May 2019

Arts & Letters

Starstruck: Reckoning with Michael Jackson’s legacy

By Anwen Crawford

Michael Jackson and James Safechuck, 1988. © Dave Hogan / Getty Images

What do we do with the music after ‘Leaving Neverland’?

If I believe the accusations of child sexual abuse levelled against Michael Jackson in Leaving Neverland, a two-part, four-hour documentary that premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and screened on television globally in Marchand, in the film, Jackson’s two now adult accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, make credible, detailed and independent allegations of abuse that appear to corroborate each other, so, yes, I do believe them – what then?

I cannot say, in order to distance myself from a sickening feeling of entanglement, I never liked Michael Jackson or his music anyway, because this is demonstrably false. I cannot say, in a meagre attempt at redress, If only someone more talented than this abuser, Michael Jackson, had been encouraged to make music instead, for there was no one more talented than Jackson, no one who could have eclipsed him. I have previously described Jackson, in the pages of this magazine, as the greatest of all pop stars, and I cannot unsay it, nor would I want to: it remains a true reflection of my critical opinion. But more than one thing can be true at a time. And if it is true that Jackson was a star of very rare musical gifts and unmatched popular acclaim, the likes of which we will never see again, and if it is also true that he was a predatory and organised paedophile whose actions have permanently damaged at least two victims and probably more, what then?

Then I must reckon with my moral compass. Then I must confront the question of how to relate to art made by a person whose own actions were profoundly immoral. This isn’t a quibble over someone’s Twitter gaffe. On the face of it, over a period of many years Jackson systematically abused young boys – Robson was 7 when Jackson began to abuse him; Safechuck was 10 – and denied all allegations and charges stemming from this abuse during his lifetime. He groomed his victims, he groomed their families, he groomed the public. (Lawyers for Jackson’s estate have denied all allegations raised in Leaving Neverland, and have filed a suit against HBO, which broadcast the documentary in the United States, for disparaging Jackson’s public image. The film’s director, Dan Reed, has described this response as “shameful”.)

Would the question of what to do with the art be easier to answer if the allegations were of a different order? If Jackson had been accused of tax evasion, for instance? Of course it would be easier. There are degrees of distinction between an abuser and a cheat. And would the question be easier if his art – or at least some of his art – were not so great? If the art mattered less? Of course. Of course. But this is Michael Jackson. If you are aged between 30 and 70 and are telling me you’ve never danced to a Michael Jackson song; never taken pleasure in listening to a Michael Jackson song or a Jackson 5 song at a party, or on the radio or television; not stopped for half a second just to recall what a singular pop phenomenon he was; then I think you are fudging. As New York Times critic Wesley Morris observed recently, Jackson is part of pop culture on “a molecular level” – he cannot be removed from it. His legacies are irreversible. So I am left with the question. We are left with the question.

And there is more than this one question, which is complex enough, and has no wholly right answer, over what to do with the art. There is also the question of why these allegations, which are not new, have only now taken on the force of a revelation. Robson and Safechuck filed separate lawsuits, alleging sexual abuse, against the Jackson estate in 2013 and 2014, respectively: their cases were dismissed on technicalities. The rumours were persistent while Jackson lived, and there were two court cases brought against him, one civil and one criminal, over allegations of child sexual abuse. The civil case was settled out of court in 1994, while at his 2005 criminal trial Jackson was found not guilty on all charges. That historical verdict will be enough for some to maintain a belief that he must be, and always was, innocent. But not guilty in a legal sense is not always the same as guiltless. And I find that I am also not guiltless.

What did I need Jackson to be that, until now, I always chose to equivocate? What did we need him to be? The obfuscations are enduring and powerful.

