The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hearing a Michael Jackson song still feels good. Listening has become too painful.

Michael Jackson performs during his "Dangerous" tour in Singapore in 1993. Ten years after the singer’s death in 2009, listening to his music has become a fraught experience. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
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You’re not listening to him anymore, but you still hear him. At nightclubs, restaurants, weddings, shopping malls, grocery stores, ballgames, house parties, block parties, cookouts, spin class, the pool, the dentist, the gym. Not in your headphones, though. Not in your car, not in your house. Just anywhere and everywhere else.

For a blink back in March, there was this funny idea that his music might silently drop out of circulation, that the discussion around “Leaving Neverland” — the profoundly damning HBO documentary that made his alleged child abuse more visceral than ever before — could somehow pull these melodies down from the sky. But now it’s June. The windows are open, and the voice of Michael Jackson is back to doing what it does every summer, perfuming the breeze.

Listening to it and hearing it are not the same thing. In fact, the difference is fundamental — not only to how we approach Jackson’s songs, on the 10th anniversary of his death, but to how we shape our everyday consciousness. To hear is to sense your physical reality all around you. To listen is to make yourself attentive to that reality. Hearing is involuntary, passive and perpetual. Listening involves history and memory, filtering what we hear through what we know. We can listen to, and we can listen for, but we can only hear what we hear.

Here’s what I mean: A few days after “Leaving Neverland” aired, I met a friend for lunch. The detailed stories of abuse that Jackson’s alleged victims — Wade Robson and James Safechuck — had told on camera were excruciatingly fresh in my mind, and I was still vibrating with sadness and outrage. While my friend studied the menu, she asked if I had “seen it yet.” And as I tried to reply, that perfect popcorn drum-fill that launches 1979’s “Rock With You” went bouncing across the room. Before that, I hadn’t even noticed music playing in the restaurant. I had heard it, of course. I just wasn’t listening.

At first, my friend and I couldn’t believe the coincidence. Then we totally could. Jackson’s music doesn’t have to be summoned. It’s always floating through some channel of public airspace. Now here it was.

What happened next? Nothing at all. I looked around the cafe. No one had paused their conversation in dismay. No one set down their silverware in disgust. Everyone continued living. That’s because hearing a Michael Jackson song still feels good. It’s only the listening that hurts.

Old songs can always tell us new things — which is just another way of saying that we all change as we move through this listening life. When we claim that an older song "really holds up," we're usually the ones who have held up. The music is speaking to an unchanged part of us. Even better is when old music speaks to us in new ways, when it reveals a fresh secret to our most current selves. But sometimes the secret can be dark.

After watching “Leaving Neverland,” I wondered if I’d ever want to listen to another Michael Jackson song again. The imaginary criminal trial that had been going on and off inside my head for the past umpteen years was finally over; for me, “Leaving Neverland” confirmed a dead man’s guilt and my listening had been irrevocably changed. From this point forward, my old and new selves would have to listen together.

My old self could still hear the unmatched vitality of Jackson’s singing, but my new self heard more. Now, his urgency communicated paranoia. His staccato signaled panic. The exquisite lightness in his voice felt evasive. His falsetto felt false. It was like discovering mold climbing up a wall. How long has this been here? So many little masterpieces were casting sinister shadows. Jackson’s voice, which once contained all of his complicated humanity in a beam of laser light, now had to carry all of his inhumanity, too.

Somehow, it had way more to do with his voice than his lyrics. This wasn’t about processing our complicity with a boastfully “smooth criminal” who had used his unfathomable starpower to “keep it in the closet.” (Although yes, it still boggles the brain to think about how Jackson titled his albums “Bad,” then “Dangerous,” and later, “Invincible.” What a message to send.) A song’s meaning never resides exclusively in its lyrics, and it isn’t until words become sounds that we can begin to triangulate the condition of a singer’s soul.

That’s what’s so strange about listening to Jackson’s recently bifurcated megahits: They still sound so honest. For all of its tightness and focus, his singing accounts for his perfectionism, his optimism and his grace, as well as his paranoia, his mendacity and his viciousness. And while his words still explode into melody like absolute truth, a new energy haunts the silences in between. They become the sound of truth being smothered, hidden, held back.

What a radical transformation. One of the most beautiful and beloved voices our world will ever know is now communicating something horrible, too. But you have to be listening for it.

Who's listening for it? Probably not the countless Michael Jackson fans who still actively stream his songs online. Surely not those who still dance at Michael Jackson DJ nights or those who sing along at Michael Jackson tribute concerts. Definitely not those who participate in the social media campaigns aiming to clear Jackson's name after the fallout of "Leaving Neverland." To the willfully entranced, he'll forever be the King of Pop. His greatness absolves him.

But if Jackson’s music continues to play such a pervasive role in our public life, it won’t be because of those people. It’ll be because Jackson’s greatness is so easy for the rest of us to hear.

Remember, listening requires us to funnel what we’re hearing through what we already know. But with music, greatness has a way of blasting straight through what we know. It’s immediate, it’s self-evident and it doesn’t need to explain itself. Greatness has a way of taking over the body before it checks in with the brain.

Now, when you listen to a Michael Jackson song, you’re measuring that greatness against everything you know. You probably know more than you wish you did. You don’t want to listen, you just want to hear — in which case, hearing becomes an act of intentional ignorance, a half-conscious refusal that allows you to protect your pleasure from oblivion. That way, you can keep dancing to “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” at the wedding reception. You can keep eating your lunch as “Rock With You” permeates the restaurant. Hearing it isn’t hurting anyone.

So what makes listening hurt? Maybe it goes back to that idea of old-and-new-selves being forced to listen together.

Depending on your age, there’s a good chance that the earliest Michael Jackson fan inside your head is just a child. I loved Jackson when I was a little kid. It was the ’80s, so it was pretty much impossible not to. On Friday nights, my classmates and I especially loved listening to “Billie Jean” at a local roller-rink, coasting around in circles, wondering how this guy learned to glide across the floor without wheels on his feet.

When I listen to “Billie Jean” today, my brain spins as violently as my stomach, thinking about how this hero of pop culture spent his most untouchable years hurting other boys my age. I feel betrayed, complicit, repulsed and ashamed. My kid-self still wants to skate right into the music, but I have to protect him from that beautiful, horrible sound.

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