Has anyone ever told you a secret that, in an instant, changed everything? It usually happens in a very private place — at the kitchen table, maybe, or in the close confines of a car. The teller was likely someone close to you. A lover. A family member. Your oldest friend. Telling you, I was raped. Or Our cousin Jason abused me. Saying something you might have wished, for one selfish moment, hadn’t been said.
And how did you respond? You listened. You tried to take it in. But I guarantee, since I’ve been there, that you also immediately started thinking about what you should do. The panicked feeling that overtakes a person when something feels broken is countered by a core urge: to fix things. So you say to your hurting loved one, Let’s go to the cops. Or I want to kill him.
What happens after such an encounter depends on so many factors. Maybe there is a route to take, and together, you and your loved one start to explore it. You call a family meeting. You start looking for a therapist, or a lawyer. There’s more shock, more pain, and eventually, some kind of healing. Or the pain never heals, but at least the wound is touching air.
Or maybe nothing can be done. The person who told you something you never wanted to hear can’t do more, at least now, than say it. Or the named violator isn’t around to be punished or confronted or even properly exposed. Your job, then, is simply to bear witness, to be still and strong in the moment of disclosure. It’ll be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done, and you’ll never be sure if you’ve done enough.
Whatever the path its reverberations take, the most striking thing about such a revelation’s impact is the way it divides your life without erasing any part of it. There is a before and an after, and it can be hard, nearly impossible, to make sense of the relationship between those two. Survivor: it means “one who lives beyond,” but also “one who lives in addition to.” The same is true for witnesses. Intimate violence casts everything that existed before it into disarray but doesn’t erase it. The time before becomes a mess that needs to be cleaned up, rearranged; but it’s also still a home, a place you know. Forever changed, but still familiar and even longed for.
This experience of inhabiting a psychic space that’s forever altered, but in many ways the same, is usually a private one. The #MeToo movement came into existence partly to alleviate the pressure of negotiating the paradox in secret. One of its effects, as it has established a new framework for considering sexual assault, however, has been to establish a number of public versions of “before” in “after.” When the alleged violator is famous, and the disclosures are not privileged but mediated, millions may become secret sharers in this confusing time-space continuum.
Leaving Neverland, the HBO special that aired in March and shared the stories of two alleged sexual abuse victims of Michael Jackson, marks another point in the history of negotiating what society considers unspeakable. The documentary mirrors those moments of facing the worst within a family or a circle of friends. This was its simple formal innovation. It opened director Dan Reed to accusations of bias and incomplete reporting but made this the definitive documentary of 2019, the one most reflective of a time when the private realm is mutating from a sinecure to be preserved into a launching pad for public confrontations. Leaving Neverland did away with the frameworks that usually structure public airings of hidden truths, including even the conventions of documentary filmmaking, and collapsed the distance between the most indiscriminate disclosure — broadcasting — and the most intimate — whispering a confidence. Focusing on Wade Robson and James Safechuck and a few family members almost reluctantly saying what allegedly happened between them and Jackson, in quiet tones and vivid detail, Leaving Neverland implicated viewers as witnesses. And so it raised in viewers that desire to repair — but not politically or in some other organized public way. Personally.
Leaving Neverland did something else, too: It challenged the status of an icon, the kind of star whose relics, manifesting as earworms or visual memory flashes, people carry around with them at all times. Since it aired, a small legion of people invested in preserving Jackson’s legend have responded to this threat in various ways. Members of Jackson’s family are disputing Robson and Safechuck’s veracity; Robson, especially, who worked within Jackson’s orbit for years after his alleged molestation ceased, is facing particularly harsh questioning. Fans who share this disbelief have joined in this effort through online protests and websites with names like The Michael Jackson Innocent Project. The evidence they offer can feel convincing, especially because in this highly unusual case there’s already been a “before” and “after,” ever since 1993, when Jackson was first accused by a boy of sexual abuse. A criminal case in 2005 was decided in Jackson’s favor, and for some, that settled the matter.
