Can we still listen to Michael Jackson's music after HBO doc Leaving Neverland?
Patrick Gomez is a Senior Editor for EW.
But it’s been two weeks now since I screened both two-hour segments of the doc (which aired in part Sunday on HBO and will continue Monday at 8 p.m. ET) in one sitting, and I can’t seem to shake the revulsion I felt watching Wade Robson and James Safechuck detail their heartbreaking allegations. I can’t unsee the photos of their tender younger selves posing next to their idol as they describe acts that are anything but innocent.
Jackson’s estate calls the allegations “absolutely false” (the singer denied similar accusations under oath) and his family is suing HBO over the doc. But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch Robson, now 36, and Safechuck, now 40, list the locations within Neverland Ranch they claim to have been molested by Jackson when they were just kids, and how the sexual abuse continued for years, and how they just now — as they are raising children themselves — are truly processing for the first time how this man they loved could have done something so violating of their blind trust and adoration.
So now what? We live in the age of Cancel Culture, where public figures face a one-strike rule. You step out of line and we’re done with you. One thoughtless design choice or word use can get you temporarily canceled, and — while some celebrities frustratingly seem to float above the threat of cancellation — we’ve seen many repeat and chronic offenders (at least eventually) face the biggest consequences. R. Kelly’s been indicted. Roseanne is out of a job. So is Matt Lauer. But Michael Jackson has permeated global pop culture more than any other celebrity to be tried in the court of public opinion, and the first in recent time to face that trial posthumously. Do we now hold him to that same standard? Do we have to cancel Michael Jackson?
For those of us who grew up listening to MJ, the memories are vivid: gliding across the wooden floor of childhood homes, practicing the moonwalk; performing routines to his music at school; dancing to songs like “Love Never Felt So Good” and “Billie Jean” at weddings. Living in a world in which we never listen to his music again feels unimaginable — or, at the very least, unavoidable. In fact, just hours after writing the previous sentences, “The Way You Make Me Feel” came on while I was at a bar and I found myself instinctually singing along to every word.
Which is not to say entertainers should be immune from — for lack of an established term — “pop culture justice” when they’ve done something reprehensible. Spotify’s decision to remove R. Kelly from its playlists as part of a new “Hate Content & Hateful Conduct” policy was 100 percent correct. (After artists and music labels questioned the potential scope of the policy, the streaming service released a statement acknowledging the “language was vague and left too many elements open to interpretation” and replaced it with an option for users to mute any artist they choose.) “Ignition (Remix)” previously had a standing spot on more than a few of my playlists, but as accusations about Kelly came to light over the years — culminating in him pleading not guilty last month after being indicted on 10 charges of aggravated criminal sexual assault against four victims — I decided he does not deserve my money in the form of royalties.
But Michael Jackson is dead. And while we don’t know if anyone who benefits from Jackson’s estate looked the other way while children were raped, Jackson himself will not be benefiting from anyone streaming “Thriller.” Then there’s the fact that so much of his discography includes hits he sang when he was just a kid himself — his childhood innocence lost to (or tragically preserved by?) the fame machine. Do we treat those songs differently? (Related note: The Jackson estate sold the last of its ownership shares of the Beatles catalog in 2016.)
I think it makes a big difference that I always believed that the previous accusations made against Jackson were probably true; though I never let myself spend much time processing that belief. (If I’m self-analyzing, I likely was compartmentalizing so I could continue to enjoy his music guilt-free.) But I know others who wholeheartedly believed in his innocence until watching Leaving Neverland and I imagine they’re probably having a much harder time navigating their feelings about it all right now. There are a few songs that I’ll likely be retiring from my Apple Music playlists — “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” comes first to mind, the title is just too triggering, at least for now — but I recently discovered “Easy Love” by Sigala, which samples Jackson 5’s “ABC” (including young MJ’s voice), and I can’t picture losing that song forever. A case-by-case strategy is essentially how I’ve chosen to deal with the reckoning that is this documentary.
How best to move forward will be different for every person. Some may choose to only listen to his Jackson 5 hits. Others may go in search of fantastic covers of his songs rather than listen to his voice. And I’m sure there will be those who will remove his tracks from their music collections completely and switch the station every time “Beat It” comes on the radio, as well as those who will listen to him more because they feel he’s been unjustly persecuted.
Perhaps Robson’s sister, Chantal, puts it best in the final hour of Leaving Neverland: there’s the Michael Jackson that millions love — the performer who brought smiles to the faces of billions and donated millions to charity — and there’s the Michael that very few knew — the quiet, childlike homebody and father who has been accused of sexual abuse. Chantal has separated the two in her head, now it’s up to the rest of us to see if we can — or even want to.