we asked gen z for their thoughts on michael jackson
Following Dan Reed’s controversial documentary Leaving Neverland, debates about whether we should listen to Michael Jackson’s music have exploded. But what does it mean for his artistic legacy?
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.
It’s fair to suggest that the way that society engages with Michael Jackson has shifted. Following Dan Reed’s controversial documentary Leaving Neverland, which aired last week on HBO and Channel 4 in the US and UK respectively, the world is blazing with hot takes, debates and opinions about whether Jackson had inappropriate and sexual relations with underage boys.
Reed’s film is specific in that it frames Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who both allege that Jackson sexually abused them as minors, at its centre; Leaving Neverland is not so much a film about Michael Jackson as it is about child sexual abuse and the ramifications that it can have on survivors and their families. Nevertheless, theirs isn’t a story that involves an uncle or a school teacher; it involves one of the most famous people to have ever lived.
Of course, the focus in all this should on sexual abuse survivors. However, most of us also have a relationship with Michael Jackson and his music, and I think you can grapple with one while also being an ally to survivors. But legions of Michael Jackson fans, and non-fans it seems, are not so convinced of his guilt. The Jackson Estate, his fans and regular members of the public have gone out of their way to discredit the testimony of Robson and Safechuck. They describe the documentary as a “public lynching” and paint both survivors' intentions as financial. This is the same avenue of discreditation that Jackson and his team used during his lifetime when, in 1993 and 2004, he was previously accused of sexual molestation of a minor. Robson and Safechuck have both filed lawsuits against the Jackson Estate for damages, the former asking for $1.5 billion. Their cases were thrown out of court.
For those that grew up while Jackson was still alive and at the height of his powers, the impact that the documentary may have on his legacy feels important. It’s why, for example, certain radio stations are refusing to play his music, and why debates have run in national newspapers, on social media, in offices and over dinner tables about what to do with his music. Can we, and should we, still call him the King of Pop?
Yet, there’s a whole generation of music lovers who, because of their age, won’t remember a time before Michael Jackson was dead. They won’t remember the Martin Bashir documentary and “Wacko Jacko” headlines on the red tops. Their memory of Jackson is the one the Estate has peddled in the decade since his death: a musical icon and legend.
“I still remember where I was when I heard that he had died,” recalls 19-year-old Ellise Shafer, a student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “It’s one of my more vivid memories from my childhood. I was ten years old and about to go to a performance where we would be performing a Michael Jackson tribute, which was totally coincidental. I remember being shocked and just knowing that this was a really big deal, even though it didn't affect me personally.”
Ellise says that she had no idea about the history of child sexual abuse allegations against Jackson until she saw Leaving Neverland. “I heard people talking about Michael Jackson and children, but I always assumed it was about the controversy where he held his son out the window of a tall building,” she adds.
The documentary, she says, left her floored and without doubt that Jackson abused children. But still, she isn’t convinced that it’ll impact his legacy. “I was doing a bit of research on Twitter after I finished the documentary, and from just searching "Leaving Neverland" there seems to be an immense amount of Jackson supporters speaking out against it,” she says. “There were even whole accounts dedicated to "debunking the lies" of the documentary. The majority of tweets I read were definitely in support of him -- which honestly scares me. It seems to me like he was a serial child abuser and I would not be surprised if several more men come forward in light of this documentary.”
Sophie Williams from Cardiff is 18 and describes herself as “a lifelong fan” of Jackson. “I simply cannot describe the sheer excitement I felt when one of his songs came on the radio,” she recalls, explaining that, following Jackson’s death, she immersed herself in the singer’s discography and videos. That, however, has changed. “I almost feel guilty for saying that his music meant so much to me when others have suffered at the hands of his power,” she admits. “I completely understand and respect that some people feel that they can separate the music from the man, but for myself, that is not an option.”
“I think the younger generation have a tendency to realise the severity of the allegations more, while the older generations connections to Michael Jackson make them far more biased and unwilling to ‘let him go’”.