This was the risk Reed and his subjects took by tapping into the energy of #MeToo: That movement sanctions sidestepping conventional avenues of accountability — the courts, the free press — on the grounds that they are corrupt, and therefore unable to serve real justice. The documentary does fail in terms of journalistic objectivity, and certainly as anything useful in a legal sense. It leaves Jackson’s legacy in the murky place where it was up to the moment when he died and the global wave of mourning that reinstated his artistic legacy obscured lingering questions about his behavior.
It was that wave that made loving Michael Jackson’s music, openly, unequivocally, possible again. From it sprang various acts of legacy-making, including many books, posthumous recordings and now a high-profile musical. The New York Times has recently published interviews with several authors of Jackson biographies, as well as one with Lynn Nottage and Christopher Wheeldon, the playwright and choreographer-director behind that musical, Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough. While some, like the critic Margo Jefferson, have expressed the desire to revise their work in light of Leaving Neverland, most take shelter behind the value of complexity — the same defense, it must be said, taken up by those who’ve argued against banning the movies or music of men felled by #MeToo. When Nottage told Times reporter Michael Paulson that “it’s really hard to traffic in absolutes,” she made a stand for creative work that welcomes dark realities alongside (or instead of) bright messages. And as an artist, I think, she’s right to do so. But she is undeniably protecting her considerable investment in maintaining Jackson’s cultural relevance.
Legacies are preserved by those who have the power to engage them in public — people like Nottage — but on another level, they are offerings each fan accepts or rejects on her own. In high art, institutions like museum and universities have traditionally been the gatekeepers who put certain mostly-white-men (Picasso, say) front and center while others (like the recently rediscovered Hilma af Klint) remain on the margins. Popular culture, though organized through its own institutions, from entertainment conglomerates to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, is more obviously influenced by consumers, especially when they organize into fan communities. This has become ever more obvious in the age of social media, as hashtags and memes seem to drive influence as much as old money does. (This is an illusion, but one that’s in conversation with reality.)
There is a third, rarely discussed arena of legacy-making, one that’s much more difficult to track: the connection that moves through each person from private enjoyment to public expression. For most people, this is the main way music or films live on past the initial encounter. Personal enjoyment turns into shared enthusiasm, and then over time become part of a memory bank. The more time that goes by, the more the sounds and images people love become their own: not just an enhancement of their lives, but part of each life as a listener or viewer remembers it. Michael Jackson’s millions made, his awards earned, his primary place in any solid history of popular music: these all contribute to making his presence, even after death, a renewable resource. But the activating force, the thing that makes him Michael and not just another great whose legendary status has inevitably faded, is the way each one of us speaks his name to ourselves.
This is the impetus behind the idea of cancelling Michael Jackson, which has been raised and endlessly debated in the past two months. To cancel, according to the social media forces where the term originated, means to make an individual decision to eradicate a cultural presence — a pop star, for example — from one’s consciousness. It’s different than a boycott or a protest or the kind of legal action that the documentary Surviving R. Kelly, a similar story of a long-enabled predator within the music industry, has helped precipitate. Michael Jackson has been dead for nearly a decade, an obvious reason that certain actions can’t proceed. But the deeper feeling that every pop music fan must do something — kill Michael Jackson, within her own psyche — stems from that irrevocable blending of public and personal with deep roots in a celebrity culture that presents famous strangers as fans’ friends, boosted immeasurably by the new intimacies and false privacy of online life. With Leaving Neverland, Reed has, in a sense, redefined the term “open secret,” to refer not to something many people know but don’t acknowledge, but something that has been opened up and laid in front of anyone who looks: a Pandora’s box.
