Forcing myself to listen to music I used to play for comfort, I clicked on Michael Jackson’s hits collection, HIStory, during a subway ride on a Saturday afternoon earlier this month. The train was jammed, but not unusually so. I was standing in the middle of the car, cocooning with my earbuds. There were a few teenagers on my right side, tapping on their phones, and a woman holding hands with a young girl on my left. At West 72nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the car doors opened, and the woman and girl on my left walked past me to leave. The woman tugged on my earbud cord and said in a loud voice, making sure I could hear over my music, “What are you thinking?”
With the sound of Michael Jackson’s music leaking from my phone, I had been marked as a suspicious character, and for good reason. Listening to his music after watching Leaving Neverland, the new documentary about two men who allege that Jackson subjected them to years of sexual abuse when they were boys, I’ve struggled to know what to think myself.
The film has heated up long-simmering questions about Jackson’s behavior toward children. Years after a pair of earlier charges against Jackson were resolved—one in an out-of-court settlement, one in an exoneration in court—Leaving Neverland has given Wade Robson and James Safechuck a forum to make new charges against the late recording artist, which they do in vivid, often unsettlingly graphic detail. After a premier at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the film was shown nationally on HBO in March, airing in two parts. The Jackson estate retaliated with a $100 million lawsuit against the network, claiming that it violated a commitment not to “disparage” Jackson, a condition of a 1992 deal to broadcast one of his concert films. Jackson’s defenders point out, correctly, that both Robson and Safechuck had previously denied Jackson had abused them, and they note, accurately, that the film mainly presents the stories they are now telling without critical mediation.
Directed and produced by English documentarian Dan Reed, Leaving Neverland ostensibly leaves viewers free to make up their own minds about the veracity of the nightmares Robson and Safechuck describe, though the fact that Reed focuses on their stories, without equal time for counterarguments, makes clear whom he would like viewers to believe.
I came to the film as a longtime fan of Jackson’s music, largely agnostic on the virtues or failings of his notoriously unconventional personality. I came away profoundly disturbed by the excruciating accounts of the artist, a rich and famous and powerful adult man, grooming boys as young as 7 and coercing them into routines of child’s play and sex at his theme-park ranch, Neverland, and secret hideaways in Southern California. Robson and Safechuck are wholly persuasive to me—rational and clear-headed, though still wounded by their memories. They appear to me like two people who had been so thoroughly seduced by Jackson—indeed, so much in love with him—that they refused for years to acknowledge to anyone, including themselves, that he was a pedophile caging them in emotionally destructive and illegal traps.
Reed’s strategy of letting Robson and Safechuck’s recollections speak for themselves, without commentary, allows for some unfortunate blurring of different kinds of sex. In their tales of Jackson indoctrinating them into sex, the unrelated facts of this being pedophilic sex (something horrifically immoral and criminal), and also gay sex (something normal for men in a same-sex relationship), tend to get mixed up. Both Robson and Safechuck recall how Jackson leveraged their affection for him by telling them sex is something normal that people do to express their love for each other. The horror in Jackson’s spin is that it does not under any circumstances apply to adults and young children. It applies only to adults under mutual consent.
The secondary characters in Leaving Neverland, the mothers of Robson and Safechuck, are baffling and, to me, not always as persuasive as their sons. Both of the women—along with Safechuck’s father, who is virtually absent in the film, strangely—allowed their young sons to sleep in the same bed with an adult man over and over again. They evidently convinced themselves—or allowing Jackson to convince them, through the mesmerism of his superstardom, not to mention the material benefits he offered up (gifts, travel, and in one case, a new house)—that nothing improper was going on. Like the woman who yanked on my earbuds in the subway, I can only wonder, “What were you thinking?” The impression I have is that they were too high on the high life to think at all, or to think of their sons instead of themselves. (Robson’s father was estranged from his wife and son, and died before the making of the documentary.)
Near the end of Leaving Neverland, James Safechuck marvels at the power of Jackson’s celebrity to blind his fans to the gravity of his transgressions. “People think his music’s great, so he’s great,” Safechuck muses.
For me, Jackson’s music sounds different now, and not quite so great anymore. It’s the same, aurally, of course, but it’s been reshaped in my mind by a new set of associations. Where I once found high theatricality in songs like “Thriller” and “Heal the World,” I now hear falseness and empty show. Where I found warmth in love songs like “Human Nature” and “Loving You,” I’m now reminded of the contortions Jackson went through to exploit his victims’ ardor. Where I felt euphoria in songs like “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” I can think only of the ways in which Jackson allegedly provided himself with sexual pleasure.
The next time I hear Jackson, I know what I’ll be thinking. Billie Jean was not his lover, and I’ll recoil at the thought of who his lovers were.