I’m going to start this piece by saying I never had any care for Michael Jackson. That isn’t to say that I disliked him – to me he was irrelevant. He was just a weird guy that was in the news when I was growing up, I didn’t even really take any note of his music until after the man died. All I knew of Jackson prior to his death was what I had picked up from the satirical digs laid against Jackson in cartoons like the Simpsons or South Park. That is to say I knew that Jackson’s relationship with children was untoward but little else.
After the media circus surrounding his death, I don’t think I ever really thought about Michael Jackson, other than blaming it on the boogie with The Jackson 5 or watching his episode of The Simpsons. That’s why I was stunned when I first heard the hype surrounding the Leaving Neverland documentary, which I went into with very little background other than knowing it was damning for Jackson’s legacy. I found that as I watched I could not look away – the harrowing stories of those boys affected me more than any piece of media ever has.
I was so shocked that this information was only seemingly coming to the fore now – after all, at the time of Jackson’s death I was aware of the open secret that was Jackson’s relationships with children. So naturally when I finished Part One of the documentary I found myself frantically googling, trying to find any information regarding past allegations. Eventually I found the ’93 accusations and the ’05 court case which was ultimately covered in the second part of the documentary.
It was here that I realised that the public had known that Wacko Jacko was more than just an endearing nickname for an esoteric man. It was recognition of the insane man that he truly was, dangling his own children from hotel balconies, relentlessly pursuing the purchase of the Elephant Man’s bones, and consistently sleeping in the same bed with a slew of young boys. Yet society ignored these warning signs and waived them off as the eccentricities of an emotionally stunted child star.
But Michael Jackson continued. He was a larger than life figure that came into his own during a time that society was celebrating weirdness and the idea of welcoming the other. This was seen through sitcoms like Perfect Strangers and Mork and Mindy, where we saw the weirdo welcomed with a warm embrace into our collective living rooms. Similarly, Leaving Neverland mentions the way that the Safechuck’s used to get Jackson to hide in their car so he could escape his home unnoticed. A scene eerily similar to the way ET was smuggled away on Halloween in order to phone home.
This is to say that society allowed Michael Jackson his eccentricities because culturally they had become used to otherworldly, larger than life characters in their living room every week. They forgave him of his childlike obsessions because he never had a childhood and was coming to terms with the lasting effects of that childhood being stolen.
People have emotional baggage that they carry from their childhood, that is an undisputed fact. We are all a product of our influences and sadly for some, those influences are traumatic childhood experiences. Despite this we do not automatically dismiss the behaviour of people effected by childhood trauma. We, as a society, use all of the information available about a person to create a wholistic view of a human being as a product of many different influences. We did not do this for Jackson. This consistent acceptance of behaviours led us as a society to idolise, and monetise, a man that many of us would not sit next to on the bus if he were a normal member of society.
As a result of this broad acceptance of Jackson’s idiosyncrasies, we have reached a point where we cannot “cancel” Jackson like we have with the stars that have faced allegations before him. It was easy enough to avoid films featuring Kevin Spacey, or to simply cut Louis C.K. out of our lives. But thanks to Jackson’s pervasive influence on the music industry as a whole he cannot be cancelled.
After all, if you were to “cancel” Michael Jackson you would be cancelling the essence of modern pop music. Artists like Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, and The Weeknd are so deeply influenced by Jackson that to erase him from our collective memory would be to remove an essential part of pop music as an art form. Regardless of what you think of Michael Jackson as a man there is no arguing the lasting cultural impact of his art.
I am aware that the allegations laid against Jackson by Wade Robson and James Safechuck are far more repulsive than we have seen within the Me Too movement, and some may not include the allegations of Leaving Neverland as a part of the movement. Culturally however, Leaving Neverland occupies the same space as the Me Too movement. It alleges another story of a high-profile celebrity abusing their power to further their sexual agenda.
So far, as a society we have simply “cancelled” problematic artists, choosing to ignore their legacy entirely and remove them from our sight. The peak of Cancel Culture seemed to come when Kevin Spacey was literally removed from All the Money in the World and replaced with Christopher Plummer with reshoots taking place a month prior to the film’s release. Personally, I would not mind if Christopher Plummer were to reshoot the scenes of every problematic actor in perpetuity. But this solution is simply not viable, much like the concept of Cancel Culture as a whole.
Choosing as a society to cancel the work of a problematic artist seems effective on paper – it damages the finances of those accused and removes their influence from our culture as a whole. However, this is where the issues arise. When we cancel an artist, we are cancelling more than their art. By ignoring the artist we are in some way ignoring the allegations of victims.
Take Mel Gibson as an example. After information about his 2006 DUI and subsequent anti-Semitic rant became public, he was “cancelled” with his prolific career being forced to the sidelines as society came to understand who he was as a man. It wasn’t until 2010 that Gibson landed his next role on the big screen. And even then, his career heavily stagnated. It was only through the passing of time that society came to embrace him once more.
Soon enough Gibson was back to his previous level of stardom and was able to direct Hackshaw Ridge, a film with a story powerful enough for society to forgive and forget. And this is where the problem truly lies with Cancel Culture. It is an effective tool to starve problematic artists of income and push them into obscurity in the short term. In the long term however it is problematic.
This is a result of the obscurity these artists are pushed into. Sitting on the sidelines cancelled artists can rebuild, rebrand and re-enter the mainstream when society forgets the actions that got them cancelled in the first place. Woody Allen is still making films after all.
The allegations detailed in Leaving Neverland are far more severe than almost any that have come before. But Michael Jackson was more pervasive in society than all of the artists we have “cancelled” combined. Because of this I believe that the aftermath of Leaving Neverland will be far more significant than simply negatively impacting the legacy of Michael Jackson. It is a watershed moment for society as a whole as we choose how to handle Jackson’s art from this point on.
I don’t think that society will ever truly be able to separate Jackson’s art from the allegations levelled against him. One need look no further than the music video for The Way You Make Me Feel. The clip is already problematic enough in the Me Too era, depicting Jackson chasing and catcalling a woman while making various sexual dance moves as the woman runs away from him, eventually reaching her home with Jackson still in pursuit. I don’t feel the need to explain the negative behaviours that are already present in the video.
But when viewed with the knowledge of the allegations of Leaving Neverland the video can be seen as much more than Jackson perpetuating the negative behaviours of men relentlessly pursuing women. With the awareness of Leaving Neverland it can be interpreted as an attempt by Jackson to cement his heterosexuality, akin to his marriage with Lisa Marie Presley which seemed a direct reaction to the accusations levelled against Jackson by Evan Chandler.
The solution isn’t simple. In re-watching that music video I contributed to the assets of Michael Jackson’s estate. But I also witnessed red flags that come to the fore thanks to the lens of Leaving Neverland.
I don’t think there is a solution to the problems of Jackson. The allegations levelled against him are so monstrous that it would be remiss of society not to acknowledge them. Consumers can delete Jackson’s music from their playlists and therefore stop donating money to the legal defence of an alleged paedophile. But despite everything I have written, Jackson’s music, and influence, is so embedded in our culture we cannot choose to ignore him.
The lasting impact of Leaving Neverland will be on more than just the reassessment of Michael Jackson’s legacy. It will ultimately decide how society handles problematic artists and will finally answer the question: “Can you separate the art from the artist?”