The following is an op-ed. It reflects my story and my opinions.
It is not intended to cast judgement on the opinions of others.
Nearly ten years ago, as world reacted to the news that the King of Pop had suddenly passed away, I could not help but feel a boundless spectrum of emotion. Naturally, there was sadness; I had been a fan of Michael Jackson ever since I was 2 years old, and when the curator of the soundtrack to your life dies, it’s impossible not to feel sad. I also felt angry. Angry that I never got to see him perform. Angry that I was never going to experience another album, another hit single, another short film. Knowing that as long as he was alive there was hope for all these things, I was – quite selfishly – angry that he took that from me. However, through all of the misery, I felt pride, I felt vindication, and, oddly enough, I felt relief. For the first time in my life, I felt the world at large celebrating this man who had such a profound impact on my life, and the lives of millions of others. It felt as though all of the hate, judgment, and prejudice evaporated with his last breath, and for that I was relieved.
When I was a young child, I was completely unaware of the many controversies and rumors surrounding Michael Jackson; I was far too young to comprehend any of it. I didn’t ever question his drastic changes in appearance, or why his face – rather his eyes peered over his trademark medical mask – was plastered all over magazines covers. Instead, I was enamored by his visual masterworks, which went far beyond just his dancing and inimitable wardrobe. It was the lights, the smoke, the fireworks. It was the way his band and backup dancers were so impeccably coordinated that they felt like extensions of the artist himself. It was the shots of audience members sobbing, screaming, and being lifted out of the crowd after passing out. It was the way his short films positioned him as a transcendent creature capable of lighting up the ground beneath him, materializing out of a pile of magic sand, or even just compelling a room full of gangsters to dance. Everything had intensity, height, and drama. And of course the music he paired it all with was, simply, sensational.
From the ages of about two through about seven or eight, my life was Michael Jackson. I had his major albums on cassette and a VHS tape recording of his HBO special Live In Bucharest, all of which were in heavy rotation in lieu of (or at least in addition to) nursery rhymes and Sing-A-Longs. I even used to “play Michael Jackson” on the playground in preschool – it mostly consisted of dangling off the jungle gym as if it were a cherry picker. Looking back, I’m particularly thankful I didn’t break my nose trying to defy gravity with the “Smooth Criminal” lean. In my mind, nothing that he did required special effects or tricks, it was all him; he was pure magic. I’m not sure I even considered him human at all.
In fact, I can vividly remember the moment the magic turned into a man. I watched an old VH1 special counting down the most controversial moments in rock history, and right near the top of the list sat Michael Jackson. Now, I may have been young and naïve, but I was certainly aware that there was something “off” about the way he was viewed; the words “weird” and “wacko” were often juxtaposed with his name, and I could at least connect some of the dots. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I certainly was too young to understand the concepts of pedophilia and child molestation, let alone sexual abuse of any kind, let alone sex, period. I asked questions, and my parents answered as delicately and as vaguely as they could. Maybe I didn’t even fully understand at the time, but the stigma surrounding him became palpable, and all of the sudden, Michael Jackson was a man …a man at very least capable of doing terrible things. I felt what I now know to be shame, and I no longer felt comfortable expressing my obsession out loud anymore.
Several years passed before I even considered openly listening to his music again, which as a pre-teen meant being forced to swallow my pride to ask my parents to purchase his albums for me, this time on CD. The first cassette, or music of any kind, I ever owned was Bad, given to me for my fourth birthday; the album was fittingly the first CD of his in my collection. I remember the car ride home from the mall, putting the disc in my walkman, and for the first time in years hearing the startling blast of sound that introduces the title track. It all came flooding back. Still unable to fully grasp the gravity of the accusations against him, my affinity for the artist never went away, but instead remained suppressed until I had the means to dive back in. I begged my mom to buy me the Dangerous album only a few days later.
When I heard there was going to be a documentary airing giving an unprecedented look into the life of Michael Jackson, I was ecstatic. I remember going into my bedroom, locking the door, turning the light off, and lowering the volume on my TV all the way, sitting right up to the screen just to hear. I watched Martin Bashir’s Living with Michael Jackson start to finish. Now a teenager, I was starting to the put the pieces to life’s endless puzzle together, and although I had much to learn and experience, I knew something was off. This man whom I spent my entire life idolizing seemed distant, timid, and outrageously sad. I went in hoping for insight into his creative process and anecdotes about his unprecedented life and career, but was left with an uncomfortable mess whose presence just sort of lingered. I remember hearing soon after the news announcing that Michael Jackson had, once again, been accused of child molestation.
Because I was able to understand the disturbing nature of these accusations, I distanced myself from the artist. I was busy uncovering different kinds of music, anyway. In fact, I more or less made my peace with MJ, fully assuming it was never going to be acceptable to listen to him ever again. But fast forward to 2005 when news breaks that the jury in his trial had reached a verdict, I was taken aback by just how fast my heart was beating; I was nervous. My affinity for his art was suppressed, it didn’t disappear. My family was huddled around the TV – I even think my mom was on the phone with someone as they started reading the verdicts. Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. There was such a weight lifted off me, and for countless people all over the world. Michael Jackson was innocent. As unorthodox as his life was, according to a jury of his peers, he was not a sexual predator.
