What Michael Jackson Sold Us


At first, it felt like something was being taken away from us. Upon the announcement of Leaving Neverland’s premiere at Sundance, and then the credulous response from critics and other attendees of the festival, I hoped that those responsible for or supporting the documentary were wrong. I didn’t want Michael Jackson canceled. I couldn’t envision a life without “Human Nature” on regular rotation, because like oxygen, it had been in my immediate atmosphere for as long as I could remember. As a child, I ran down the batteries on one of those one-speaker “shoebox”-style cassette player/recorders, listening to Thriller on repeat, but I kept playing it even as it slowed because I thought that sounded cool. You could measure my life as a series of phases of obsessions and re-obsessions with musicians, and Michael Jackson was my first.

And then I saw Leaving Neverland and all the resistance and belligerence I felt about being robbed of Michael Jackson’s legacy evaporated. Nauseated, I realized that what seemed like his inevitable cancellation wouldn’t be too hard for me to endure simply because I no longer wanted to listen to Jackson—about whom the documentary made strong allegations of pedophilia—singing about being human or anything of that nature.

But that feeling was fleeting, as well. What has set in for the month or so since I first watched Leaving Neverland is a morbid fascination with Jackson’s music. I don’t hear him in the same way I used to. His work now is barely pleasurable, though I’d be lying if I said that listening to a genius of his stature was completely devoid of pleasure, regardless of the context. But it is that re-contextualization of Jackson’s work, so great and magical as to be a musical transubstantiation, that is exactly what’s so compelling about listening to it after having my mind altered by Leaving Neverland about the man that he was. What was once a thing of leisure and joy is now a text to study.

What has set in for the month or so since I first watched Leaving Neverland is a morbid fascination with Jackson’s music.

If Jackson did groom and prey upon young boys as he is accused—and I find it virtually impossible to believe anything else after sitting through four hours of Leaving Neverland twice, even after listening to the arguments of Jackson’s supporters, who at the end of the day were not in the room with James Safechuck and Wade Robson when they were allegedly molested—then to listen to him afterward is to probe a dark mind, much like what happens when people become fascinated with serial killers. If Leaving Neverland is true, then Jackson’s point of view was amongst the rarest in mainstream pop, and his catalog is instructive of the extent of his con.

I’m not recommending taking up such listening, by the way. Mine is an uncommonly strong stomach, and opting to listen to Jackson now will likely be too visceral of an experience for survivors (and their supporters) that is not worth the thought exercise. But just as I can’t unsee Leaving Neverland, I can’t look away from Jackson’s public expressions. Brazen seems too weak a word to describe a man who was photographed holding the hands of, cuddling with, and holding in his lap children he was eventually accused of molesting. This was a man who told us, “I’m bad,” in those words exactly. He released an album called Dangerous, and the most famous criminal he sang of was a smooth one. He rhapsodized a “Pretty Young Thing.” If Leaving Neverland’s subjects were telling the truth, then Jackson wasn’t merely hiding in plain sight—he wasn’t hiding at all. Looking back with the story pieced together by Leaving Neverland reminds me of studying Nostradamus, whose prophecies make so much sense in hindsight, after the predicted events have taken place.

Most fascinating to me is his 1995 album HIStory, much of which he wrote in the wake of the 1993 investigation into sexual abuse claims made by Jordan “Jordy” Chandler, one of the young boys he befriended temporarily in the early ’90s. Two albums’ worth of material comprised the project—a 15-song greatest hits package and a collection of 15 new songs. Its marketing budget was reportedly $30 million. HIStory was advertised with a four-minute commercial that played on MTV and in movie theaters, and that featured Jackson leading a marching army as a throng of people shriek his name, while looking on. The climax of the video features the unveiling statue in his likeness that appears to be around the size of the Statue of Liberty. A helicopter flies between his legs.

Some people noted similarities to the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. The album, too, plays like propaganda, a long-form manipulation to assert Jackson’s innocence, to cement his status as the King of Pop, to lash out against his critics, and to plead for compassion. The most cynical reading of HIStory is that it’s the expression of an accused pedophile’s fury. Its booklet contained a letter from a child to President Clinton begging him to end war, pollution, and to “stop the reporters from bothering Michael Jackson.” In its new material, Jackson goes from spitting mad in anti-media songs like “Scream” and “Tabloid Junkie” to saucer-eyed sadness, his voice literally breaking at the end of the schmaltzy ballad “Childhood.”

Today, it just sounds like a flagrant reverse-reverse psychology, or a sleight of hand from a hand that is doing exactly what its owner says it’s doing.

That song’s premise is Jackson’s oft-repeated assertion that he didn’t have a childhood. That’s one thing, but some of the wording is so glib as to seemingly reference the molestation allegations, which Jackson repeatedly denied. “No one understands me/They view it as such strange eccentricities/’Cause I keep kidding around/Like a child, but pardon me,” he sings (emphasis mine). Even stranger: “People say I’m not okay/’Cause I love such elementary things.” This is such a bizarre turn of phrase. Superficially in 2019, it reads to me like a winking admission. But if we’re to listen while considering Jackson’s denial of wrongdoing, it seems that he’s saying that people were judging him for acting like a child, when in fact they were largely doing so at that point for the accusation that he did adult things with children.

