(March 9, 2019) How does someone who has followed Michael Jackson’s entire career – ever since he and his four older brothers made their national debut half a century ago as the Jackson 5 – process the latest revelations about him as described in the two-part documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which premiered this past Sunday and Monday nights on HBO?
How could anyone watch that program without being affected by the riveting, powerful and – admittedly – compelling stories told by the two men who were just boys when they say Jackson sexually molested them for years beginning in the late 1980s?
I mean, this was the quintessential pop and soul music icon who for the first quarter-century of his career could do no wrong in our eyes and whose star couldn’t shine any brighter, particularly for a black kid like me who had never witnessed one of our own attain the kind of astronomical success Jackson would later achieve.
I was three years old when Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” first hit in late 1969. That was the age at which most kids begin to understand what music is. And if you wind up loving music as much as I did and still do, then three or four is usually the age when you start to have your earliest memories of what initially impacted your childhood.
My earliest musical memories were of this group of five fine, upstanding brothers who looked like me and who were making this incredibly catchy pop and soul music, led by an 11-year-old charismatic kid who could sing his ass off…mainly about things no pre-pubescent kid should even know about yet!
For those first 25 years, as MJ grew from a boy into a man-child, we watched with wonder as he dazzled us with dizzying dance moves, enraptured us with iconic songs, and amazed us as he broke record after record with each new album or video release. All of this was shrouded in a childlike innocence that – unbeknownst to us then – would shape how we would try to reconcile the later, turbulent events of his life and those around him.
While being thoroughly entertained by Jackson, some of us even wanted to be like him. We dressed like him, wore buttons bearing his likeness, bought all his albums, tried to dance like him.
We also wanted glimpses into his personal life, shameless as we were. Our need to humanize him caused us to try and draw from his music any hints of a romantic relationship, whether it be from the despair of “She’s Out Of My Life,” the longingness of “The Lady In My Life,” the trickery of “Billie Jean,” or the nastiness of “Dirty Diana.”
In our heart of hearts we knew that, even as compelling as those songs were, it was all a fantasy – there were likely no true loves in MJ’s life – but we went along for the ride while shoving aside all the weird “Wacko Jacko” peculiarities that dominated tabloid headlines… the “bleaching” of his skin, his strange friendships with Bubbles the Chimp and little boys like Emmanuel Lewis, his weird fascination with Liz Taylor, his sleeping in the hyperbaric chamber.
For nearly 25 years we experienced this type of MJ-related euphoria, unlike we had experienced with any other black celebrity before or since.
Then, for the next 25 years, things went terribly and irreversibly wrong. Since late 1993, we’ve watched Jackson, his family members and/or representatives of his estate defend his name against allegations of child molestation. We watched in denial while he financially settled one such case in the 1990s. Then we watched again – in dubious relief – as he was acquitted of another in a court of law more than a decade later.
The reported $22-million-dollar settlement in 1995 wasn’t enough to convince many of us that Michael had done anything wrong back then. We chalked up the payment as the unfortunate price of his unprecedented fame and easy-target status.
While it certainly tainted The King Of Pop’s image, the fact that the alleged victims were little boys didn’t yet sway us either, as we believed his only mistake was that he was too naive and eccentric in allowing them to share his bed.
As innocent as it purportedly was, it was behavior that we agreed was inappropriate – whether Michael thought so or not – but which we also blamed on the loss of his own childhood to an early climb in show business and his never-ending quest to regain his youth, as reinforced to us in much of his music in the 1990s.
Michael to us was some kind of asexual creature – as we had convinced ourselves – with zero desire for anyone male, female, boy or girl to come anywhere close to him sexually, lest it send his already extreme paranoia about intimate relationships with other human beings into the stratosphere. Or so we reasoned.
Even when Michael paraded his two wives – first Elvis’s daughter Lisa Marie Presley and later Debbie Rowe, the mother of his first two children – we had our doubts about the marriages’ legitimacy, yet we wanted to believe that there was some semblance of normalcy in this otherworldly figure who at the core of it all was still our music icon.
Then a combination of factors began to take their toll, not only on Jackson and his alleged victims, but on our previously unflinching fandom.