Sophie, however, is unsure whether the documentary will totally “cancel” the singer, but believes that his name will always have a disclaimer next to it. “As a lot of these debates over Michael's legacy are taking place within the courts of social media, I do feel that these allegations will have a significant impact on his reputation in the future. However, there will always be people who will argue that he is innocent and they will strive to maintain his legacy, but now this evidence that suggests otherwise will sit beside it.”
23-year-old Noura Ikhlef does recall the very public 2005 trial brought against the singer accusing him of child molestation. “I recall how everyone from then on kind of always joked about him being a paedophile,” she adds, “and I remember a lot of people explaining him being around children so much as being a consequence of his tumultuous childhood.”
Noura explains that she hasn’t watched all of Leaving Neverland “because it's a very hard watch” -- but she is convinced of Jackson’s guilt. “I tend to go down the ‘the artist is definitely part of his art’ path,” she says, “but with Michael, his songs are a big part of music and pop culture. I don't think I could still listen to them, but I can understand how some people who have grown up listening to Michael could find it hard to stop all of a sudden, and just forget all the memories associated with those songs.” Nevertheless, she suggests that the way that Jackson’s legacy is viewed depends on how the media handle it. “They are, after all, the ones who shape the reputations of artists,” she points out.
Caitlin McMillan, an 18-year-old from Wales, also says that she won’t listen to Jackson’s music again and believes that the younger generation will now reject him and his music. “I think the younger generation have a tendency to realise the severity of the allegations more, while the older generations connections to Michael Jackson make them far more biased and unwilling to ‘let him go’,” she suggests. “Making good music doesn’t make you a good person.”
One 24-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous after already encountering Jackson fans on Twitter, says that while he is heartbroken by the documentary, he’s not convinced that it will change how the singer is viewed in the future. “The Jackson Estate is worths hundreds of millions of dollars, and they will do anything in their power to save what keeps making them money, Michael’s reputation.”
Indeed, 19-year-old Alex from London says that, because Jackson is dead, she hasn’t watched Leaving Neverland. “He can’t defend himself,” she says, “and I didn’t want to destroy the image I have in my head of him.” She says that Michael Jackson was acquitted of all charges in the 2005 trial, but that the decision to stop listening to his music is a personal one, and should up to the individual. “I think if there was photographic or visual evidence that meant that there was no denying that he was guilty then no, it wouldn’t be okay to listen to his music, as you would be choosing to ignore the facts and still support the artist,” she adds. “There is a wide fanbase of Michael Jackson supporters who don’t believe the allegations and are protesting against the documentary, so I think that he won’t have a huge downfall.”
Beth, who is 18, doesn’t share this ideology, but she says that some of her peers do. “You have people who say that they are just allegations, and that they can’t be proved,” she explains. “From people I have talked to, there seems to be more of a reluctance to accept that these allegations could be true, more so than the reactions surrounding R.Kelly or Woody Allen. But I guess more people actually care about MJ.”
Only Phoebe, a 22-year-old from Bedfordshire, says that she feels able to separate the art from the artist in this case. “I am completely against all of his choices in life, and always knew that there was something not quite right, but I cannot deny that he was a talented performer and the music he created was some of the best in the industry,” she argues. “As so many of his songs are linked to my own personal memories, I don’t want to have to disregard my own memories because of his own awful choices.”
What everyone I spoke to did agree on was the precarious nature of cancel culture, especially where personal responsibility and accountability lies within that arena. In the case of Jackson, though, the consensus was that giving the survivors a platform to tell their story was the most important aspect of the whole situation. “Respect still needs to be shown to those affected. Regardless of his death, the individuals will always have those memories,” explains Caitlin.
Speaking to these young people leaves no doubt that the adoration once bestowed upon Jackson has officially ended, no matter how much the fans and the estate conspire and protest. The man once dubbed the King of Pop has lost his crown. Not that his status as pop’s ruler should have been an indicator of his innocence – as Elise suggests, “Most kings were also evil men who often had inappropriate relationships.” In the future, we should never again be seduced by the type of monarchical power that Michael Jackson once wielded.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.