I was curious to know what it would be like, not to cancel Michael Jackson, but to experience his music with that Pandora’s box open. And so for several weeks after viewing Leaving Neverland and feeling deeply persuaded by its messages, I listened to his recordings every day. I’ve made my way through Jackson’s catalog from his biggest hits to the deep cuts, noting what thoughts arise while encountering these overwhelmingly familiar songs, what feelings I can’t resist and which I immediately want to suppress. I’ve tried to determine what acknowledging Michael Jackson and the musical world he built means now. For decades, as a music critic and a fan, I spent countless hours in that world. What would I find there, from the new perspective Leaving Neverland creates?
I didn’t realize how difficult this experiment would be — but neither because listening to Michael Jackson’s music is now simply painful nor because it’s still so pleasurable that it blocks out the questions surrounding it. The challenge was to stay present: to recognize my unstable and unreliable reactions. Some songs made me bristle in recognition of what I thought were clues to Jackson’s alleged sins; then I’d turn away from my own judgments, doubting that rush to ascribe meaning, and then I’d step away from the whole conundrum, floating out on a groove and a memory. So many stories I’d told myself about these songs kept surfacing, in conflict with ones that are still forming now. Each one pulled me in a different direction, away from my struggle to be present and honest about this experience and toward the comfort I, like anyone who takes refuge in music, craved.
Writing now, my critic’s impulse to draw neat conclusions nearly overcomes me: I want to provide closure, for you, the reader, and maybe even moreso for myself. But if I’m going to genuinely represent what it’s like to listen to Michael Jackson after Leaving Neverland, I have ask you to stay with me in an uncomfortable place. In some way, this is what criticism, what engaging with culture as a thinking person, always strives to do. Yet it’s so easy to stop short. To revel in the boldly stated conclusion. To indulge in the flush of strong positive feelings. To rest in the perceived authority of the self-appointed jurist, and turn away from the role a deeper engagement with culture, in all its imperfections and even moral shortcomings, can offer: the chance to be a trustworthy witness. If culture builds itself through revelations, explorations, secrets and lies, any response that doesn’t claim the contradictions gets it wrong.
This essay gets it wrong, I’m sure. But maybe it’s a start.
“Don’t act like you’re eating the spicy chicken so other people don’t have to,” my editor warns when I tell him about my plan to enact this practice. He’s right — especially because of the disgust many people have expressed since the documentary aired, listening to Michael Jackson now can strike some as equivalent to ingesting a dangerous substance. Let me say right now that even though I believe Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and think that Jackson’s emotional manipulation of these men and their families was a moral crime even if the allegations of sexual abuse aren’t true, I did not find listening to his music harrowing or even unpleasant. Jackson’s catalog remains lushly gorgeous, enchanting. His music benefits from contributions from some of the greatest producers and studio musicians to grace a recording studio. One option that tempted me during my re-immersion in Jackson’s music was to focus on those collaborators: Louis Johnson’s supercharged bass parts on “Billie Jean,” or the swirling soundbed that makes “Human Nature” soft as a cloud, and which was brought to life by Toto’s Steve Porcaro.
This is where I started in my listening process: almost trying to push Jackson to the side in his own songs, the better to hear how they might survive beyond any thought of him. I soon realized that this was a strategic move on my part — an attempt to tell this story without a protagonist. The fact is, more than any of his peers, other than Prince, his rival, Jackson created hits that emanated from the musicality that ran right through his body. He was a dancer first, a singer who danced with his voice. I would have to think about what that voice revealed, and how it trained me (and everyone) to listen.
The first song that made this clear as I listened to the playlist was “Rock With You,” from that sparkling 1979 release announcing the imminent manhood of our beloved Michael, Off the Wall. As it glided through my headphones, I noticed how Jackson sings not just behind the insistent beat of JR Robinson’s drums, but as if he could pull it in a different direction. He’s stretching time, a lesson he learned from the extended-play rhapsodies of disco. This was where Jackson started to make his own world, one in which his technical command and the assistance of other adepts — like producer Jones, who applied all of his soundtrack-making skills to this cinematic effort — would make whatever he dreamed possible.
