Leaving Neverland is hard to watch. It is rife with graphic and visceral descriptions of child sexual abuse: actions that are so abjectly evil one cannot begin to comprehend that they actually happened. Upon the conclusion of the three-hour documentary, my girlfriend and I sat in stunned shock, unable to think what to do or say. We were both fans of Michael Jackson. After a long silence, she lamented: “why is it always the most talented that end up being the most monstrous?”
I thought about this for a while, considering what bad luck we have had in idolising the nefarious, and then I realised: it is not that evil people are blessed with the most talent. It is that the power enjoyed by the talented creates infallibility; it creates unaccountability, and it creates evil.
What do we do next? The first step is to stop hero worship. Jackson was trusted because his public persona was constructed to be so childlike and so innocent that you could not help but believe his word. One thing that is apparent throughout Leaving Neverland is just how much confidence the Robsons and the Safechucks had in Jackson. This was not confidence personally earned, but belief in a myth of a man: Robson’s mother left her son alone with Jackson after knowing him for just six hours.
These myths and constructed personalities take a hold of fans. The public has a hard time believing allegations because they like what they see as “the real” Michael Jackson, an image cultivated by the emotional connection many have to his undeniably brilliant music. So often we take the quality of a celebrity’s content to be indicative of their character, when the two could not be more separate. It is this conflation that creates doubt and facilitates abuse directed towards accusers, dissuading them from stepping forward. We saw it with O.J. Simpson; we saw it with Kevin Spacey, and now, we see it with Michael Jackson. To continue creates the perfect environment for more abuse, for which we would be complicit.
The seemingly natural progression from ending hero worship is to stop listening to Jackson’s music. Yet what would this accomplish? I can understand boycotting or ‘cancelling’ if the perpetrator is alive, like R. Kelly, but Michael Jackson is dead. He can gain no royalties nor financial benefit from the consumption of his music, so I don’t see a reason not to continue listening to it.
The art must be separated from the artist; if we’re searching for absolute morality in the media we consume, we won’t find it. Popular culture itself breeds high levels of immorality. By boycotting the work of men like Weinstein, Spacey or Jackson, we deprive ourselves of some of the greatest films, television, and music available to us. Committing terrible acts does not preclude someone from creating something brilliant, and I don’t think there is a contradiction in enjoying that content whilst disparaging and condemning its creator.
This is not to write-off the allegations made by Robson or Safechuck, or to argue that Jackson was merely ‘flawed’. If the allegations are true, and I vehemently believe them to be so, then Michael Jackson is a monster. But a talented monster, nonetheless. Valorise his music, condemn its creator.