After Leaving Neverland, What Do We Do With Michael Jackson?

10 minute read

Barely a week goes by when we’re not forced to wrestle with the damaging, and sometimes horrific, acts of men who have made art that we care about. We need to put the well-being of humans above movies and paintings, above words and music. Yet movies and paintings, and words and music, are the very things that allow us to make sense out of human nature. What do we toss out and what do we keep, especially if we’re dealing with works we’ve loved most of our lives, made by people whose goodness we used to believe in?

It was, at one time, easy enough to believe in the inherent goodness of Michael Jackson, and it has always been easy to love his music. But now, both of those things are harder. Leaving Neverland, Dan Reed’s revelatory and unsettling HBO documentary, focuses on two men who claim, with absolute believability, that as kids they suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson. James Safechuck met Jackson in 1987 when, at age 10, he appeared with the singer in a Pepsi commercial; Wade Robson was a precocious 7-year-old aspiring performer in Brisbane, Australia, who idolized Jackson before meeting him backstage after a concert. Both Safechuck and Robson speak with raw frankness about how Jackson seduced them, coaxing them into sexual intimacy that began, at least in their eyes as children, as innocent friendship. This adds context to why both boys remained loyal to Jackson, having previously made statements that they had not been abused by him. The movie is unnervingly illuminating, as a new lens pulls focus on things we may have already known, deep down, about Jackson, but still don’t really want to admit. (His estate has repeatedly refuted the allegations made in the film: “‘Leaving Neverland’ isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death,” they said in a January statement.)

Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance in January, and in the month or so since, it has been a topic of conversation among people who have seen it and those who haven’t. But the buzz, curiously, doesn’t consist overwhelmingly of the sound of knives being sharpened. While I’ve heard vague and certainly reasonable mutterings of, “I’m not sure I can enjoy Michael Jackson’s music anymore,” I haven’t heard, either in real life or on social media, any loud declarations about the need to erase him from the culture. I’m sure those people are out there. But why does it seem that we still feel sympathy for Michael Jackson—creepy weirdo Michael Jackson who, it now seems abundantly clear, abused children, for God’s sake—in a way that we can’t for, say, Louis C.K. or Charlie Rose? And why does it seem that we feel more for him than we might feel for R. Kelly, whose alleged crimes also involved children?

The seriousness of what Jackson allegedly did to Safechuck and Robson, and possibly more kids like them, isn’t in question: Hurting a child is something no decent person can defend. But we don’t think of Jackson as having malice in his soul; he seemed, more than anything, lost. As a kid, he was like a little grown-up. As a grown-up, he was like a child. Somehow, Jackson demands a different framework of judgment from the R. Kellys of the world, people who seem cruel and selfish in a way he was not. It’s as if we see Jackson as a rare and fragile bird, deserving of our compassion despite the evils he may have committed. Part of this may be that he is no longer living—it is harder to cancel a memory than a human being. But we’re still left with the question of how to feel about the music he left behind, music made first by a boy and later by a troubled man. It can never sound the same to us. Does that mean we should abandon it?

Leaving Neverland focuses squarely on the experience of Jackson’s alleged victims, and its view of Jackson—of his actions and his later efforts to hide them—is suitably damning. Reed doesn’t make excuses for Jackson, and Jackson’s accusers don’t either. That Safechuck and Robson survived their experience with Jackson doesn’t absolve him of the harm they say he did, to them or to others. But they acknowledge the complexity of what happened to them, and their stories, both in their similarities and their intimate differences, underscore just how complicated and heartbreaking the bigger narrative is.

A further complication is that you and I, as average humans susceptible to the charms of great pop music, are dealing with not one but two Michael Jacksons, depending on how old you were—and how old he was—when you discovered him. Those of us who grew up alongside him—people over 50, R&B fans specifically—came to love him when he was an actual child and not just childlike. But in the 1980s, as a grown man, he drew a new group of younger fans; it now seems he took advantage of some of that adoration and betrayed the trust of that later fan base. The earlier fan base has to reckon with something else: How did that kid—that vital, radiant kid—come to this?