But he loved children. But he delighted in fun and toys and games. But he staged a childhood that had been denied him. He was just “like that”. A creature apart. A strange but thorough innocent. Peter Pan. In the first of Leaving Neverland’s two parts, Robson describes a recurring act of abuse that would take place in Jackson’s bedroom at Neverland, the palatial Californian ranch that was Jackson’s home between 1989 and 2006. Robson would be asked by Jackson to bend over and expose his anus, while Jackson masturbated. “Right in front of me there was this big, kind of elaborate, Peter Pan cardboard cut-out,” Robson recalls. “So it’s like I was either looking back at him masturbating, or looking forward at Peter Pan.”

The abuse that is soberly, explicitly described in Leaving Neverland is terrible, but there is added horror in realising how closely it was bound up with Jackson’s monumental narcissism, and how this narcissism was both enabled and amplified by a culture that elevates fame to the highest and noblest state of being. No one was more famous than Jackson, and so no one, in Jackson’s own eyes, was more exemplary, or more entitled to whatever and whomever he pleased. Enough people – the whole world, effectively – agreed with him, overawed by the magnitude of his stardom. Both Robson’s and Safechuck’s mothers, who are interviewed extensively in Leaving Neverland, recall their dazzlement at Jackson’s fame and their thrill at being admitted into his pharaonic realm of first-class air travel, private limousines, shopping sprees and luxury homes. Sooner rather than later, each permitted their child to sleep with Jackson in his bed, and to spend substantial amounts of time with him alone and unchaperoned. Normal standards of propriety were not applied to Jackson, and did not operate in Jackson’s kingdom. He was, after all, very special. “I came to feel like he was one of my sons, by how he behaved,” says Stephanie Safechuck. “I loved him.”

If the adults were bewitched then the children stood no chance. The moment that James Safechuck first laid eyes on Jackson was captured on film, because it happened on the set of a Pepsi commercial. In the ad, the boy, looking for Jackson, wanders into the star’s dressing room. He tries on Jackson’s sunglasses, his sequinned stage jacket. This is a private, intimate space: out of bounds to most, and hence deeply alluring. But its connection to Jackson’s public celebrity is palpable. Here is where the man becomes more than a person, but also where the star might shed his persona. Here, the metamorphosis takes place. And Jackson’s art (which included his body, and his face) was a study in metamorphosis: the mutinous emotional velocity that threatens the beat of his greatest songs; the outrageous, fluid grace of his movement. So here perhaps the magic will show itself.

“They were trying to get my reaction on camera, the first time I saw him,” Safechuck says. He was eight when the commercial was shot, in December 1986, and recalls being more interested at the time in television cartoons than in Jackson’s music. (According to his mother, Safechuck’s childhood agent called him “money in the bank”, which is one of many details in Leaving Neverland that point towards a substructure of child labour to which Jackson himself, we cannot forget, was once subjected.) So it was for Safechuck that “the first time I saw him is actually the shot that they use, in the commercial”. Jackson appears at the door of the dressing room, having just stepped off the stage. “Looking for me?” he says. That’s a question, among many. A smile lights up Jackson’s face, and it’s the smile of a childhood conspirator who knows no limit to the happiness that they can feel in your company, and has no guilt in keeping secrets. Safechuck, the actual child, cannot help himself: he takes one look at Jackson and laughs in amazement. Beneath his face appears the logo: PEPSI: THE CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION.

