The Sundance Film Festival had a number of anticipated film premieres this year – none more so than Leaving Neverland, a harrowing four hour documentary detailing the lives of Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, which is also due to be screened on Channel 4 in the spring. Both men allege that they suffered at least five years of sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson, which (as you can probably guess from the title) is the focus of the film.
I have been a tremendous fan of the Jacksons, collectively, for my whole life. I literally can’t remember a time without Michael Jackson. He is my earliest memory – for real. I have flashes of things before, but my first fully formed memory is etched in my brain; I had not long turned three, and it was the Black or White video on Top of the Pops in November 1991. I have obsessed over various aspects of his life and career ever since.
To let you know the extent of my fascination with the whole clan, I tracked down Marlon and Randy’s deleted solo albums, and believe that LaToya is deserving of a bit more praise. I’m not some guy who bought Thriller and a Greatest Hits CD in ASDA. I go deep. I know my stuff, which is why the years of allegations stacking up has been a hard thing to accept.
When you’re a kid, there are things you don’t fully comprehend. But as time moonwalks on, and you become more experienced in the world, any reasonably rational adult should be asking questions. As a result, I have been shaky on him for a while.
I am now in my 30s, and it may sound bizarre that it has taken so long to even consider these things. But let me explain something – Michael Jackson fandom is far more cult-like than you would ever imagine. I implore you to browse a Michael Jackson fan forum and read people’s comments. This is the reason I have written this piece under a pen name, to avoid the kind of abuse I have received for saying I quite like Jermaine’s Word To The Badd (for real). I used to engage with Michael Jackson fans quite regularly, and let me tell you, absolutely NO criticisms of him are allowed. Ever. He enjoys a Christ-like status among them, and that isn’t much of a hyperbole. They speak of him in the way that I hear Christians speak about Jesus – as a completely pure, angelic being, with no irony intended. Many artists have an over-zealous fan base, especially in the age of the internet. But with Jackson it extends to truly absurd behaviour.
At some point in the last year or two, I came to realise that a lot of this came from Jackson’s own sense of victimhood. It became part of his brand. Every album had songs like Leave Me Alone, Why You Wanna Trip on Me?, Tabloid Junkie, Privacy. Watching interviews he conducted in his adult life, every discussion goes back to how terrible his life has been, and the people who are out to get him; his family, the tabloid press, Sony, the paparazzi. He hasn’t had that much plastic surgery, it’s just the tabloids. The Invincible album didn’t do well not because it wasn’t very good and he refused to properly promote it, but because the label sabotaged it, and by the way CEO Tommy Mottola is a racist now. The negative backlash to the infamous Living With Michael Jackson film is because people have dirty, nasty thoughts, not because he refuses to accept that sleeping with other people’s children is inappropriate and crosses a line.
This has extended to his fans. So when MJ lip synced the entire HIStory Tour, it was because he had laryngitis for two whole years, despite this being medically impossible. When Diane Sawyer pushed him on questions about the 1993 accusations, she’s not doing her journalistic duty by questioning a man recently accused of child molestation, she’s just a manipulative, tabloid bitch who is out to get him. And those boys are just liars who want money. Every single one of them; Wade Robson, Jimmy Safechuck, Jordy Chandler and Gavin Arvizo. Not to mention Terry George, Jason Francia and now Michael Jacobs-Hagen.
But then the burden of proof on either side has been consistently muddied for 25 years. Going back to the original Jordy Chandler allegations in 1993, the media circus that ensued had many people gaining their 30 pieces of silver by selling salacious tales to the tabloids that, if true, would have been better served on the witness stand. Chandler’s father, Evan, was caught on tape planning extortion of Michael Jackson. Fans like to use this as ultimate proof of Jackson’s innocence, but in truth, some wishful thinking must be attached to this as it doesn’t prove that no molestation took place, just that Chandler was going to destroy him. Possibly because he genuinely suspected that something had happened. Or maybe because he was a greedy extortionist. Both can exist simultaneously.
