Can I Separate Michael Jackson From the Music?: Guest Column
I didn’t want to watch Leaving Neverland. Only a couple of months after the release of Surviving R. Kelly, I didn’t know if I could handle another documentary featuring such devastating allegations of sexual abuse. Although I stopped listening to R. Kelly years before the docuseries and I believed he was a sexual predator, I hadn’t fully processed the harm he caused.
It wasn’t that difficult for me to remove Kelly from my playlist. While I recognize his talent, the significance of his discography, and his contributions to popular music more broadly, I was at best a casual fan. After the child sex abuse tape surfaced, I opted out of my fandom. I began advocating that others do the same a few years ago, when reports surfaced of an abusive “sex cult.” I knew that this was bigger than personally choosing to not listen. The move to unequivocally #MuteRKelly was about holding him accountable for the harm he allegedly caused over nearly 30 years. In my mind, a record of numerous credible allegations of sexual assault, rape, child pornography, and battery easily trumped a legacy of hitmaking.
I didn’t carry the same conviction when it came to initial allegations against Michael Jackson. He remained on my playlist. When he died, I grieved the loss of an icon without a thought of those allegations. I even recollect what I wore to the last Michael vs. Prince party I attended. I didn’t view his accusers as liars, and I knew that his relationships with children troubled me, but I couldn’t mute him. The man made Off the Wall and Thriller.
I allowed his acquittal in the Gavin Arvizo case to act as a buffer between my love for his music and the seriousness of what several boys and their families allege occurred. My choice reverberated as something other than cognitive dissonance -- it was a strategic disavowal of some blaring truths, such as Jackson sleeping in his bed with boys, that would force me to view one of my childhood idols in a different light.
For those who tuned into Leaving Neverland, it will be difficult to not rethink Jackson’s legacy. Many will remain unconvinced by detailed descriptions of years of sexual abuse. Others will simply not watch because of their loyalty to Jackson’s legacy. The documentary, however, demands that we ask ourselves some uneasy questions about what we will outright “dismiss” in our desire to enjoy some of the greatest pop music ever made.
The graphic details of alleged sexual abuse in the documentary paint a harrowing picture of coercion, manipulation, exploitation, predation and the lure and power of celebrity. Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s vivid recollections of various acts of sexual abuse made me pause the documentary on more than one occasion. The mundane and quotidian memories of smells, ephemera, or small gestures heightened the intensity of the allegations. Their memories, coupled with their vacillations between adoration, disgust, shame, longing, and pain, powerfully resounded.
Both men previously defended him against allegations and forcefully denied being abused by Jackson. Without viewing Leaving Neverland, it’s plausible that some Jackson defenders will continue to portray these men as opportunists seeking money or their parents as simply pursuing wealth and proximity to celebrity. But it’s much harder to do this after actually viewing Leaving Neverland with an open mind.
Those who watch may, like me, leave with more questions than answers. My burning question is not what these men and their families have to gain by coming forward now, but what do people who love Michael Jackson’s music have to give up, if anything, if we believe these men? More pointedly, what is the value of posthumously holding Jackson accountable? Unlike Kelly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein or Ryan Adams, there’s no possibility of charges, let alone a conviction. Muting feels like the most viable option.
The first time I heard a Jackson song after viewing the documentary, my visceral response wasn’t an immediate recoil. What I did experience was the absence of unbridled joy I once felt listening to him. It’s something more than ambivalence or even disappointment -- it’s the sting of fully facing that it will never be the same. I no longer want to ask the “what if” question, or debate the veracity of the allegations. I don’t think I can or will throw his legacy away. But I can’t listen or dance to his music without second guessing if I should.
Treva B. Lindsey is a professor of women's studies at Ohio State University and the author of Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C.