Critic's Notebook: 10 Years After Michael Jackson's Death, What Do We Do With His Legacy?
He's "The King of Pop" and one of America's most notorious alleged pedophiles. So where does that leave the era-defining music he created?
Michael Jackson, the King of Pop and alleged serial child abuser who was so heavily indemnified by his wealth and power within the entertainment industry that he was never held accountable for his crimes, died 10 years ago tomorrow. Like it or not, that's likely how he will always be remembered, and that's probably the only remotely moral way to frame him: as a talented person believed to have hurt a lot of people without ever paying during his lifetime for the damage he allegedly caused.
A decade ago, Jackson was preparing to mount a theoretical comeback, several years removed from his then-most recent allegations of abuse and a few years after selling his fabled retreat from reality, Neverland Ranch. He hadn't made a record people cared about in decades and was engaging in all sorts of high-risk behavior, like hiring his own rogue anesthesiologist.
He died at his home in Holmby Hills of medical complications due to anesthesia, and his public funeral was a massive sold-out ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles that itself became its own grotesque media moment, with some sources claiming it was viewed by a billion people. Jackson had already faced public scrutiny for sexual abuse of children, but for many of his fans, those allegations were dismissed when he was found not guilty in a 2005 criminal trial.
But this year, his die-hard fans have had to confront a much more damning wave of survivors coming forward to detail how Jackson's "seduction" and sexual manipulations of young boys played out over decades. Leaving Neverland, a two-part documentary by Dan Reed, was released just three months ago, and captured the world's attention with its unflinching portrayal of survivors and families left in Jackson's wake. The piece, immediately denounced by the Jackson estate, detailed the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two survivors of Jackson's predatory behavior with young boys, reopening the pop culture discourse on decades of controversy surrounding the pop star's inappropriate relationship with children.
More so than the many other times these allegations were brought forward while Jackson was still alive, Reed's film offered proof beyond any that had come before it. Skeptics, of course, were quick to cry foul. One example that sticks out is a claim that Safechuck's story about Jackson buying the young boy jewelry was preposterous. But that was before surveillance footage of the incident was tracked down, verifying Safechuck's claim.
Did Michael Jackson have a difficult childhood? Yes. Is that an excuse for any of his behavior as an adult who clearly knew the difference between right and wrong, as evidenced by his elaborate methods of covering his tracks? Of course not.
So, what is his legacy? Reed sums up the inherent tension in Michael Jackson as a pop figure in a recent interview, "His songs are like the soundtrack to happy moments in people's lives and he was so famous. People just can't grasp both the fact that he was this guy who wrote these songs that are enduring and woven into the fabric of our culture, and also that Michael the human being liked to have sex with little boys. Those two facts simply do not fit in the same narrative."
The sunny exuberance, the hopeful naivete of most of Jackson's musical output suggest a world where atrocities like rape and war crimes don't exist. But his world is a fantasy, a work of pure escapist fiction for a man who couldn't confront his own festering darkness. Michael Jackson sold a lot of records in his lifetime and a lot of those records are cherished by millions of people. But so have a lot of people who didn't abuse children for decades.
Jackson's story is unusual and unlike any others in its scope and tragic detail, but sadly it's not unique. Though he died in 2009, Jackson is a powerful symbol for the '00s, an almost perfect archetype of this cultural epoch, where extremely rich, extremely abusive men who make a lot of money for other rich men, are allowed to get away with their transgressions in broad daylight.
We're arguably more aware than ever of all the nasty things our public officials are doing, and yet most of us feel completely powerless to fight back, tacitly cognizant of the strength of institutions but with little concept of how to attack. You can see this sort of futility play out in corporate-backed initiatives like #TimesUp, which are, in some ways, built to fail because there's no way protectors of entrenched power like CAA can actually indict the model that keeps itself propped up. And we know that abuse is propagated not just by abusers like Jackson, but handlers, producers, studio heads, record execs, publicists, managers, marketers and lawyers who do their dirty work and maintain their brands, all while remaining silent.
It's also no coincidence that director John Landis (who made the iconic music video for Jackson's "Thriller") makes a cameo in Reed's Leaving Neverland. Landis famously walked away from the deaths on his set of three actors (two of them children who were decapitated; one of them, Vic Morrow, the father of Jennifer Jason Leigh) while directing a scene for Twilight Zone: The Movie. Not only did Landis weather this act of gross negligence legally unscathed, he was also able to continue to direct movies for a long time after. This week, his son Max Landis is facing another round of women coming forward who have survived many forms of his alleged abuse. And in the same week, O.J. Simpson announces his return to the public discourse by joining Twitter.
Meanwhile we still have an abusive, unaccountable child who refuses to grow up for president, a Congress mired in its own corporate self-interest and scores of Hollywood heavies who have been "#MeToo'ed" but have yet to see any actual accountability for their actions, beyond professional careers in limbo: Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Bryan Singer.
You could write a list of (almost entirely) men that is hundreds of pages long, and it would be littered with Hollywood's protected players. The fact that Michael Jackson could get away with this inappropriate behavior for so long in a very overt fashion gives power and cover to all the new abusers emerging in his wake. Michael Jackson is long dead. Let's keep confronting the abusers who are still alive.
Michael Jackson was a pop culture hero for much of his life. But, in death, his musical legacy will forever be tethered to his legacy of alleged abuse, which is the closest thing to justice that anyone will ever get with him.