve never truly grappled with. Death comes with its own forms of historical re-writing. It fuels our ability to deny.
I’ve long since lost my optimism about our current age of reckoning and its ability to create real social change. I’ve become too cynical about the process having seen how depressingly easy it was for everyone to slide back to the status quo. An accused child rapist gets to direct more movies. Documented domestic abusers are headlining franchises. If Bad comes on in a shop, will you leave? The music of the megastar matters more than the crimes of the man. How can it not where there’s so much money on the line, not to mention millions of people’s emotional investment?
The very least we can do is bear witness to Wade Robson and James Safechuck. After everything that has happened and after decades of public denial, they deserve to be heard. Our culture needs this moment because we’ve refused to acknowledge it for so long. Whether it will change those devotees’ minds remains to be seen. Even the R. Kelly documentary led to a boost in his album sales. Jackson may have created an image of himself as being beyond human, but to continue to fuel that façade helps nobody but his estate. Let’s listen to those survivors. Truthfully, I don’t think I can listen to Jackson’s music ever again, and frankly, that’s a sacrifice worth making.
Header Image Source: HBO
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