Stop Telling Me How to Feel about Michael Jackson
Condemnation, denial, tribalism, and Leaving Neverland.
I haven’t seen Leaving Neverland yet, and I possibly never will.
My disinterest has nothing to do with blind faith or loyalty to the Michael Jackson mythology. I’ve never been more than a casual fan of the late King of Pop’s music (will he be stripped of his royal moniker in light of the new old allegations?), so I have no high stakes in the “Did he or didn’t he?” and “Should radio ban him?” debates.
The way I see it, the HBO documentary has done a thorough hatchet job on a legacy that was already pretty tattered and tainted. (A Santa Monica jury acquitted him of child molestation charges in 2005, but the stench of the accusations followed Jackson to the grave four years later.) Observing the fallout from the sidelines is like watching the accelerated climax of a slow-motion trainwreck that already had been in progress for decades.
I’m not particularly compelled to watch Leaving Neverland not because I’m immune to the pull of a trainwreck. I can be as drawn to a horrifying one as much as the next person. But with this calamity, I’ve already been told over and over how I’m going to feel — or rather, how I should feel — once Neverland assesses the damage.
Get off the fence!
On March 8, I participated in a panel on Channel 5’s evening news in London, and we discussed whether radio should continue to play Michael Jackson’s music. Before we went on-air, I got into a premature debate in the green room with a fellow panelist who couldn’t believe I was holding off on condemning Jackson to hell.
Hold up. Before you start rolling your eyes like my co-panelist must have been doing on the inside (it was a gentleman’s disagreement, so we controlled our impulses to shade via words or gestures), it’s not that I think Jackson is innocent — or guilty. He isn’t around to respond to Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s claims, and despite the “compelling” evidence presented over the course of the four-hour documentary, according to many who have seen it, we’ll never know for sure exactly what went down behind the closed doors at Neverland.
After the knee-jerk initial reactions (including mine) to the alleged racist and homophobic attack on Empire star Jussie Smollett by two white “MAGA” men and the game-changing twist of Smollett in handcuffs, charged with staging the January 29 assault and later indicted by a grand jury, my new default mode is skeptical. I’m less inclined to believe everything I hear just because it fits an acceptable narrative or because it’s delivered convincingly.
As I said on-air, Jackson clearly engaged in behavior that was inappropriate by society’s standards, and he very well may have committed some or all of the crimes of which he’s been accused. But you know what? I wasn’t there. I don’t know for sure, and neither do you.
Apparently, this is one subject where you aren’t allowed to sit on the fence. Either you’re with one side, or you’re being blasted by it. Those who still insist Jackson is innocent demand that the likes of Oprah Winfrey — who interviewed Robson, Safechuck, and Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed for After Neverland, which HBO aired right after the documentary’s March 4 debut, giving them another global platform — agree or risk being cancelled.
The fans doth protest too much, methinks
Personally, I don’t understand why they protest so much. What exactly are they protesting? It’s not like abuse allegations against Jackson are new, and just because jurors found him “not guilty” in 2005 doesn’t mean they thought he was innocent. Guilty people get off all the time.
There’s no reason why fans can’t continue to enjoy his music in the privacy of their own homes or their own earbuds after After Neverland, even if the outside world bans it. The people who picketed against the documentary in order to defend and protect the reputation of their American idol should consider using their right of protest to fight something that actually threatens their lives.
The people who picketed against the documentary in order to defend and protect the reputation of their American idol should consider using their right of protest to fight something that actually threatens their lives.
Then there are those who have been completely swayed by Leaving Neverland. They’re the ones who have made it the all-encompassing story that it has become since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. They’re the ones for whom their own personal enlightenment isn’t enough. They want everyone else to feel their pain over the fallen star and join the movement to erase him from our collective memory, like Henry VIII eliminating an unwanted, inconvenient wife.
“I’m shocked by those who still won’t accept Michael Jackson as abuser” read the headline of a March 10 op-ed that Dan Reed wrote for The Guardian.
