Can we continue to listen to Michael Jackson's music? It’s a no from me.
I was never a Michael Jackson fan. Perhaps it’s because I was born in 1991, over a decade after the release of Off The Wall, and just a few years before he dangled his infant son, Prince, out of the window of the Hotel Adion. My first memories of Michael Jackson are of his maniacal grin, the next are of allegations of sexual abuse against a young boy. To me, he has never been a God or a King; he’s just a powerful brand and man I would have been creeped out to meet.
I understand why it might be easier for me, in the wake of Dan Reed’s two-part Channel 4/HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, to separate the art from the artist than a die hard fan. Certainly, a great many of those fans appear to be having a significant issue with believing the stories told by Wade Robson and James Safechuck — you only need look at the comments section on YouTube clips of their Oprah appearance or the documentary trailer to see that. Denial is a powerful thing.
But what motivates denial of this kind? What moves a person to defend a man they’ve never met, about whose personal life they know — really — absolutely nothing? I feel something nearing sympathy for those who, unlike me, perceive their lives to have been changed by Michael Jackson’s existence for the better, and who now feel the foundations of their identity shift beneath their feet. Clearly, Michael Jackson’s influence on music and dance is enduring — perhaps even eternal — and the people who reference Jackson as a driving force behind their careers in music, in dance, even in theatre are myriad. There are many, too, for whom Jackson’s songs have soundtracked landmark moments in their lives: weddings, birthdays, first kisses in clubs. It seems important to recognise that, regardless of his alleged crimes, Jackson’s extraordinary talent had a positive effect on the lives of many.
What isn’t okay is to ignore the negative effect the same person has had on the lives of others. In a statement on Facebook, Thriller Live creator Adrian Grant cites Jackson’s ‘charitable work’ as his ‘greatest legacy’. He lays out a litany of humanitarian efforts he watched Jackson take part in over the many years of their friendship, using them as evidence for Jackson’s pureness of character. Testimonies like these seem to make capacity for kindness and cruelty mutually exclusive — clearly, they are not.
As a little thought experiment, I imagined what it would feel like to watch a documentary like Leaving Neverland about a musician I loved, whose work is irrevocably intertwined with my identity — Kate Bush maybe, or Nick Cave. Would I be able to banish the music — and the musician — from my life?
The answer has to be yes.
The connection between a musician and their listener is a sacred one. Certainly fandom can be communal — particularly in a live context — but it can also be deeply personal. When we listen to music alone — particularly that of a solo artist like Michael Jackson — we have a sense of being one-on-one with that person. A person carries so much of their personality in their tone, their words, their breath. When a singer performs they give us access to a hidden part of themselves. A relationship, however one-sided, is forged as their voice vibrates in our ears.
And is that not how Wade Robson and James Safechuck tell us they felt? Their relationships with Jackson were forged on a one-on-one basis; they were given access, and it made them feel special.
Knowing what I do now, I cannot purposefully make that connection. I do not want to hear the voice that Robson and Safechuck say manipulated them, groomed them, made them afraid to tell anyone. I do not want that voice vibrating in my ear.