No matter what Jackson did, he belongs to us forever, for better or worse. He belongs to us because he was practically given to us, right at the moment when Joe Jackson, patriarch, manager, taskmaster and possible monster, saw that, Lo! The seventh of his 10 children was filled with gold. Michael Jackson spoke of both emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his father; he also said repeatedly that he forgave him. (He also broke free of him, financially.) But we do know that in the early days, the elder Jackson was eager to make money off his talented children, particularly Michael. When did he start seeing the big dollar signs? It may have been the instant the Jackson 5 scored their first minor local hit, “Big Boy,” in 1968, with nine-year-old Michael as lead singer. (The disc was released by Steeltown Records, in the family’s hometown of Gary, Ind.) Or it may have been the next year, when the group’s first Motown single “I Want You Back,” hit No. 1. Who knows? But very early on, Joe handed Michael over, saying, “He’s yours now; make all checks payable to me.”

And we took him, happily, not knowing or even caring what the cost would be to him. Because the young Michael was magnificent! His voice was assured and evocative; he poured joy into his singing, and as we listened, even more joy rushed out, magnified a thousandfold. His dance moves were dazzling, not just adorable but bracingly modern—he was like a one-man (or, more accurately, a one-boy) Rite of Spring, R&B division.

Miraculously, Jackson didn’t outgrow his gifts; he grew into them. I remember, as a teenager, dancing almost all the way through Off the Wall and thinking, how could a guy who’d been around so long make a record this good? (I know, it’s funny now.) I loved most of Thriller, but by that time, a new, younger audience had adopted Jackson. I remember, around the time of 1987’s Bad, seeing how much kids loved him—as much as I had loved him when I was a kid—and wondering, How? Why now, when he looks like this, his nose shaved away by plastic surgery into a slender shadow of its former beauty? (That nose would later nearly disappear altogether.) Why now, when he’s acting so mannered, so outright strange? Still, I understood the appeal, and our generation handed him to the next group of kids, not fully knowing what a mess he was.

Yet even by the time of Thriller, he was already a mess, a visibly delicate, wounded soul. His bizarreness and his loneliness only intensified as he got older. In search of some ideal of beauty that made sense only to him, he had done so much to his face that he no longer looked like himself, whatever “himself” had ever been. Despite his guardedness, you could almost see right through him, as if, in sanding his features away, he had unintentionally made himself transparent.

What are you supposed to do with a person like that? Stop loving him, right when he needs love the most? The Jackson story only got darker: There were the accusations of sexual abuse in 1993 (in a case that was settled out of court) and again in 2003 (in a case that, famously, went to trial; Jackson was acquitted). There were two marriages, including one to the daughter of Elvis, a previous King—what was this, ancient Egypt? With his second wife, Jackson had children of his own, including one named, inexplicably, Blanket. And, finally, in 2009, there was the weird and incontrovertibly sad death, amid reports that one of the many drugs Jackson availed himself of was propofol, intended for use as an anesthetic before surgery. (Jackson’s personal physician, Conrad Murray, was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter for administering propofol the night of Jackson’s death.) In life, there could be no rest for the King of Pop, only induced sleep.

It’s all sad, and none of it is an excuse. Leaving Neverland changes the context of Michael Jackson. If you pay attention to it, it can’t help changing the way you view him.

It’s sorrowfully prophetic to listen to “Big Boy” now, particularly the plaintively simple lyric “I’m a big boy now/That’s looking for someone to love, oh yeah/Someone, someone to share my dreams.” That’s a child’s view of what love must be like, and how could Jackson, at the time, sing as anything but a child? Yet what’s more striking is the yearning in his voice, shimmering and unformed, speaking of a desire to get real life started—to grow up, to find someone to love, to do whatever it is grown-ups in love do. “Hurry up and get here, adult love and romance!” is the invocation that Jackson, as a kid, sang over and over again. And then, when adulthood came, he wanted childhood back. He went about reclaiming it in all the wrong ways, in harmful ways.

But we know where his childhood went, because without even thinking, we breathed it in. Maybe we owe him a strange and corrupted gratitude for all he gave us, especially now that we see how he didn’t understand he needed to keep something back for himself. And perhaps we can spare some sorrow for a man who, in his muddled brain, allegedly harmed children. Jackson’s is one of the most complex types of tragedy, one that demands we hold the suffering of those he harmed as close as we hold the joy he brought us. It’s a tricky, near-impossible embrace.

That’s another reason we have movies and paintings, words and music: They’re something to cling to when humans fail us.

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