“Leaving Neverland”: Wait, We’re Shocked Michael Jackson Was a Pedophile?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was fashionable to hate Michael Jackson. Now it is again. What happened in the interim?

Daniele Dalledonne/Flickr

Over the weekend, a new HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland dropped, forever changing the legacy of the late Michael Jackson. The documentary contains footage of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, recounting their sexual abuse at the ungloved hands of the King of Pop. It’s a bombshell documentary, but what is perhaps more surprising than the testimonies it features is the fact it has been greeted by the public as controversial and shocking. But what’s shocking here? The allegations against Jackson are nothing new. Still, you probably haven’t seen anything about Wacko Jacko in your Twitter feed since, well, never. Twitter and cancel culture are both largely products of the same era that apparently produced Michael Jackson amnesia.

When Jackson died in 2009, the zeitgeist pretty much let him off the hook. It behooves parents, in particular, to ask why.

This much is clear: Michael Jackson had sexual encounters with minors and used his power to cover it up. We don’t just know this because Robson and Safechuck spoke to HBO. We know this because lots of people spoke up at various times. It was an open secret — or maybe just an open truth. As journalists and critics breathlessly ask themselves if they can ever listen to Michael Jackson’s music again, you’ve really got to wonder about cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization. Were these people not associating Michael Jackson with pedophilia? Did these people also think Spotlight was a feel-good Easter movie?

Claiming that a new HBO documentary is the reason you can’t listen to “Beat It” or “She’s Outta My Life,” anymore is kind of nuts. Writing for Slate, Jack Hamilton’s essay about Leaving Neverland boasts the headline “There’s No Severing Michael Jackson’s Art From His Obsession With Children.” Yeah, no shit. There never was. Are we all just giving HBO free publicity for this documentary now? Why is anyone pretending something dramatic and new happened?

Let’s be clear, I liked Jack Hamilton’s essay and I also think the new documentary Leaving Neverland gives victims Robson and Safechuck a chance to tell their story, which is worth hearing. But I also think it’s super important — especially in the age of sexual abuses by the Catholic Church, coaches at Penn and Michigans States, and R. Kelly news items — to acknowledge the degree to which power seems to not so much absolve as obscure. If the new documentary teaches us anything, it’s not that Michael Jackson was a criminal. It’s that compartmentalization puts kids at risk. And we’re all guilty of it.

In 2010, a posthumous Michael Jackson album called Michael was released, to critical acclaim. Remember when time-travel duets were all-the-rage? Well, there was a studio-created duet between Akon and Michael Jackson called “Hold My Hand,” which, actually kicked off the album, and was briefly, kind of a big hit. Why mention this? Well, because in 2010, Spike Lee asked me to put this album on at a big book event the famous director was doing in Brooklyn at a bookstore where I worked. And guess what? I thought it was an awesome request. Like Spike Lee, I liked Michael Jackson’s music. (Spike and I weren’t exactly out on a limb there.) Because this was 2010, one year after Jackson’s death in 2009, we felt it was okay to fan out about Michael Jackson again.

Like an insane Roman emperor, Michael Jackson is probably the only pop figure to wield so much power that everyone heard not one, but two court cases about him abusing children and just shrugged. I shrugged. You shrugged. Chris Tucker shrugged. Spike Lee shrugged. You know who covered it? Weekly World News and The National Enquirer. Yep. The National Enquirer.

I’d argue the reason why this happened at all was that, at only 50 years old, Michael Jackson died relatively young. Had Michael Jackson lived, and been able to perform on his huge This is It comeback tour, everything that is happening now, would have happened much more quickly. And that’s because, if you jump back into your time machine, you’ll find that in the early 2000s it was not mainstream to like Michael Jackson. His death brought his best music forward and pushed his behavior into the background.

By the beginning of the 21st century, Michael Jackson’s music was terrible and his appearance was horrifying. The 1993 sexual abuse trial against Jackson (that’s the one that that ended in a settlement) had faded a bit from the public consciousness. In 2005, he made something close to a comeback by getting acquitted at another sex abuse trial. So, the only thing that saved Jackson’s legacy and gave people an excuse to celebrate his undeniably great music was… his death. Ironically, being deceased made him larger than life again. And that, of course, was the problem. When Michael Jackson was larger than life, he abused his privileges. Arguably, he did so even in death.

In 1996, Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of Pulp, crashed Michael Jackson’s performance of “Earth Song” during the Brits music award show. Rushing the stage, Cocker pulled down his pants and mooned Michael Jackson. Cocker said he was personally disgusted with the fact that Michael Jackson was allowed to “to indulge his fantasies because of his wealth and power.” Most people sided with Cocker. Then everyone forgot about it. Why?

Because Michael Jackson was the King of Pop. People remembered and they were in awe. And it’s hard to be both rational and in awe at the same time. Ask the former parishioners of Cardinal George Pell.

The sad thing is, that in terms of the barometer of being honest with ourselves about pop-culture outrage, it seems the Leaving Neverland proves we all haven’t really come to grips with Michael Jackson. We’ve listened to his music and attempted to forget who he was. We failed to acknowledge that all that pain and joy were created by the same man, who wielded power selfishly and blinded others with his spotlight. He won’t be the last.

Leaving Neverland is streaming now on HBO