Really? That’s what shocks him in the age of Brexit, global warming denials, immigrant children in cages, and Donald Trump? Why does it matter so much to him what “those” think? Did he make the documentary in order to give a platform and voice to two alleged victims who previously didn’t have one, or did he make it to convince the world that Michael Jackson was a terrible person?
Did he want to shine a light on the sexual abuse of minors because he thinks people don’t already take it seriously enough? Does he believe questioning the veracity of the cases made by the two stars of Leaving Neverland is tantamount to thinking pedophilia is OK?
Why does anyone need everyone else to feel he’s guilty, or not guilty, as if getting the world in line on the same side will validate their point of view, or in Reed’s case, the time he spent making Leaving Neverland?
Many who insist Jackson is guilty expect you to feel the same way after watching Leaving Neverland. If you don’t, prepare for them to dismiss you as delusional. Who needs that kind of pressure? I’d rather plead ignorance.
The new tribalism
More troubling to me than what Jackson may or may not have done with young children — these charges are so old that I’ve already had decades to process the possibility that they might be true — is the fact that we no longer are allowed to draw our own conclusions about it. It’s so typical of the new tribalism where everything comes down to black or white, right or left, with us or against us.
It’s so typical of the new tribalism where everything comes down to black or white, right or left, with us or against us.
“Let freedom ring” has been an American mantra since 1831, and the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights revolves around individual freedoms, but the one the Constitution — and society — ignores is freedom of thought. Social media has made things worse. We now live in an age where tribes try to manage what we say, what we do, and what we think. If they don’t approve of what we say, do, and think, we’re contrarian trash.
People want to live in echo chambers where nobody contradicts or challenges them, whether the subject is politics, TV, movies, music, or Michael Jackson. I’m guilty of closing my mind and my ears to dissenting voices, too, but I’m trying to do better. I may never get to the place where I can tolerate blatant racism or homophobia, but “MAGA” hats don’t hurt me and neither do either of the polar opposite reactions to Leaving Neverland.
To mute or not to mute
As a blogger and op-ed writer who covers such inflammatory topics as race and sexuality, I have an opinion on just about everything. That includes whether Jackson’s music should be banned.
If we’re going to start consistently punishing artists for bad behavior by muting them, then we might need to start leading lives of pious ascetism in a world where the sound of silence is the only thing we hear. Goodbye, “The Long and Winding Road,” a Phil Spector production. By our increasingly impossible standards, practically every work of art is contaminated in some way.
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That’s what I think about banning the music of an icon who has been dead for 10 years and is being accused of doing things he’s been accused of doing since the ’90s. But on the subject of whether he’s guilty or not, I don’t know what to believe, so I’m staying out of the discussion. Leaving Neverland could give me clarity, but I’m doing just fine without it.
If I were a parent, or if I were a survivor of childhood sexual abuse like Oprah, I might demand posthumous justice even without seeing the documentary. As sickened as I am by adults who prey on the underage, especially when concrete evidence and not just moving testimonies that contradict previous ones makes it as indisputable, I harbor an equal amount of hate for evil geniuses who commit other heinous crimes. Topping that list are the ones who think it’s perfectly acceptable to beat up women. There’s a special place in hell for them as well.
But I’m done criticizing people who continue to collaborate with Chris Brown and folks who idolize alleged abusers of women like James Brown and Oscar winners George C. Scott and Gary Cooper. Do what you want to do, even if it’s starring in a movie directed by Woody Allen or Roman Polanski.
It’s not like I haven’t spent years toiling for bosses who were horrible in other ways. If I were an actor, I might work with the still-legendary Oscar winners, too. If I were a singer, I might even consider letting convicted murderer Phil Spector lay his iconic wall of sound on me once he’s released from prison (assuming he makes it to 88, which is how old the 79-year-old will be when he’s eligible for parole).
That would be my choice. I’m not asking anyone to agree with it or understand it. I’m only asking that if they must share their opinions, they do so without telling me what mine should be. Watching Leaving Neverland very well could change everything for me, but that wouldn’t change a thing for anyone else.