Robson is 36 years old now; Safechuck 41. These men are my age; they are my peers. And I am angry, and grieved, and ashamed. Because we were, all of us, raised on Michael Jackson, and while our parents – my parents – knew him first, as a wunderkind, it was we who bore the full force of his fame. We bought in. The choice not to was not even a choice. Joy Robson brought home for her children in Brisbane the VHS special, The Making of Thriller. (“Somebody had told me that it would be a collector’s item,” she says.) “The music, I couldn’t help but move to it,” her son remembers. “It kind of set me on fire.” Robson studied Jackson’s choreography obsessively. He covered the walls of his bedroom with posters of Jackson. At a Michael Jackson dance competition at the local shopping mall, when he was five, he won a contest to meet his idol during the impending Bad tour, and ended up dancing with Jackson onstage. And after that nothing was the same. “He was fascinated with Wade,” Joy remembers, of Jackson’s behaviour when the family was first invited to visit Neverland, a year or so later. “He said that it’s like looking at himself in the mirror, like seeing himself all over again.” Jackson’s abuse of Robson began during that trip. Safechuck, meanwhile, in the wake of the Pepsi commercial, had a private film crew sent by Jackson to his family’s suburban Californian home. He didn’t have any Jackson posters in his bedroom, so the crew stuck some up. They filmed him dancing to “Smooth Criminal”. “Now I look back on it,” Safechuck says, “it’s almost like an audition for him.”

I’ve taught popular music history to undergraduates, and they’re half my age, more or less, and I’ve tried to explain, when we get to talking about the 1980s, just how colossal Michael Jackson was. I tell them how when I was very young I would spend what felt like hours gazing at the gatefold sleeve of Thriller, with its photograph of Jackson – who was then 24 and deliriously beautiful – reclining in a blinding bright white suit, a tiger cub draped over one knee. And they laugh at my starstruck naivety. I’ve shown them – without disclaimer as to the allegations, or the court cases – the footage of Jackson first dancing the moonwalk in public, at the Motown 25 concert in 1983, where he performs “Billie Jean” in an outfit that looks like wet glitter, and moves with such a desperate will to perfection that it seems he might drag the walls down. See, I say to them, see how great? Just intolerably great and vast. He came in on every channel and under every door. And they don’t understand, and how could they? I feel glad for them that no one ever gets that famous anymore. (If you’re 20 or younger and reading this: I’m glad for you, for that, though sorry for a whole lot else.) And I’m furious for those my age, that by the time it got handed down to us the prodigious, unruly promise of popular music had been stripped of almost all its recalcitrant parts, and we were left with brand synergies and all so much calculated junk and a star who was bigger than the sun. And I’m ashamed that in the face of this none of us figured out how to say no.

So I am left with these questions. Why did we need Jackson to be so flawless and so freakish? What were we trying to redeem in ourselves? In her 2006 book, On Michael Jackson, cultural critic Margo Jefferson writes of Jackson’s initial fame as the youngest member of the Jackson 5, when he was the small boy in ludicrous bell-bottomed outfits – which he somehow did not look foolish in – carrying the lead on songs that cast him as a lovelorn soul man. “Oh darlin’, I was blind to let you go” he sang, with the preternatural longing of a miniature Levi Stubbs. “In those early years of feminism,” Jefferson writes, “when few grown men seemed worth trusting, little Michael was our Cupid.”

In his literal childishness Jackson showed up the rules of the popular love song, but the effect was the opposite of cynical. Through him the form was imbued with fresh charm. And it was not the charm of the untutored, as is often the case with child performers, but the charm of someone knowing what to do and how to do it, while remaining oblivious, as Jefferson writes of children imitating adult feeling, to “exactly why they’re so alluring”. It is not that children feel less, or that their feelings are less complex. Anyone who’s ever been a child should remember how much, and how deeply, they were capable of feeling. But children lack that degree of self-deceit that allows adults to hurt or manipulate other people and tell themselves that it is good, because it serves them. (Children can be mean, no doubt, but they tend to be aware that they are being so.) I’m not even talking here – or at least not exclusively – about the self-deceit and self-interest involved in an adult abusing a child. I mean the common self-deceit that guides so much of our adult behaviour, in wanting something for ourselves above what we want for someone else, and not admitting it. The grown-up soul man wants his lover back because the lover’s absence makes him ache. He may, and often will, frame this want in terms of how superlative the lover is in themselves: how beautiful, or kind, or sensuous. But really what he wants is what he wants for himself, and this anguished selfishness is the axis upon which the song – like so many love songs – turns. Little Michael gave the anguish, and the romance, but not the selfishness. No wonder the world was so flattered by his gifts.