The short-lived marriages were shown to be what we always thought they were – farces. The music and videos of the late 1990s and early 2000s became less exciting as Jackson aged and became more disfigured. The chorus of sexual molestation accusations from little boys associated with him grew louder and more consistent.
Still, we dredged on in a partial MJ haze as he was first absolved in the civil suit, then criminally acquitted in a court of law, with his most ardent fans – myself among them – once again becoming his defenders.
At least, that is, defenders in the court of public opinion whenever his “haters” – as we had relegated them – spoke ill of our superstar.
To us, his staunchest critics were either haters who never liked his music in the first place, or they were people who were never comfortable with this black man being among the most celebrated, most successful artists in entertainment history.
To many of us, the sexual accusations and resultant investigations were part of an attempt to extort money and to bring down this immensely successful black celebrity whose biggest crime was simply being the biggest star in the world.
In early 2009, when the prospect of a Jackson comeback (the never-to-be “This Is It” tour) became more and more a possibility, diehard fans became elated again.
Yes, we knew there’d never be a return to MJ’s full glory; there’d never be another Thriller, Off The Wall or Bad era. His name was too sullied for that. The innocence was long gone.
Instead, all we wanted was the chance to see him perform again, maybe release another eye-popping music video…maybe have just one more Number One song.
Of course, those things never happened. Jackson’s passing on June 25, 2009 changed all that forever.
And now – ten years later – there’s “Leaving Neverland,” with new molestation claims by first Wade Robson, 36, and then James Safechuck, 40, who both told of how Jackson seduced them into relationships that allegedly became sexual while they were still pre-pubescent, underage boys.
I watched it…reluctantly.
It was at once disturbing, disgusting, tragic, sad… all the nasty adjectives one could throw at the whole set of circumstances involving Michael and those two kids who were now deeply disturbed men. It was hard to watch because of how believable their stories came across, whether I wanted to believe it or not. It was difficult to hear accounts of how the parents were lured into this web by Michael so that he could have these inappropriate relationships with these boys – whether or not those relationships became sexual.
It was as if the moment of reckoning had finally arrived for those of us who unconditionally supported and defended Jackson all these years. Our previous decisions to continue listening to his music, or to rejoice whenever his catalog of older albums reached some new sales plateau or milestone anniversary, were once again being challenged by not only those “haters” out there, but by our own moral standards.
I’ve had nearly a week to reflect on what I saw and how those four hours of television will impact nearly 50 years of fandom of an artist who gave so much to the world (and to me musically) and whose musical contributions will never be matched in my lifetime.
That’s 50 of my nearly 53 years on this earth…or all of my music listening years.
In other words, like so many other people of my generation, Michael’s music formed the soundtrack of a lifetime…and “muting” him is not a simple undertaking.
At the end of the day, as a lifelong fan of Michael Jackson and his music, I’ll have to reconcile within myself any decisions to continue listening to it. I’ll have to decide for myself whether and how much I believe the accounts of two men who for twenty years told a different story regarding their experiences with Michael, both of whom are now playing out their cases in the court of public opinion, the court in which the accused is almost always presumed guilty until proven innocent.
Even as I become more educated in the #MeToo era on how victims react and the often delayed revelations that follow their abuse, I’ll simply have to decide whether I believe these two and how that will impact my relationship with the King of Pop going forward.
Two things are for certain.
One: I won’t be swayed by the court of public opinion. Whether or not I continue to listen to his music or watch his videos, Michael Jackson won’t benefit or suffer from my decision, or even yours. He’s been gone for ten years.
And whether or not I personally “mute” MJ, it won’t change the sad circumstances surrounding Wade Robson and James Safechuck. It won’t undo years of abuse they allegedly suffered at the hands of someone they were clearly infatuated with.
The second thing – and perhaps the saddest – is, regardless of where we fall on the did-he-or-did-he-not-do-it scale, we will never be able to separate the man and his art from this darker image of him. Rightly or wrongly, these allegations are as much a part of Michael Jackson’s legacy as Thriller is, maybe even more so.
And that, along with everything else, is truly disheartening.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.