The latter point is significant. Jackson is in the Guinness Book of Records for being the most philanthropic celebrity in history, or something (though, I have no idea how this could possibly be accurately calculated). Many will use this as “evidence” that he couldn’t have been a child molester – as if charity work renders any and all acts of misconduct. The two facts (if, indeed, they are facts) are not mutually exclusive.
Jackson, of course, was subject to a strip search in 1993, for which both sides claimed victory. Certain marks were identified by Chandler, namely the vitiligo blemishes that covered Jackson’s entire body. But, at the same time, Chandler identified Jackson as being circumcised, whereas his autopsy confirmed he was uncircumcised – a rather significant mistake.
The Chandlers never pressed criminal charges, asking only for money. The Arvizo family did press formal charges and the criminal trial took place in 2005. However, by this time the law had changed and in cases such as these civil cases could not be tried before criminal cases. So, if the Arvizos wanted money out of Jackson, they would have had to go to criminal court first.
For what it’s worth, the Arvizo case never made much sense to me – even today, of all the accusations, it is the one that seems most unbelievable. According to the complaint, Jackson wasn’t molesting Gavin when the Bashir film aired. It was only after the film aired and the world was looking at him suspiciously that he decided to begin the assaults.
It is true that Robson – who wasn’t paid for his interviews in Leaving Neverland, but did sue unsuccessfully for $1.5 billion – testified to Jackson’s innocence under oath at that trial in 2005. But if there’s anything we’ve learned recently, it’s that sexual abuse cases aren’t clear cut. The conspiracy theory going around the fandom is that he is doing this out of anger over not getting the choreography job with the Michael Jackson Cirque Du Soleil show. Think about how insane this theory is; a man is so upset that he didn’t get a job that he is accusing his innocent friend who had nothing to do with that decision of molesting him for seven years to get money out of his Estate. This is as bonkers as the theory that Jackson molested Arvizo after the Bashir documentary aired. But at least one of them is likely to be true.
The ardent Michael Jackson fan constantly calls out the biased tabloid media without considering their own obvious bias, even when they admit that nothing will ever change their mind on the issue. Their evidence is often no more credible than the evidence that failed to convict him, with their own interpretation attached to the dry facts. They claim it is 100% proof of his innocence, but it isn’t. Most of their evidence is hearsay and conjecture – as incidentally is much of the actual evidence against him (if we separate “evidence” from “allegation”, as we absolutely should), which is why a decade long FBI investigation was inconclusive.
Yet for even asking difficult questions and not just accepting that Jackson was a victimised angel who was not at fault for any of the bad things that happened to him, I have been accused of not being a fan of Michael Jackson at all (yeah, I own everything he ever did, but I’m not a fan apparently) and of being brainwashed by the tabloid media – as if only a Michael Jackson fan who believes in his utter and true innocence can reach an informed conclusion. This in no way helps their cause and, in a sense, aids the other argument. If you are not open to any other interpretation, how can you accuse anyone else of being brainwashed?
This shouldn’t be surprising as Jackson was a master manipulator. Those stories about him buying the Elephant Man’s bones and sleeping in an oxygen tent? They came from him. That has been proven. Then he went on Oprah whingeing about he is picked on and people made these specific stories up. In his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk he confirmed that he did have a cleft put in his chin. In his interview with Martin Bashir 15 years later he claimed he had never had his chin done. Naturally, none of these things means he was a paedophile, but they do point to a pattern of manipulation and mistruths on a worldwide scale. Make no mistake, those tabloid stories he created were worldwide news stories. He presented himself as a naïve guy caught up in a whirlwind – but it’s hard to accept that a man who cut some of the biggest deals in the history of the music industry could possibly be that naïve
Where did that come from? Well, right off the bat, when the Jackson 5 signed to Motown in the late 60s, they were each made to knock two years off their age, so he was lying in his first public appearance. He was taught that it was OK to lie if it was for publicity. This is something that grows over the years, and it seems to be what a lot of his more ardent fan base are wrapped up in. How many times can everything be blamed on other parties? How many supposed extortion attempts can there be before you start to ask yourself some hard questions? Michael Jackson never took responsibility for his own actions – and he didn’t have to. Why should he when there’s millions of people who will just believe every word he says simply because he is Michael Jackson?
