Is there a place for Michael Jackson’s music after Leaving Neverland?

Like so many people my age, he was my way in. In the years before I hit double digits, Michael Jackson was everything.

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of me, my sister and my brother asking for ‘Bad’, ‘Thriller’ or ‘Off the Wall’ to be flipped over again and again and again. Other pop stars simply did not compare in terms of starriness. There was no other music. There were no other dance moves. There was only Michael Jackson. 

Now, a couple of hours out of the screening of Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me, the Channel 4/HBO documentary that deals in shocking, remorseless depth with the sexual abuse allegations against Jackson, I don’t anticipate ever listening to his music again. Not that I’m criticising those who do. I’ve always felt, quite strongly, that it should be up to the individual what they listen to: if they feel able to disassociate the actions of the person central to the creation of the music they like from the music itself, then that should be their business. I still do believe that. But though I, personally, have always felt able to separate the art from the artist in the past, in this case I can’t. Not now. It’s no more ‘Billie Jean’ for me.

Days later, two takeaways from the film continue to haunt me. The first is the familiarity of the early life story of one of the two victims it features, Wade Robson. The initial scenes of him, aged five or so, moonwalking across his lounge, past the sofa, could easily be from my own childhood. Like me and millions of others who were children in the mid-1980s, he spent his earliest years in a bedroom plastered with pictures of Michael Jackson, assembling makeshift Michael Jackson costumes, and devoting every spare millisecond to perfecting Michael Jackson dance moves. His were so good they scored him a meeting with his — and, back then, everyone else on the planet’s — idol, and he was as dazzled as any five-year-old would have been. As I might have been, had I been a bit (okay, a lot) better at dancing.

But it is the second takeaway that is ultimately more troubling. Beyond the gruesome, minute detailing of specific alleged sexual acts, there is nothing especially revelatory in this film. I knew enough about Jackson’s history with children. We all did. Even going in to watch the documentary, I essentially knew what was coming. So the question I, and I’m guessing a lot of people who have seen it, am asking myself is: why has it taken this amount of time, this extreme a film, to finally stop us turning a blind eye? Is it really just because the idea of a pop cultural landscape minus the music of Michael Jackson is so unimaginable?

I don’t know the answer to that, but as prospective mutings go, Michael Jackson is a big one. Apart from The Beatles, I can’t think of a bigger artist in terms of a back catalogue that so many people, from obsessive fans to casual listeners, feel a connection with. In a Q&A after the screening I attended, the director, Dan Reed, made clear that his motivation was not to erase Michael Jackson from existence. And I would say again that if someone watches the film, feels repulsed by what they see but is still able to continue listening to ‘Thriller’, then fair enough. Though once this doc has been seen widely, I just cannot imagine how it will be acceptable for Michael Jackson music to be played in public.

But guess what? The world, unlike those two boys and others, will get over it. And the huge positive to take from this is that if listening to Michael Jackson can become untenable, then listening to anyone, ever, can become untenable. Pop music (let’s not, for reasons of space, even get started on rock music) has long, long been due a retrospective clean-up. The deification of people who can sing, dance and come up with killer bass lines, the idea that their every whim being indulged is a necessary part of the creative process and ultimately worthwhile, should also have ceased a while back. In part because that idea has always been bulls***. But mainly because there is no art that is worth what you will hear about in Leaving Neverland. 


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