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


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.)