I suppose all the doubling down is so explicitly executed to bolster the case for Jackson’s innocence—an actual child molester would never be so bold as to say these things, right? If he could be sexually stimulated by a child, he’d never cop to being cheered up by a Russian beggar boy calling his name, as he does in “Stranger In Moscow,” right? Back then, I guess I bought it. Today, it just sounds to me like a flagrant reverse-reverse psychology, or a sleight of hand from a hand that is doing exactly what its owner says it’s doing. Keep in mind, the album is plenty bold by any measure—“They Don’t Care About Us” was accused of anti-Semitism over the lines, “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me.” Jackson attempted to clarify in a statement (“I am the voice of the accused and the attacked,” read part of it), and later explained that he couldn’t be anti-Semitic because he’s friends with Jews.

On HIStory, Jackson is openly paranoid—“Somebody’s out, somebody’s out to get me,” he sings in “This Time Around,” while songs like “Money” and “2Bad” reference extortion and never didn’t sound rich from a man who paid reportedly $15 to $20 million for the Chandlers’ silence. He is “a victim of police brutality,” according to the lyrics of “They Don’t Care About Us.” He devotes an entire song to the prosecutor of his case (and eventual prosecutor of his 2005 criminal case) Tom Sneddon in “DS” (the lyrics are supposedly “Dom S. Sheldon is a cold man,” but Jackson is clearly singing “Tom Sneddon”). Without any factual support, he implies in the song that Sneddon had ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

If Jackson was in fact falsely accused, the rage is somewhat understandable. If he wasn’t, this was yet another big, multi-pronged machination that would seem to fit the profile of a man who allegedly targeted families, ingratiated himself to the point of being an honorary member, and then preyed on children, ultimately attempting to wedge himself between them and their parents.

“Scream,” in other words, now sounds more like a tantrum.

What doesn’t sit well with me, no matter what interpretation I apply, is Jackson’s frequent assertion of victimhood on HIStory. While one would be understandably shaken by the public shaming and strip-search he endured, as someone who loved children in the “pure” and “moral” way that he professed to, surely he should have been able to understand that such investigations were for a greater good. As in “Childhood,” there’s a lot of talking around pedophilia but not a truly honest confrontation with the allegations on “Tabloid Junkie.” “They say he’s homosexual,” is how Jackson punctuates the first chorus, as if that was as severe as it got for him, or anyone. As if that was severe at all.

“Just because you read it in a magazine/Or see it on the TV screen/Don’t make it factual,” goes the chorus to “Tabloid Junkie.” In the ’90s, he frequently expressed hostility toward the press. Sometimes he differentiated the tabloid press from that of respectable journalism, other times not so much: In his broadcast from Neverland in 1993 in the wake of Chandler’s allegations, he specifically called out the “incredible, terrible mass media.”

In a 1996 interview comprised of fan questions that ran on VH1, Jackson said of the press, “They write these stories to mislead you. You just make them rich. It’s not true. Don’t read it. It’s garbage, it’s junk food. Believe what I tell you.”

Jackson was calling out fake news before we had that term for it, and if he was lying, it makes these tendencies all the more despicable. Regardless, as someone who was given free rein to express his truth practically all of his life as an artist, it was at least hypocritical to call out other people for attempting to express what they saw as the truth. It seems awfully Trumpian when viewed in 2019.

But what’s most insidious about HIStory is how good its music is. “They Don’t Care About Us” (surprisingly, his second most-streamed video on YouTube with almost 585 million views, perhaps due in part to its perceived modern relevance as a protest anthem) is this fury of bits of percussion that sting like shrapnel. Syncopated within an inch of its life, it predicted the kind of brain-massaging micro-percussion that would soon be all over R&B thanks to the space-age likes of Timbaland. The songs’ hooks creep up and dig in, made particularly tenacious by generally staccato verses that give way to these glorious melodies that dawn on the songs like sunshine. Jackson glides over most of it with the same gravity-defying magic with which he dances.

Maybe removing him entirely from the fabric of our culture would just leave holes too large and unsightly.

By 1995, new jack swing was already on its way out of vogue, but HIStory was something of its grand finale—it never slapped harder or with more righteous indignation than via Jackson and his collaborators like Dallas Austin and the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (who were all responsible for some of the subgenre’s most memorably entries).

(That said, the R. Kelly collaboration “You Are Not Alone” is treacly to the point of excruciating and if it’s double-canceled, oh well.)

Jackson’s ability to craft earworms that simultaneously sounded out of this world and made complete and immediate sense is what makes his legacy, tarnished as it is, unshakable. He hasn’t been expelled from the atmosphere yet. Last week, I heard “Rock With You” in an airport Chili’s (while discussing Jackson with my traveling companion—speaking of the devil!) and then “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” in a subway station as dancers interpreted the song’s fluidity to the delight of a crowd of onlookers. Jackson’s streaming numbers, so far, have not been much impacted by Leaving Neverland. Maybe some entries in Jackson’s discography are just too massive to be canceled. Maybe removing him entirely from the fabric of our culture would just leave holes too large and unsightly. Maybe he shouldn’t actually be erased, lest we weasel our way out of reckoning with what culture was willing to overlook, and the small slice of culpability each one of us overlookers had in the process. Deleting Jackson entirely, then, would be like putting on blinders to our blinders.

But if he did abuse children, and then had the gall to release something as bombastic, petulant, controlling, and manipulative as HIStory, what Jackson did was create fascinatingly telling pop agitprop that is the antithesis of soul music—a total contrivance, a forced narrative, an unparalleled piece of propaganda that sold an estimated 20 million copies worldwide.

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