I loved Michael Jackson too — but after watching Leaving Neverland, I'll never be able to listen to his songs again

It's impossible to separate the art from the artist here. The boys and their stories are as embedded into Jackson’s rise to stardom as the 'Thriller' choreography, Jackson’s famous sequinned glove, or moonwalking

Clémence Michallon
New York
Wednesday 06 March 2019 14:39
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Trailer for new HBO documentary about Michael Jackson abuse victims Leaving Neverland

There are many striking things about Leaving Neverland, the documentary in which Wade Robson and James Safechuck lay out accusations of sexual abuse against Michael Jackson in excruciating detail. One of them is the film’s title. Neverland refers in part to Jackson’s property in Santa Barbara County, where Robson and Safechuck say they experienced night after night of abuse at the hands of the popstar as children. Neverland is also the fictional island inhabited by Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys, remembered most famously in the collective imagination as a place of eternal innocence, where children cease to age.

Throughout the documentary, Robson and Safechuck leave Neverland, in a way, by telling their stories in full, hopefully freeing themselves to some extent of what they say happened between the walls of Jackson’s ranch. As viewers, we, too, leave Neverland, as Robson and Safechuck’s testimonies force us to let go of any naivety one might have held onto about Jackson’s character and his legacy.

Robson and Safechuck describe how Jackson groomed them, built relationships with their families, offered toys and jewellery and money in exchange of physical closeness, and how he allegedly violated them repeatedly. And it’s impossible to look away after the documentary wraps up and pretend nothing has changed.

Leaving Neverland is a damning film, and Robson and Safechuck’s painfully detailed testimonies are fully believable. What we are left with is a late, once-beloved popstar, some horrifying accounts of abuse, and a question: what do we do with Michael Jackson now? Specifically, what do we do with his songs? What must become of the dozens of pop culture anthems Jackson delivered over four decades, the ones which are so familiar to generations of people?

This sounds like the classic “can you separate the art from the artist?” dilemma, perhaps with a dash of “cancel culture” – the process by which people choose to stop supporting an artist or another public figure after said public figure says or does something inflammatory. But Jackson’s case extends far beyond our collective propensity toward outrage.

The film takes the hallmarks of Jackson’s fame in the eighties and nineties – the Pepsi commercials, the Bad world tour, Jackson’s extravagant existence – and presents them in a new light. Eerie images of Neverland flash up onscreen as Safechuck lists every place Jackson abused him (among them the train station, the private movie theatre, and the ranch’s theme park). The way Robson and Safechuck tell it, Jackson plucked boys from anonymity and groomed them using the very emblems of his stardom. He took them on tour. He danced onstage with them. He starred in commercials with them. The boys and their stories are as embedded into Jackson’s rise to stardom as the “Thriller” choreography, Jackson’s famous sequinned glove, or moonwalking.

Michael Jackson was once so ubiquitous his songs would weave themselves into the narratives of just about every childhood. Growing up in the nineties in France, I was no exception to this rule; I had stories, just like everyone else. “Heal the World”: a primary school talent show, when I, along with about 29 other French children, sang the 1991 anthem in somewhat broken English. “They Don’t Care About Us”: another talent show, a few years later, dancing at a ski resort. “Beat It”: my friends’ remake of Jackson’s music video, which they made because they adored him and desperately wanted to be like him. “Earth Song”: the summer that followed Jackson’s death, when his music videos played on just about every channel for weeks on end.

After watching Leaving Neverland, I have new stories, and Jackson’s songs conjure up new images. “Bad”: a young Wade Robson dancing inside a mall in Australia, impersonating his hero-turned-abuser. Also “Bad”: Safechuck going on tour with Jackson, and his account of how the popstar abused him during a stop at a Paris hotel suite. “Thriller”: the red jacket worn by Jackson in the accompanying music video, which Robson says Jackson gifted to him in what has been described as an extensive grooming process. Literally any Michael Jackson song: James Safechuck’s trembling hands as he holds a jewellery box containing the tokens he says Jackson bought him in exchange for sex – including the ring given to him during a mock wedding ceremony.

The songs are still here: “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” and “Smooth Criminal” only one click away on my streaming app of choice. And yet I can’t bring myself to press play. Those tunes are part of a bigger picture now, one that demands to be seen in its entirety.

In the end, it all comes down to the stories: those we heard in the past and the ones we’re hearing now. And currently, Robson and Safechuck’s tales resonate far louder than any Jackson memory I might have involving his music. That feels like the way it should be.

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