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How Can We Listen to Michael Jackson’s Music After ‘Leaving Neverland?’

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In September of 1993, Michael Jackson proved once again that he was one of the world’s biggest pop stars. “Will You Be There,” the eighth single off of his 1991 album Dangerous, peaked at no. 7 on the Billboard chart, the culmination of a six-week run in the Top 10 as the song went platinum that fall. Given how the 35-year-old Jackson had been written off by some during an era defined by grunge and gangsta rap, this was no small achievement for an artist still riding high during the fourth decade of his career.

The song was buoyed by its inclusion in Free Willy, one of that summer’s most popular children’s films. But what’s more remarkable is what didn’t hurt “Will You Be There” as it went up the charts, namely the public announcement in August that the Los Angeles Police Department had launched a criminal investigation into Jackson for child sexual abuse. We have been compartmentalizing our feelings about the King Of Pop for more than 25 years now, long enough for him to be a problematic fave who spans several generations, from Motown to Drake. A heritage of timeless music and profound shame.

Nevertheless, it’s still a little shocking in retrospect how swiftly the careful negotiation between the immense pleasure that Jackson’s music has given us and the inevitable revulsion that accompanies an even cursory look at his private life occurred. Even in the immediate aftermath of credible sex abuse charges made against Jackson in the early ’90s, pop-music listeners felt that the tunes were still worth it. Two years later, after Jackson agreed to pay the family of his accuser a reported $23 million to settle the case, Jackson scored his first no. 1 hit in four years (and the final chart-topper of his career) with “You Are Not Alone,” a gospel-tinged love song written by R. Kelly. The B-side of his previous single, the Top 10 Janet Jackson duet “Scream,” was called “Childhood.” If the stakes weren’t so dire, you could almost laugh at the brazenness. When you get away with the worst crime imaginable in broad daylight, why bother with acting coy afterward?

The explosive two-part, four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland, which debuts on HBO this Sunday, might finally make listening to “Billie Jean,” “The Way You Make Me Feel” and dozens of other pop classics untenable for the average fan. The film centers on two of Jackson’s accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and their families, tracing the singer’s pattern of manipulation, seduction, and exploitation with multiple young boys over the course of several years in the ’80s and ’90s.

In case it needs to be said: I believe both men. I suspect that anyone who is not a blinkered Michael Jackson loyalist will believe them as well. The revelation of Leaving Neverland isn’t that Jackson had unseemly relationships with children who should have been in elementary school rather than jet-setting internationally with a troubled superstar. This, again, has been more or less accepted as part of Jackson’s persona since he escorted Emmanuel Lewis to the 1984 Grammys. What’s most stunning about Leaving Neverland is the punishing lack of euphemisms. Jackson isn’t presented as a “child-like” Peter Pan figure who “loves” and sometimes “cuddles” kids. Leaving Neverland makes it clear, in graphic detail, that he raped children, again and again, sometimes with their parents in nearby rooms.

These aren’t acts you can whitewash with antiseptic terms like “inappropriate touches” — Robson describes Jackson making him perform oral sex when he was just 7 years old. At another point in the film, Safechuck likens the early stages of his sexual relationship with Jackson to the rigorous lovemaking habits of a new adult couple. (Safechuck later displays, with visibly shaking hands, the “wedding ring” Jackson gave him around the time most boys his age are entering puberty.)

While watching Leaving Neverland over the course of two days last weekend — I heartily advise against binging all four hours, you’ll want to take a long shower after the first part — I hardly thought about Jackson’s music. The film rightfully sets Jackson’s art to the side so that his victims can fully command your attention. What emerges is a necessary, incisive critique of how “the cult of celebrity is pernicious and it leads people to go blind and parents to do stupid things,” as Leaving Neverland‘s director Dan Reed recently told the BBC.

Both of the accusers’ mothers are prominently featured in Leaving Neverland, and they candidly discuss how Jackson took their sons into private rooms and abused them right under their noses. The victims and their family members use strikingly similar language to describe their initial encounters with Jackson — as a “fairy tale” with a seemingly extraterrestrial being who they “knew” intimately just hours after meeting him. But they didn’t really know Michael Jackson. They only knew his music.

Viewers naturally will direct their scorn at the gullible parents who saw nothing wrong with letting Jackson share his bed with their children. While some of that is deserved, I suggest watching Leaving Neverland differently, with a little more introspection, as an allegory for how the public allowed an abuser like Jackson to operate in plain sight long after we all should have known better.

The apparent inevitability and intractability of Jackson’s power — he was so famous and rich and talented that after not one but two trials for child sex abuse, he still warranted a presidential-style send-off when he died — was not innate. It was gifted to him by an audience who believed he was so exceptional in one specific area that it made up for all the evil he ever “allegedly” committed. It’s not just the parents who put the kids in those sequestered torture rooms with a pedophile. Anyone who ever loved Michael Jackson’s music — pretty much the entire world — played a part in it, too.

Of the many questions that Leaving Neverland leaves you with, the most pressing is, What do I do now? It will be 10 years this June that Jackson has been dead. It is no longer possible to pursue legal remedies for his crimes, as it is with R. Kelly, or to de-platform him, as is the case with Ryan Adams. We are, unfortunately, a long way from 1993.

Reed has said that he doesn’t care whether people still listen to Michael Jackson’s music, though for many who will see his film, deleting Jackson from their playlists and record collections will seem like the only punishment they can effectively mete out. Though even this gesture is more complicated than it might seem. Does boycotting Michael Jackson extend to the many artists who have borrowed heavily from his music? Must one also forsake The Weeknd, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, Tame Impala, or Drake, who brought MJ back into the Top 10 in 2018 by including his posthumous vocals in “Don’t Matter To Me”? Or will these artists come to be regarded as relatively acceptable forms of Michael Jackson methadone? Either way, blotting out Jackson from contemporary pop music is all but impossible now. He is the very architecture of pop.

Robson and Safechuck talk in Leaving Neverland about how they both love and hate their former abuser, suggesting that recovering from their childhood traumas will be a lifelong concern. I wonder if we’re all destined to be stuck at a similar nexus with Jackson, where admiration meets disgust. For many of us, Jackson lurks in the very fabric of our personal memories. People grow up to Michael Jackson songs. They get married to Michael Jackson songs. They play Michael Jackson songs for their kids, and those kids grow up and play Michael Jackson for their kids. His music, like all lasting art, makes us think about our own lives at least as much, if not more, than Jackson’s life. My fear is that we’re stuck with him.

Part of the pain of watching Leaving Neverland is knowing that our memories are now forever tainted by knowledge we can longer conveniently overlook — about Jackson and also ourselves and what our fandom enabled him to do. This movie snatches away the luxury of selfish listening, correcting the mistaken belief that we are not part of the ecosystem, reminding us that the joy that millions get from a pop song might come at the cost of terrible suffering felt by innocent beings cowering in our idol’s darkest shadows.

‘Leaving Neverland’ premieres on HBO this Sunday, March 3rd.

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