I’ve been sitting on a Michael Jackson post for years. And lately, this blog has become a Batman blog. That’s partly because I suffered a recent injury to my right hand that necessitated surgery and it being immobilized. As you can probably guess, typing blog entries one-handed is a time-consuming and tedious process so it’s taken all of my time just to keep up with the weekly Batman entry. I also haven’t had much to say about other nostalgic topics, but now feels like a good time to finally make this entry.
Something I’ll never be able to explain to my kids is just how popular Michael Jackson was in the 1980s and into the early 90s. There’s been no comparison since and I don’t know if our current media landscape will even allow such a thing to happen again. When I was a kid, MTV sometimes felt like the Michael Jackson channel. Sometimes it literally way when the network would devote a weekend to just coverage of Jackson and playing his videos as well as videos by Janet Jackson and other Jackson-related artists. And it was all entertaining. His videos were usually great, the songs were catchy, and even people who claimed to not like him could often be seen tapping their feet or bobbing their head to his music.
And it wasn’t just MTV. Jackson was in commercials or featured in the news, often tabloids, and had a pretty big presence in the world at large. I remember seeing videos of people at concerts or that were just in his presence and sobbing. I couldn’t wrap my head around it and my mom would explain it as some people just get so excited they cry. Some would pass out, most would just scream, but it was so surreal to my adolescent brain.
Things changed when Jackson purchased Neverland Ranch. Or at least, they seemed to. MTV would broadcast from there at times and you could see the carnival rides in the background and footage of Jackson walking around with a troupe of children getting cotton candy, going on rides, and heading to an on-premises movie theater. As a kid, I was so intensely jealous of the children I was seeing on television that got to hang out with Michael Jackson. I wanted to be one of those kids, but as an east coast dweller I had not a shot of ever going there so I could only watch and dream.
Michael Jackson came across like a big kid. He just wanted to hang out with other children because he apparently identified with them. He was the living embodiment of the famous Toys R Us jingle. To a fellow child, that was 100% understandable. To adults, it probably should have at least put them on guard. When the first allegations against Jackson surfaced in 1993, I watched the live broadcast of him describing in humiliating detail the ordeal he had to go through. He denied any wrong-doing, and his demeanor felt authentic to me. He came across like a kid accused of something he didn’t do. It’s something that happens to probably everybody at some point and it is an awful feeling. It’s when you learn as a child that sometimes the world isn’t a just place. Had I been an adult I don’t know if I would have felt different.
The backlash was surprisingly minimal. Jackson was so convincing that it seemed like most believed him. He was controlling the message though, and it was his face that was the sole public face related to the allegations. It was quite a brilliant strategy considering the victim was a child and would likely never make a public statement. The public was successfully swayed as the most common reaction seemed to be one of cynicism: the accuser is trying to extort a famous artist. How could the man who organized “We Are the World” be a child predator? It seemed insane at the time, but hindsight probably doesn’t accurately portray that.
Those allegations were swept away. Jackson settled with the accusers, and once that happened they stopped cooperating with the investigation and no indictment took place. Jackson would then try and rehabilitate his image by marrying Lisa Marie Presley in 1994. To her credit, Presley has always maintained the relationship was real and pretty conventional, even claiming it was on and off for years after they divorced. From a modern lens it feels like a stunt including the famous kiss at the MTV Video Music Awards and the music video for “You Are Not Alone” (written by R. Kelly, another popular name for all the wrong reasons these days) which featured the couple nude.
Jackson’s star power diminished in the mid-90s. The music industry moved on without him and the wave of new pop artists made it hard for him to stand-out. His appearance had also changed so drastically by this point that he was nearly unrecognizable as the man who made “Thriller.” He had made millions upon millions, and it almost seemed like he just didn’t want to be a celebrity anymore, so he settled into a more private life in which he surrounded himself with children while also becoming a father for the first time.
By that point, I had grown out of any Michael Jackson obsession I had. My opinion of him had not really changed much, it was just over for me. And it had been for awhile. I would say my Jackson fandom spanned from 88-93 for the most part. I was there when “Scream” premiered on network television in 1995, but by then it was mostly out of curiosity. Somehow while just sitting in my dorm room on a rather boring night, I happened onto the television special Living with Michael Jackson. I watched as Jackson asked interviewer Martin Bashir what could be more beautiful than sharing your bed with someone you love? The answer was a response to if Jackson let children sleep with him. It was uncomfortable, even for someone who felt he had been wrongfully accused as I had, and yet I still wasn’t convinced.