This was the Jackson I’d always loved best, from my childhood days listening to him playact adulthood with his brothers all the way to his final recordings: the self-made creature whose refusal of any categories — gender, race, age, even humanness itself — I found fascinating. The algorithm circled back to “Billie Jean” and I thought of the light pouring out of his shoes in the video. “Smooth Criminal”: That song always made me think about Jackson as a musical comedy kid, as I had been, playing out Gene Kelly dreams that should have been embarrassing for his time and place. This was one way I had related to Jackson throughout his career. I, too, had always liked stuff that was uncool.
I also loved Jackson’s soulfulness, but as a white kid growing up in a de facto segregated Seattle suburb, I took too long to recognize the source from which it emanated. Even years after I started writing about music, I didn’t always make the connections — to his mentors Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, his peers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, his inheritors the Notorious B.I.G. and Heavy D. This all came back to me when the playlist shifted to “Remember the Time.” One of my favorite floating-on-air Jackson grooves, I’d heard it in 1992 as a kind of tribute to his sister Janet, an echo of her Prince-indebted 1980s work with Jam and Lewis. Of course, it was more than that: one of the many examples of Jackson keeping apace with black music trends as they moved from Motown to Quincy Jones’s L.A. to the New York of New Jack Swing, where this Teddy Riley-produced song set a gold standard. I thought of the song’s video, a tribute to black excellence made by the great (and recently deceased) filmmaker John Singleton decades before the term became a hashtag, its stars Eddie Murphy, Iman and Magic Johnson glowing in Egyptian finery and Jackson dancing to the beat of an 808 drum machine. And I considered that instrument, the basis of so much musical innovation, first heard by many mainstream pop fans in a late single by another lost legend: “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye.
My appreciation of Jackson’s music was always, I thought while he lived, color blind. Only after his death did I really grasp that this icon, admired by deluded, white, liberal me in part because he stood for a post-racial ideal, meant something very different for people of color. In truth, the many ways Jackson crossed boundaries of both personal and artistic identity never negated his fundamental blackness — his funkiness, as it resounded in songs like this one. When he died, fans — mourning him in the streets where they drove with windows down, writing and talking about him across the Internet’s ether — celebrated him as a central part of a black musical legacy that extends from jazz to hip-hop. “Remember the Time” took me back to that moment. I am still glad for it.
But then the playlist moved on, and as I continued to listen I started reading the songs’ tea leaves. This, I knew, was the biggest risk I faced conducting this experiment. It’s so tempting to use Jackson’s work, now, as a key to his alleged transgressions, and then to fall into an abyss of self-questioning. “In the Closet” — the 1992 single that is one of Jackson’s most overtly sexual fantasias, and which read as determinedly heterosexual when he released a Herb Ritts-directed video featuring him and supermodel Naomi Campbell circling each other lasciviously in a desert hideaway — is the song that hit me the hardest this way when it turned up on my playlist. The song is one of my favorites, and marks a moment when I started listening again in earnest to Jackson’s music. By that time, the early 1990s, my relationship to pop had changed. I was no longer a rebellious indie-music purist but a working music critic interested in postmodern theory, which Jackson seemed to embody without meaning to. Jackson became a text for me and many other music writers during this time. Leaving Neverland was forcing many of us to wonder how we’d read him so wrong.
Robson and Safechuck’s accounts of sex with Jackson, sometimes conducted in what basically were closets, make this song repulsive. Was that Jackson’s intention, though — to flaunt his deepest secret by masking it as a burner about heterosexual lust? There’s something about you, baby, that makes me want to give it to you. It’s just tough to take in a lyric like that now.