Whether you believe he was a child molester or not, any fan who believes that his relationship with children was healthy cannot have the audacity to accuse other people of being “brainwashed by the tabloids”. It can be innocent, and I really hope it was, but that doesn’t mean it was healthy. “I’d slit my wrists first”, he said when discussing the allegations that he harmed children. But, if the allegations are true, perhaps he didn’t think he was harming them. Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed has explained that both Jackson and the alleged victims viewed this as a normal, loving relationship. Of course, it couldn’t have been when a 7-10 year old boy couldn’t have been in any position to consent.
To torture a metaphor, I was on the fence for a long time, and when there were no new allegations in the wake of #MeToo I had more faith. Reports of Leaving Neverland have me questioning more than ever. I’m no longer on the fence, but I haven’t run off into the field either. If anything, I’m at the edge of the field, leaning on the fence.
The question for me is how to conflate the growing queasiness I have with the fact that both I and the world at large have such a connection to him and his music. I am today more interested in Michael Jackson as a figure than as a musician. But even from that perspective, it is impossible to airbrush him from history like Jimmy Saville or Stuart Hall. They presented TV shows in the 70s. So what?
Michael Jackson made his way into people’s lives in a way that is still felt a decade after his death. In America, the Jackson 5 were the first black teen idols – someone for black girls to scream at in the way that white girls could scream at The Beatles. This means that Michael Jackson was the first black face on lunch boxes, on teen magazines, the first black cartoon character, star of the first variety show with an all-black cast. He reached a level in the music industry that no black man had reached before. We can’t pretend this didn’t happen.
This is before we even talk about his music, so embedded in our collective culture that even through his trials and tribulations, you can hear it being played everywhere. Every wedding, every birthday party, every night out on the town. Hell, they were playing it at the Sundance Festival after parties. Can I really go through life no longer listening to the music that has provided the soundtrack to my entire existence?
Maybe there is a way to separate art from artist. It’s easier for some artists than others. The current allegations levied against R Kelly shouldn’t pose that much of a problem on that level. I can’t separate his hyper sexual material from his alleged misdeeds, and will forever shiver at the thought of who he might be singing Bump and Grind to.
In Jackson’s case, we followed him closely for all but the first ten years of his life. If he was guilty of these allegations, we were listening to him before, during and after his alleged crimes were committed. Is it OK to listen to the Jackson 5? There have so far been no allegations that pre-date the Bad album, so maybe we’re OK up until Thriller? Could he really be stripped of his achievements the way that Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have? I doubt it. His impact was too universal, too culturally significant.
There isn’t a definitive answer. Those who say we should separate art from artists are welcome to do so, but they shouldn’t say it with superiority. We all have a different level of acceptability. But whatever the outcome, Michael Jackson continues to be the most exhausting and tragic fall from grace in the history of popular culture.
It is worth pointing out that both Robson and Safechuck’s lawsuits against Jackson’s Estate were thrown out of court – but only due to the statute of limitations. The idea that these men would go through the indignity of described their experiences in the detail that the film is reported to if it wasn’t true feels unlikely to me. I don’t think I will watch Leaving Neverland when it is broadcast – I’m still coming to terms with my own conflicting thoughts and figuring out how I feel. But at some point I feel I ought to. Maybe we all should as there could be questions that we need to ask ourselves. Whether true or not – the world either turned a blind eye to his crimes or enabled an unhealthy and dangerous obsession.