When news breaks about an unexpected death, a number of things happen inside a publication that’s suddenly planning coverage. But the chief concern is: what legacy has this person left us?
This is when choices are made about the disparate narratives of a famous person’s life, and a particular story begins to emerge — one typically cemented for the years that follow. It is unusual for new facts to surface years later that call for breaking into the mausoleum and questioning the eulogies.
It’s been almost ten years since Michael Jackson died. But if his life had come to its end now, when there’s greater literacy around abuse allegations and imbalances of power, how would the coverage of his death have changed? In what ways did the coverage of his death on June 25, 2009 reflect the time it was produced in?
Leaving Neverland, which begins airing on HBO this Sunday, is a four-hour-long documentary telling the separate stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who allege that Michael Jackson molested them when they were boys. The doc’s release puts us on the precipice of a sweeping reconsideration of Jackson’s legacy, one that is only possible because of the #MeToo movement and the cultural progress eked out in the last few years around issues of social justice and the realities of victims, especially with regards to sexual abuse.
Because the Internet’s memory is short, revisiting the press from June 25, 2009 and shortly after reminds us of the master narrative that took hold for most of the decade to come — all the better to understand how we process Jackson today. It would be beside the point to try and judges the stories discussed below as “right” or “wrong”; they come from seasoned professionals who were working in a cultural moment that is unlike the one we currently live in. (Not to mention intense deadlines, word counts and editorial priorities that are often out of a writer’s hands, all of which impact the final copy the world reads.)
The day Jackson died, many publications, including Billboard, the New York Times, NPR, Time, Rolling Stone, and Variety, published obituaries, and a clear outline came into view: precocious child star to genius-level talent by the ’80s. Weirdness and/or controversy beginning to bubble in the ‘90s. Then the disturbing fall from grace in the 2000s, when he stood trial and was acquitted for child molestation, when his appearance wandered deeper into the uncanny valley. It all led to the eve of his death, as he rehearsed vigorously for an ambitious comeback concert series at the O2 in London. He changed popular music forever, and though his life had its inscrutable, troubling patches, he was the King of Pop and is to be remembered as such. Those are the broad strokes.
Within those obituaries, the 1993 accusation of molestation, settled out of court, and the 2003 allegations, which led to his arrest and a trial, occupy varying space. For instance, in Billboard’s story they’re mentioned in a single line, practically as an aside: “In the years since [his ‘80s heyday and into the early ‘90s], Jackson’s star lost some of its luster in the wake of child molestation charges (he was exonerated in a trial), two divorces and financial problems.”
The New York Times obit contains a line that’s representative of the even playing field on which Jackson’s controversies seemed to exist at the time: “Michael Jackson, whose quintessentially American tale of celebrity and excess took him from musical boy wonder to global pop superstar to sad figure haunted by lawsuits, paparazzi and failed plastic surgery….” Though the Times obituary later dedicates multiple paragraphs to the 2003 accusations and eventual trial, the 1993 accusations of child molestation, which, per Jackson, led to his dependency on prescription drugs, received no mention. The sense that there may have been a pattern of behavior does not emerge. Instead, the shock of abuse allegations is left there, on the same plane as his disconcerting penchant for plastic surgery and the documentation of his every unusual move by paparazzi.
These obituaries came from reporters and by and large refrained from grand pronouncements or judgements, as you would expect. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson, on the other hand, wrote more personally: “The fact that a grown man who suffered such public humiliation in 1993 would still be holding hands and sharing his bed with pubescent boys a decade later, and with cameras rolling, suggested that his judgment was so skewed, virtually anything was possible. Thinking about him, one tended to vacillate between pity and disgust.”
Spin’s Steve Kandell went left in his essay, using Jackson’s problematic legacy as a means to bemoan the boring pop stars of the present: “Iconic pop stars should be weird and unknowable, that’s what we’re paying them for. They shouldn’t be typing their observations into their iPhones 140 characters at a time; they should be shooting their televisions…and sleeping in hyperbaric chambers with well-dressed chimpanzees and possibly, regrettably, kindergartners. Because we cannot. We need them to live lives we’ll never know, lives we shouldn’t know; to be, if not above the law, then certainly beyond the pale.”
Critic Sasha Frere-Jones, writing for the New Yorker’s website, published a piece on June 26 that’s a more personal reflection on the day Jackson died. It contains no mentions of the molestation allegations. Similarly, a remembrance written by Kelefa Sanneh, published in a July issue of the New Yorker, spends little time wondering how his legacy has been warped by the allegations: “If ‘Thriller’ sometimes obscured his lesser achievements, it also upstaged his greatest disasters: despite the noise from the child-molestation scandals, his mutating appearance, and his escalating eccentricity, those nine songs — almost all of which were released as singles — were louder.” Again, like in the New York Times obituary, his controversies exist on the same plane, almost as a single mass of bad.
Vanity Fair covered the allegations and breakdowns doggedly and in real time, in the ‘90s and ‘00s, and as such its coverage of Jackson’s death has a distinctive flavor. One of the first stories it published came from Maureen Orth, who wrote five long, exhaustive features on Jackson, beginning in 1994. (That story’s headline: “Nightmare in Neverland.”) Orth writes, “I believe the aftermath of his death will probably be as messy as his life was.” Even if in the months and early years that followed Jackson’s death, the line would have seemed hyperbolic, or just plain wrong, it’s become the most prescient line in the 20+ stories reviewed for this piece.
When Leaving Neverland airs on Sunday, Maureen Orth will be proved correct, nearly ten years after the fact.