So, where do we stand on Michael Jackson?

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
A photo of Michael Jackson and James Safechuck featured in <em>Leaving Neverland</em> . (Photo: HBO)
A photo of Michael Jackson and James Safechuck featured in Leaving Neverland . (Photo: HBO)

A conversation I’ve been having lately with friends and colleagues starts with one simple question: “So, where do you stand on Michael Jackson these days?”

It’s a discussion spurred, of course, by the shocking revelations in this year’s four-hour, two-part HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, in which two men recall, in excruciatingly graphic detail, the sexual abuse they say they suffered as children at the hands of the late singer. James Safechuck was 10 when he was first molested by Jackson, he claims; Wade Robson, only 7.

The question is coming up once again as media and entertainment outlets grapple with how to cover or commemorate the 10th anniversary of the pop star’s death on June 25.

We live in a post-Leaving Neverland world. Jackson’s songs may still rotate on some radio stations, and a certain devout faction of his fanbase will go to their graves arguing that he was innocent, finding whatever minute holes in the victims’ stories they can to justify their beliefs, no matter how otherwise convincing the testimonials or numerous the accusers. But Jackson’s legacy will never be the same.

I dreaded watching the film when it premiered on HBO in March, but felt I had no choice. As a longtime, hardcore fan of Jackson’s art, I finally had to, well, face the music. The experience would be painful but necessary, and perhaps director Dan Reed’s doc wouldn’t be as damning as in early reports out of the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered in January, indicated it was. Maybe I’d walk away doubting the credibility of the testimonials and not have to confront my worst fears about one of the greatest, most beloved performers who ever lived.

But nope.

I’m not sure how any reasonable human being can watch Leaving Neverland and not believe Jackson was a pedophile. This is not the first time the claims have been made, but the film is the most convincing argument to date. Safechuck and Robson’s stories are intensely vivid, forthright and disturbing, all presented in chillingly matter-of-fact fashion. Their recollections, which share many parallels with each other’s as well as those that fueled high-profile court cases against the singer in 1993 and 2003, reveal an unsettling, distinct pattern of sexual predation targeting young boys.

One of the most difficult aspects to watching Neverland (and there are many) is coming to terms with the fact that we’ve all been complicit. As fans we’ve made many excuses through the decades: His accusers just wanted fame or money; he never had a childhood because he reached fame at such an early age; or his formative years were so f**ked up that he surrounded himself with children because he still felt like a child himself. We all knew that he slept in the same bed as children. Somehow I had convinced myself that this was a man who loved children so much that he merely wanted their comfort and closeness, with not an inkling of sexual desire for them.

With Leaving Neverland, the curtain is drawn back and we’re forced to emerge from the fog of denial that we’ve treaded through for so long. While critics have rightly applauded that the documentary focuses its attention squarely on the tragic stories of these two victims and their families (while definitely still holding their parents accountable) rather than the celebrity, it has a profound and devastating effect on the way we look at Jackson. Yes, he clearly possessed demons any psychologist could trace to a troubled childhood, but what it makes crystal clear is that he knew what he was doing was wrong. Safechuck and Robson explain how careful Jackson was not to get caught, how he convinced them they’d both go to jail if they were exposed, how it was a normal way for two people in love to secretly show their affection. There’s a deep level of emotional manipulation portrayed, and it’s compounded by the fact that this was an adult — childlike or not — manipulating children. One of the chief arguments used against Safechuck and Robson by Jackson’s supporters is that they’ve both defended him against allegations in the past. The film, however, offers a powerful explanation: Due to the manipulation endured at formative stages of their youth, they were prone to believe what Jackson was telling them; they also truly loved Jackson and didn’t want him to suffer.

The film is especially traumatizing to watch as a parent. I have two young children, one around the same age as Robson when he claims the molestation began. Like most parents, I never realized how much I could worry about the well-being, health and safety of another human being until I had children. Now when I watch a kidnapping thriller, I imagine my children being kidnapped. And when I watch Leaving Neverland, I want to protect them from such alleged horrors. Parenthood also proves a poignant tie that binds the testimonials of Safechuck and Robson. Both say it wasn’t until they had children, and imagined the same thing happening to their kids, that they understood how easily a child could be manipulated by an adult and therefore felt they needed to speak the truth. And while never explicitly conveyed by the men, they are clearly consumed by guilt. Other children (including a cancer patient) came forward, and Safechuck and Robson, whether actively or passively, were key parts of the system that shut down such accusers. If not for these men helping protect or defend Jackson, the singer likely would have been behind bars while he was alive. Instead, he was free to see other boys.