But the problem with the tea leaves is that they ascribe an intentionality to this music that’s simply too direct. When “P.Y.T.” came onto my playlist, I thought about how friends have been citing that song as a kind of rhetorical exclamation point — how disgusting! He had a hit about craving young flesh. But the vaguely predatory “Pretty Young Thing” we all know isn’t Jackson’s own song: It’s a rewrite, by James Ingram and Quincy Jones, of a much dreamier, more yearning ballad Jackson cowrote with Rod Temperton, in the mode of a young Stevie Wonder. It was originally reverie about being seduced, not a tale of predation.
If Jackson was sending his audience signals about a taboo private life, I think, he wasn’t doing it as a diabolical act of flaunting his transgressions, nor did he mean to provide impossible justification. Maybe he was trying to work something out for himself. At any rate, the songs mattered not because of that process, but because they reminded listeners of their own shared inner crises. When the algorithm offered me “Dirty Diana,” I sank in, hitting the replay button numerous times. Jackson’s contribution to the public conversation about sex in the 1980s and 1990s was grounded in the very fixation on perversion and paranoia that now seems so perverse. The darkness of individuals that runs through popular art only resonates because it reflects impulses — maybe not the same ones, but connected ones — in its audience. “Dirty Diana”: a blistering rock song, complete with cutting guitar parts from Billy Idol’s main man Steve Stevens, about the perils of aggressively sexual strangers, released at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “Bad”: a howl of cartoonish hypermasculinity that connected the dots between hair metal and Top Gun. “Scream”: the crowning salvo in Jackson’s war against the tabloid culture that had entrapped though not fully exposed him, feeding right into the mood of what Vanity Fair called “the tabloid decade,” when scandal echoed everywhere. Listening to them was always an experience tinged with bitterness.
Jackson’s more troubling, paranoid songs aren’t the ones I have the worst time confronting now. The ballads are what get me. I’ve always loved the soft side of Jackson the most — not the real pabulum, those faux-political anthems like “Earth Song” or “We Are the World,” which always felt like cynical ploys to me. But “Human Nature,” “You Are Not Alone,” “Will You Be There” — these are lullabies for the universe, huge, glossy versions of the ones Robson says he wrote just for him. They are the ultimate pop construction of safe space. For me, they are Jackson’s unforgivable creative acts, genuine examples of his manipulation and mendacity. For decades Jackson presented himself to us as a freak, unbound through his existential outsiderness by the laws governing normal human interactions. That was his distorted, corrupted version of telling the truth. But the ballads – they spun a web. I want to sink into them, to revive that feeling of peace and interconnectedness they brought me even in the wake of Jackson’s death, when I would hear them emanating through car windows in my Los Angeles neighborhood. But they are the Turkish Delight that the White Witch offers young Edmund in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. Poison, disguised as sweets.
Here, I realized as I listened, is where my critic’s instinct to step back and analyze, to confront culture even when it repels me, is exhausted and I just want to stop listening. The problem with listening to Michael Jackson now isn’t the nausea that takes over, nor the anger at being fooled — at letting myself, maybe yourself, be fooled. It’s the pleasure. This music will never stop communicating grace and sensuality and wonder. I’ll make no final pronouncements about its maker. Personally, I believe he was sick, though you might want to call him evil, and I won’t object. But the music still makes me feel good. And I know I’m not alone.
If anything will get me to stop listening to Michael Jackson’s music, it’s my own unwillingness to keep living with this problem presented by my own pleasure. Turning away from it isn’t the right thing to do, but it’s the easiest. At one point in my listening experiment, I was playing Michael Jackson’s music in my kitchen. “Man in the Mirror” came on. My teenage daughter waltzed out of the bathroom singing. As the most casual of Jackson fans, and a resolute avoider of all network television in favor of YouTube and Snapchat, she hasn’t seen Leaving Neverland. In the hallway she struck a pose of total earnestness. “I’m looking at the man in the mirror! I’m asking him to change his ways!” she bellowed. What could I do in that moment? I applauded her performance and thought, I’m just going to have to live with this mess. And then I turned the playlist off.