More allegations followed almost immediately afterward. Jackson was arrested and this time charged with seven counts of child molestation. The really sick part was the accused was a cancer survivor and it was his disease that basically put him in contact with Jackson. The backlash this time since it went to trial was especially brutal, and not towards Jackson. The general public seemed convinced this was another money-grab. It wasn’t as one-sided as the 93 allegations, but it was a reminder that even absent the spotlight, Jackson was still a tremendous star. And he beat the charges. The acquittal came in June of 2005 after a lengthy process. Some blamed the testimony of the victim’s mother as the deciding factor, but had she been a perfect witness I’m still not convinced things would have turned out differently.
Following that trial Jackson basically went away, fleeing to Bahrain. For me, I was more open to the idea that something wasn’t right with what happened, but I found it easier to believe we were dealing with an extreme case of arrested development. Michael Jackson seemed like a 10-year-old at heart. He wanted to have fun and hang out with like-minded individuals. To him, another 10-year-old was more like a peer than a fellow 40-year-old. It would be easy to take advantage of that and exploit it for riches, or so I wanted to believe. In that, the portrayal of him on the television show South Park felt pretty much dead-on. Jackson was a kid at heart and therefore an irresponsible adult and maybe even a bad father.
The rest of the story is that Michael Jackson’s expensive lifestyle caught up with him. He hadn’t made a new album in years and no longer toured. He was broke, so in order to satisfy various creditors he announced a comeback tour titled This Is It. It would be both a comeback and a farewell, and during the lead-up to it he would pass away. Jackson was still a big enough star in 2009 that when I was walking through Boston Common with a friend I got a text message from my best friend that Jackson was dead. I stopped walking to read it. To my knowledge, my best friend and I had never had a meaningful conversation about Michael Jackson, but like me he lived through his height. We all loved him as kids, and his death felt like a big deal. I went home and watched coverage of his death all night. I picked up magazines and newspapers that featured it and watched a bunch of music videos I hadn’t seen in years. I even purchased some music. It was surreal. I watched his memorial service on television, and when his daughter Paris bid him goodbye it affected me.
Ever since Michael Jackson died I wondered if more allegations would surface. I even wondered if some of the accusers would recant. It was mostly quiet, but his estate was sued in 2013 over more allegations, but it didn’t receive a ton of press. The accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, had previously helped Jackson beat those 2003 charges and earn an acquittal back in 2005. For them to claim otherwise seemed odd, but in actuality it’s really not odd for abuse victims to remain loyal. Especially when that abuse occurs to a child.
You may have heard about a documentary called Leaving Neverland by now. It just aired this past weekend on HBO and was the target of Jackson’s estate which is suing HBO for airing it. It tells the story of Robson and Safechuck, whose suit is still under appeal, and the abuse they suffered at the hands of Michael Jackson. In a post MeToo world, these victims seem to finally be getting a fair shake. As a society, we’ve been encouraged over the past few years to believe victims. Some are liars, but the vast majority are not. They deserve to be heard. Robson and Safechuck were not compensated for Leaving Neverland nor were they for the follow-up media. Sure, they may eventually profit if their suit prevails or they strike a book deal, but for now these are two people trying to make peace with what happened nearly 30 years ago. Leaving Neverland is a painful, uncomforable, watch, whether you’re prepared to believe them or not. Fellow abuse survivors should probably not watch it, because it’s raw, and there’s a lot of hurt to go around that may be triggering.
In the wake of the documentary some radio stations have decided to stop playing Michael Jackson’s music. As of right now, the various streaming services out there seem to be holding serve, but it would not be a surprise to see things change very quickly. The biggest move so far has been by The Simpsons. Creators Matt Groening and James L. Brooks along with current showrunner Al Jean issued a statement saying the season 3 premiere “Stark Raving Dad,” which features guest work by Jackson, will no longer be shown. It will be removed from the FXX channel rotation and the streaming service Simpsons World. They even took the extra step of saying it won’t be on any future physical media release. As of right now, I don’t think there are any plans to re-issue the season 3 DVD, but it will be interesting if the series ever gets some massive collected works release down the road when it wraps up (which may never happen anyways).
As for me, I can no longer ignore or dismiss what Michael Jackson has been accused of. Too many allegations have surfaced. Even after his death, more details about the 93 case were unveiled that are pretty damning. I now believe this man’s sickness went beyond just thinking he was a child, far beyond. He may have been a brilliant artist, but he was also a terrible monster and that can’t be ignored or forgiven. Because he was such a huge star, he still has plenty of defenders, but I’m not one of them. I couldn’t put it any better than Wesley Morris did for The New York Times who wrote a painfully honest reaction to Leaving Neverland and what it means for the fan in him. I don’t know what this means for my relationship with his music. A part of me think it’s timeless and nothing can take away from its magic completely, but I do know that right now it’s not something I’m interested in exploring. I’ll figure that out some day. For now, I’m content to live a Jackson-free life.