The film gains further context by coming amid the #MeToo movement. If we’ve learned anything in the year-and-a-half since those brave women and men began making their stories public en masse, it’s that we were collectively ignorant (at best) or turned a blind eye (at worst) toward the rampant sexual abuse by famous or powerful people. Jackson was arguably the biggest celebrity of his time, which may have allowed him to get away with such truly horrific acts. It’s nauseating to think, but Leaving Neverland wouldn’t have received nearly as much attention had it premiered at Sundance two years ago. #MeToo has transformed us. We can’t ignore these allegations any longer.

A photo of Michael Jackson with the Robson family featured in <em>Leaving Neverland</em> . (HBO)
A photo of Michael Jackson with the Robson family featured in Leaving Neverland . (HBO)

What has been the effect of Leaving Neverland in 2019, though?

The conversation about where one stands on Jackson naturally leads to a specific touchpoint: “So, can you still listen to his music?” And it’s a complicated question.

While everyone I’ve spoken to who has seen Neverland has little doubt that Jackson is guilty of the crimes he’s accused of committing against Safechuck and Robson, answers vary when it comes to the concept of “canceling,” “deleting” or “muting” the singer. Some say it’s not fair since he’s deceased and can’t address the claims. Others say they have the ability to “separate the art from the artist,” a concept I find harder and harder to digest post #MeToo in a new era of consciousness and accountability. Some say they’ll only listen to his Jackson 5 songs, recorded long before he was being accused of child sexual abuse. Others are still deciding. Some agree with me.

I can never listen to Jackson again. As a DJ, I can never spin another one of his songs. I have a visceral reaction to hearing his music now, the upsetting imagery presented in the film instantly coming to mind. It’s become a Pavlovian response to change the radio station the second one of his tracks comes on, or to skip ahead the moment one rotates into my iTunes. I’ve yet to delete all of his MP3s and chuck his records, but I’m getting close.

This line of thought is a slippery slope: If we cancel Jackson, doesn’t that mean we have to cancel any other musician with a dark past? I’ve never been much of an Elvis Presley fan, but there have long been stories about his preference for teenage girls. He met future wife Priscilla — Jackson’s mother-in-law for two years — when she was 14.

Does it make me a hypocrite if I stop listening to Jackson but still continue to spin James Brown and Rick James, late singers with their own histories of domestic abuse and violence against women? It could. Does it make any difference if the victims are children or adults? It probably doesn’t. But we all have to process the information we have about people in our own ways, and be conscious of when and how we’re rationalizing or reconciling or compartmentalizing the decisions we make about them. It’s part of the awakening.

There’s an innate human need for others to share your worldview, and I’ll now find myself getting upset at radio stations and other DJs for still playing Jackson. “How can they possibly still play this man’s music with the information about him that’s out there?” Then I’ll remind myself that we live in a country that elected a man president merely months after a recording emerged in which we hear him boasting about sexually assaulting women, and has had at least 23 women accuse him of sexual misconduct.

Shortly after Neverland premiered at Sundance, a friend of mine who writes for a prominent music publication professed to me that he didn’t think Jackson was “cancelable.” His catalog is too deeply ingrained within the very fabric of our culture. His endless list of hits have been ubiquitous throughout the courses of our lifetimes, and we can’t just suddenly pretend that they don’t exist, or that they never brought us the joy they did.

And he might be right.

While we’ve certainly felt a shift in public perception when it comes to Jackson — especially when talking to people on a one-to-one basis, there hasn’t exactly been a highly publicized movement against him. Not like, say, the #MuteRKelly trend that spawned from another undeniable celebrity exposé, Surviving R. Kelly, which also lead to multiple criminal charges. Aside from a high-profile Q&A hosted by Oprah, the public backlash was relatively minimal: Some Canadian radio stations pulled M.J. from rotation, his streaming sales slightly dropped and a Simpsons episode featuring the singer’s voice was pulled from syndication archives.

He’s still so loved in many circles, much the way Safechuck and Robson cared for him for years after the alleged incidents. Maybe people didn’t want to deal with the emotional landmines that the film presents.

If you decide not to watch Leaving Neverland, know this: Despite what we’ve worked so hard to convince ourselves over the years, the film leaves little doubt that the man was a monster.

So, where do you stand on Michael Jackson?

Story originally published March 29, 2019.

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