The last glimpse of him as a superstar anyone got came in March of 2009 when he announced a final run of shows in London. I knew I wasn’t going to be there in person, but I was thrilled to see what he was going to put on. Seeing the dates sell out, records shattered, and headlines finally focused back on his artistic output, I have to admit that magic did come back for a brief fleeting moment. I took time out of every day to try and find any tidbit of information I could stumble upon for This Is It. My anticipation was through the roof as I counted the days until the first performance. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been as excited for my own birthday as I was for just seeing what his setlist would be. After all, this was what I loved most about MJ my whole life: his electrifying performances. Instead of watching the same old clips available, I was finally going to get to experience something new.
I was in the car driving when I found out there was speculation that the King of Pop had died. I had parked my car in a lot to focus on the radio by the time the DJ made the official announcement before aptly putting on “Man In The Mirror.” On a personal level, the moment felt surreal, but what really took me by surprise was just how much attention it was getting. The world felt like it had literally stopped spinning just so we could all soak in the loss of such a profound figure. I didn’t expect the wall-to-wall coverage, the disruption of regular programing, the outpouring of emotion; it seemed like all of the sudden everyone was a Michael Jackson fan. After years or grappling with what can only be described as a secret obsession, there was finally relief. I was a fan, as I always had been, but this time there was no stigma, no secrecy, and absolutely no shame.
Michael Jackson has been dead almost a decade now, but it seems as though, for the public at large, the honeymoon is officially over. Leaving Neverland, a nearly 4-hour documentary detailing two individuals’ accounts of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of the King of Pop, has now been unleashed to the world – a world that has always been quick to turn its back on him whenever the opportunity arose. I will say that I have not seen the documentary, and I have absolutely no plans to. As a result, I feel as though it is neither appropriate nor fair to make any judgments on its content. However, I can say confidently that this film portrays only one side of a very complicated story, a story with quite a few holes in it to begin with. The outcome thus far has been a predictable divide of opinion. No doubt this will have an impact on the King of Pop’s legacy one way or another, but it’s uncertain exactly what it will be.
We are living in a time of reckoning, and it has been as cathartic as it has been excruciating. It isn’t easy to see someone as once beloved as Bill Cosby carried off in handcuffs after being exposed as prolific sexual predator. However, once the dominos began falling, they fell hard and they fell often. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Matt Lauer, R. Kelly, and so on and so forth …society has been given a plethora of examples of the harsh reality of sexual abuse. Finally, victims are being called survivors, and, most importantly, they are being believed. This is a painful process, even on the outside, but it’s a necessary one.
So where exactly does the King of Pop fit into all of this, if at all? There are several major fundamental differences between the likes of Weinstein or Cosby and Jackson. The most obvious difference may be that he is dead, but it isn’t the biggest one. The biggest difference is that MJ has gone through this already. Twice. Both times came up goose egg. In fact, the two gentlemen whose stories are the focus of Leaving Neverland both testified in defense of Michael Jackson 14 years ago during his criminal trial, claiming he never abused them. There is so much history here that skepticism is not only inevitable, it’s important.
My goal in writing this is not to dismiss the accusations of theindividuals, but rather to exemplify the great lack of context being providedto the public at large. It has become apparent that Michael Jackson is asenticing a target dead as he was when he was alive, maybe even more so. Far beit for anyone to criticize how any victim of sexual abuse both processes andcommunicates their experience, and it is important that everyone, includingMichael’s most passionate fans, approach the situation as such. You don’t needto see the documentary to gather facts – I sure didn’t – but enough informationis out there for people to form educated opinions, and I encourage everyone doso.
My story of Michael Jackson fandom is far from unique. Although I’d like to think that it is, he wouldn’t be the King of Pop if he didn’t amass millions of fans all over the world, and he did it with his God-given talents and hard work. Of course, there was plenty of collateral damage along the way, including constant public ridicule and drug addiction that ultimately resulted in his death. He has endured what no other celebrity has ever had to, because no other celebrity has ever been as big, as larger-than-life, and as magical as Michael Jackson.
So where – if anywhere – do we go from here? Do we pull his records from the shelves? Pull his songs off the radio? Eliminate every reference to one of the most culturally significant figures in modern history we come across? As of this moment right now, no. These accusations are stories, they aren’t verified facts. As a film maker, Dan Reed did not do his due diligence. Sight-unseen, one has to realize it is virtually impossible to present a valid argument if there’s nothing there to counter it; an audience needs a bit of devil’s advocate. Even – giving him the benefit of the doubt – if he vetted these stories and determined their iron-clad validity, simply presenting just one side is not only lazy, it’s irresponsible. These men are not detailing accounts of sexual abuse from Joe Shmoe down the street, this is about the King of Pop. More importantly, this is about someone who has been down this road before. Although he was vindicated in the end, the toll of the experience no doubt ultimately cost him his life.
In the era of Me Too and Time’s Up, Leaving Neverland is growing pains. These movements are having a profound impact on our culture, and largely for the better. It is always – always – important to believe survivors of sexual abuse when they come forward with their stories. The misconception is that believing them automatically presumes the guilt of the accused. It’s difficult to even bring up the notion that someone could lie about such things, not simply because the nature of these accusations is appalling, but because they are so complicated. It would be wrong to simply dismiss their claims just because I am a life-long fan of the artist, but that isn’t what I am doing. Michael Jackson is used to losing in the court of public opinion. Even a decade after his death, there is still no easier target than him. Approaching a biased documentary such as this without skepticism would simply be naive.
Keep bumpin’ his hits. Keep watching his short films and concert videos. Keep his humanitarian efforts alive. We aren’t being given a full picture with this documentary, and that alone does not warrant tearing down a legacy as profound as the King of Pop’s. But in doing so, it is still possible to approach the accuser’s stories with an open mind and with compassion. As always, truth will undoubtedly prevail in the end…
This is not the end.