And would I take his gifts out of the world in light of the adult Michael’s crimes, which now appear to me undeniable? No. Because he wasn’t then who he would become. And I think he never stood a chance. That doesn’t excuse, still less justify, the things that Jackson did as an adult, which were self-interested in the extreme. But how can I condemn the adult and not acknowledge that the innocence he was required to bear as a child – the sexual innocence, the racial innocence – was the weight that crushed him? Jackson was a child star and a child victim. A part of his victimhood was having to go on performing his innocence in circumstances of rampant exploitation. As an adult he kept on performing it, because he was trapped in it; because the world required that someone so used should carry on, pretending to be unmangled, though it was cruelly apparent that his damage was appalling. And I find it appalling that the children he chose to make victims, when he came into his adult power, were performers. What a hall of mirrors. And still, I would not take “I Want You Back” or “Never Can Say Goodbye”, or even “Billie Jean” or “Smooth Criminal” out of the world. (Almost all of Jackson’s best adult songs, one might note, were entirely cynical: rife with contempt and mistrust.) I am angry and grieved and ashamed, so the thing is to keep it all there, all the things that brought him and the songs into being, within reach.

“He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew,” Robson says, at the outset of Leaving Neverland. “He helped me tremendously. He helped me with my career, he helped me with my creativity, with all of those sorts of things. And he also sexually abused me, for seven years.”

I feel bound to honour the complexity, and the compassion, of that statement. It doesn’t mean that I think we are best to carry on exactly as before, in a world full of mass “Thriller” dance-offs and Michael Jackson playlists. But nor do I believe in erasure. The art is not the same as the person, and a person is not wholly defined by their wrongs; if this were so, compassion and forgiveness would be moot, and change a futile hope. And it worries me – not just in Jackson’s case, but now that public evaluation of a person’s behaviour against their art has become our habit – that we are too quick to let ourselves off the hook by consigning the person and their art to a cultural exile. We banish them from consideration and their work from memory. This is a punitive, carceral logic; a logic that accords all too well with the kind of state power that works to keep the “wrong” people out and within which citizenship becomes a status that one must deserve instead of an inalienable right. Perhaps this seems a stretch, from stigmatised artists to militarised borders and cancelled passports. But a cultivated refusal to maintain other people in their social bonds underpins all of it.

We think we’ve come so far, that our collective conscience has only improved over time, and art with it. This is moral vanity: the vanity of the living. I have little faith that we are any better now than we were 200 or 2000 years ago. I’m also a woman who when she was a little girl fell in love with popular music: an art form, and an industry, that has been systematically exploitative of women and children. I knew long ago that the form and many of its best practitioners would let me down, and that I would have to learn how to keep loving it in spite of this. And this is the complexity of love: that you can love something or someone that hurts you, and know that you are hurting, and still love. The difference between our world and 200 years ago is that more space exists now for those who have been hurt to step forward and speak, and this space exists because it has been fought for by all who have historically been denied it. But the space isn’t finite. We can, if we wish, make room to remember the hurt and not forget what or who caused it – not forget wilfully, that is, in an attempt to convince ourselves that we possess greater goodness than we used to. I believe that we can change. I just don’t believe we are perfectible. And in our ability to change and our failure to perfect, we must create better ways to be with each other. To be kinder, for each other.

Michael Jackson spent most of his adult career telling the world through his art that he was bad and dangerous: a werewolf, a zombie, a freak. He is dead and cannot change himself now. But to concur with his own presentation of himself as monstrous is too easy. By doing so we lose sight of the monstrous in ourselves. Only a human can be – could have been – so brilliant, while also choosing to inflict so much harm. I stand by the truth of his artistic brilliance, and I trust Jackson’s accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, in their accounts of the harm that he did to them. All of these things can be true.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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