A strange feeling has been following me around over the past week all the way through the weekend. Trying to describe what it is requires a vocabulary that I don’t know if I have right now.
Before watching HBO’s Leaving Neverland documentary last week, I fired up Spotify and let the Michael Jackson greatest hits and personal favorites play for an hour or so before I watched the airing of what I knew was the end. I was going to have to reckon with what I as a fan had ignored and probably justified with Michael and his behavior with children. Why did I do this?
Michael Jackson is bigger than anything when it comes to music and culture, he is everywhere. Even threads of his music can be found in the artists of today and tomorrow, whose style is shaped by his life’s work. As Wesley Morris said last week on his podcast, Michael Jackson is everywhere on a molecular level in our culture.
When you watch the documentary, you can’t help but feel some form of responsibility, but that’s not quite what it is. As a fan of Michael Jackson, you begin to realize you were groomed to ignore and justify his inappropriate behavior with children, even as it occurred out in the open. To try and ignore it when his music came on in the last hour on the wedding dance floor, or when you started moving like a zombie in the car when you heard “Thriller” at the start of Halloween. Like so many others, I’m guilty of wanting it not to be true, even when it was out there in play sight.
Throughout the four-hour documentary, so many things come up that you find yourself having to explore: the role the families played in the story, the way media helped in the grooming of society to justify his behaviors, how celebrity can ensure these perpetrations go unchecked. How we as fans have let this happen and slide by with just saying, “that’s just Wacko Jacko.”
But what also was truly heartbreaking was the full realization of something my colleague said: we haven’t cared enough about what happens to boys when it comes to sexual violence. The data doesn’t lie that this is a problem, but we have rarely seen the faces or heard the experiences of boys as victims of the abuse.
As a person working in this field, there are no easy answers, solutions or explanations for the profound questions posed by this documentary, much less what we continue to see and learn from the evolving #metoo movement. Many who work in the fight to stop sexual violence have been fans of Michael Jackson, and I know many of us have no way to understand how we got here. We are all in society still learning and developing language to talk about so many people — from Michael Jackson to religious leaders to celebrities to neighbors and so many others — who have done terrible things to children and people everywhere.
It’s complicated, it’s hard and it’s intense.
But we have to go through this if we are really trying to change anything. Not just as fans of the artist who was Michael Jackson but as people who want this to not happen again. This is a deep infection in our society.
You can’t simply delete the playlists, leave the dance floor when “Off the Wall” comes on, and refuse to acknowledge that Michael Jackson ever existed. The art will never go away, it’s too complicated and too embedded around us to delete.
The only way to address it and make sure that we keep everyone safe from sexual violence is to do the hard work with ourselves, carving out roles we play in preventing and stepping up when it comes to sexual harassment, misconduct and violence. We are going to have to bring up the mental struggle of juxtaposing his art and his actions when the music is played; we are going to have to demand our systems address sexual violence regardless of when and by whom it happens. We can’t let conversations be shut down because they are uncomfortable for ourselves and the people around us. But most importantly, we have to now know that sexual violence can happen to anyone if and when we don’t do our part to stand in its way. That includes when you want to be a fan more than you want to be an agent of change.
Like so many people who have seen artists they admire have their bad behavior exposed, I’m really having a hard time in the wake of “Leaving Neverland.” My thoughts change and go in different directions with every person I talk to and overhear discussing this documentary. It’s a feeling I fear won’t go away anytime soon.
But I also have found solace in the fight to end sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse, continuing to work and find my role in how I can help be part of changing this culture, working with others to figure out how we make sure we protect everyone who is at risk of sexual violence.
Photo by Alan Light