Michael Jackson and Wade Robsan.
The accusations against R. Kelly shook not only the country but the entire world. For thousands of fans who spent decades worshipping his music, the thought that someone they adored was capable of such heinous violence seems unfathomable. Yet it appears that in the year 2019, people are finally realizing that sexual assault is far more common than mainstream media has convinced us.
However, Kelly’s case isn’t the most shocking. “Leaving Neverland,” a documentary that follows Michael Jackson’s long-term sexual abuse of two young boys, has dismayed and divided the world more than anyone would have expected. Over the course of four hours, the two victims, now both in their thirties, recount their first meetings with Jackson and how their relationship progressed from friendly to romantic and eventually completely sexual in nature.
The story is brutal. Though tastefully done and respectful of both the victims and of Jackson, “Leaving Neverland” is unimaginably disturbing to watch as the boys dance onstage with Jackson, pose with him in photos, and wear matching outfits with him, all while hearing their older selves describe the years of manipulation and assault that they so vividly remember over a decade later.
Whether you like him or not, Michael Jackson is undeniably one of the most influential figures in popular culture. Rightfully dubbed the “King of Pop,” Jackson essentially changed the pop rock genre in the decades since his rise to solo fame in the early 1970s. People have turned Jackson into a god; worshipping him in a way that many other musicians simply have not been worshipped. This is why “Leaving Neverland” horrified his fans beyond belief; the idea that someone who essentially existed in pop culture as a god was so outrageous that it pushed people to denial. The victims have been called liars and have even received death threats from people across the world. Both Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand came out strongly in defense of Jackson, with Streisand even claiming that the victims “both married and both have children, so it didn’t kill them.”
Why is it so much easier to abandon the music of R. Kelly than the music of Michael Jackson? Why is it that so few celebrities have come to the defense of R. Kelly when musical icons are calling out the survivors of Jackson’s abuse? And this raises another question: can we still listen to Michael Jackson, to the music that has defined generations?
It is undeniable that Jackson’s actions were horribly, terribly wrong. It is clear that he damaged countless lives and got away with it for years. At the same time, it is impossible not to recognize the serious mental problems that plagued Michael Jackson since the childhood abuse he endured from his father. Jackson clearly had issues that were deep-rooted in his mind and perhaps spurred him to not only act as a child, but also pursue romantic relationships with them (however, mental illness should almost never be used as an excuse or justification, especially not in this case).
When deciding whether or not to play “Thriller” or “Smooth Criminal,” there are many factors that come into play in this controversy. First, it is important to recognize whether you are listening to said song in private or in a public sphere. Jackson’s music may be triggering to victims of sexual assault who hear his music, even if you are simply playing it for your own enjoyment. Second, you must remember that Jackson is dead. Listening to any of his songs no longer benefits him but rather benefits his surviving family. This is severely different from R. Kelly’s situation, in which he is still alive and profiting. Finally, if you choose to listen to this song you must be keenly aware of Jackson’s actions. While it may inhibit your enjoyment, is it essential to his victims that you do not ignore his crimes, even when simply listening to a song with headphones.
We simply cannot abandon Jackson’s music. He was so influential, so monumental for pop culture that it would be a tragedy to society to lose any of his songs. Jackson’s work as an artist must be appreciated even if we want to forget his actions as a human being. As we replay his albums and dance along to his most iconic numbers, we must be acutely aware of what he did to so many little boys. We must stand by his victims and remind them that we are there and that we believe them. Jackson was an artist and a human being; it is necessary to remember that those personas coexist.
Helffrich is an Undeclared Freshman and Commentary Editor.
Fabre is an Undeclared Freshman.
Photo Credit: HBO.