If you make it through all four hours of “Leaving Neverland,” you’ll see the credits rolling next to images of a bonfire consuming a sequined glove, a red leather jacket and the cover of an album that sold more than 66 million copies. The flames give a quiet command. Go gather up whatever you have and throw it in. You certainly have something. He’s Michael Jackson. Now let’s be done with him.
And if you give “Leaving Neverland” your full attention, you’ll want to be done with him. Dan Reed’s harrowing documentary film — which began airing in two parts on HBO Sunday night — recounts the alleged sexual abuse that Jackson inflicted on Wade Robson and James Safechuck as children in such excruciating and incriminating detail, there’s no turning your head the other way. It’s unbearable to watch. But you should. And then?
How do we make the most famous entertainer our world has ever known instantly and permanently disappear? We don’t. We can’t. Even if we toss every last copy of “Thriller” into that fire, we still have to breathe the fumes. Jackson’s music has dictated the contours of 21st-century pop music, so we’re hearing him even when we aren’t actually listening to him.
And whether or not you want to listen to another Michael Jackson song in your life, it’s not really up to you. There will still be house parties, and wedding receptions, and karaoke contests, and barbecues, and Friday nights on dance floors where “Billie Jean” makes the room spin. Maybe we won’t hear these songs as frequently now, but there will always be fans fluent in the finest details of Jackson’s music who refuse to hear the big, horrible truth about who he really was. (Jackson’s estate has come out strongly against the documentary, suing HBO for $100 million and releasing a statement that denies Robson’s and Safechuck’s allegations.)
For the rest of us, every Michael Jackson song sounds different today. A lot of old music has many new meanings to carry. His hits have always felt as vast as life itself, but now the Michael Jackson songbook suddenly feels even wider, more lifelike in the saddest way. It now accounts for the cruelty of this world. There’s always been so much good to hear in this music, and now there’s evil, too. Now, “Thriller” is very much about a man trying to expose the horror inside. Now, “Smooth Criminal” sounds brazenly criminal. Now, “Keep It in the Closet” feels sinister and perverse. Now, “Man in the Mirror” is a guilty plea.
But a song’s meaning doesn’t reside exclusively in its lyrics, which means Jackson’s voice radiates a new aura as well. The softness and the levity in his falsetto used to make his songs feel resistant to gravity. Now, it sounds like he was using a child’s voice as some kind of insidious disguise. The precision and control in his phrasing used to feel like a generous craftsman’s gift to humanity. Now, it should remind us about the control Jackson exerted over the powerless children he surrounded himself with.
As for Jackson’s greatest songs, they’ve always been little Möbius loops — those songs about dancing that make you want to dance. And this is the music that we will struggle to contend with in public, over and over again. It’s dizzying to think about it. These songs have consecrated so much American life. “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” and “Off the Wall” — the critic Margo Jefferson once described the appeal of these dance floor hymns with blunt-force clarity: “It’s trance music.”
We’re vulnerable in a trance. As an artist, Jackson knew all about how that worked. His ability to cultivate vulnerability changed the way we listen. Now, the evidence has never been more damning that he preyed on the vulnerable behind closed doors. Our listening has to change again.