The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Before you cancel Michael Jackson, listen to his music one last time

Michael Jackson waves to supporters as he arrives for his child molestation trial at the Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Maria, Calif., on March 2, 2005. (Michael A. Mariant/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

“The flames give a quiet command,” Post pop music critic Chris Richards writes of the bonfire consuming Michael Jackson memorabilia at the end of “Leaving Neverland,” a shattering HBO documentary about the years the superstar allegedly spent abusing choreographer Wade Robson and former child star James Safechuck starting when they were children. “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.” Hank Stuever, The Post’s television critic, concluded that “with Robson and Safechuck’s words and descriptions still rattling around in my head, I can easily envision a world with 95 percent less ‘Smooth Criminal’ in it. I’ve heard enough Michael Jackson to last the rest of my years. Maybe you have, too.”

As both Richards and Slate music critic Carl Wilson point out, it’ll be impossible to escape Jackson’s music entirely. There will, inevitably, be department store playlists that go un-sanitized and DJs who make the calculation that Jackson’s hits still can enliven a moribund dance floor. Still, Richards and Stuever are right: Jackson’s music will evoke something very different now for all but the most willfully obtuse listeners. But before tossing Jackson’s CDs on the hearth, deleting his songs from a digital library or merely leaving Jackson’s catalogue to gather dust, it’s worth listening to Jackson’s music one more time. Maybe after “Leaving Neverland,” it’s possible to hear what Jackson was saying all along. Jackson’s musical talent could be a gift and a weapon. He made simultaneous use of those skills both on families like the Safechucks and the Robsons and on his fans.

Jackson’s obsession with children, childhood and childish pursuits was one of the dominant elements of his stardom and his artistic work in a way that was obvious even while he was still alive, even if those interests have acquired a very different sheen in the aftermath of the 1994 civil settlement he reached with the family of Jordan Chandler, whom he allegedly abused, and Jackson’s 2004 child molestation trial, at which he was acquitted.

But an airless paranoia was present in Jackson’s music, too, some of it before he was accused of child sexual abuse. “Billie Jean," from Jackson’s 1982 “Thriller” album, is a chilling dismissal of the title character, a woman who claims that the narrator has fathered her child; Jackson said it was inspired by women who said they had given birth to his brothers’ children. In the original lyrics for “They Don’t Care About Us,” released in 1996, two years after Jackson settled the Chandler suit, Jackson seemed to use anti-Semitic slurs to smear the lawyers who opposed him, singing, “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me / Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me.”

The essence of Jackson’s music wasn’t in any one song or set of songs but in that synthesis between the saccharine and the caustic. His ability to release “Scream” and “Childhood” as the A and B sides of a 1995 single, to toggle between declaring that “/the whole system sucks” and singing “Have you seen my childhood?” without inducing national whiplash was his talent.

It was a skill, “Leaving Neverland” argues, that Jackson used to particularly vicious effect with Robson and Safechuck. Both men and their parents say that Jackson made the argument that his desire to recapture the childhood that had been stolen from him was proof that he would never endanger the boys. And once he had access to Robson and Safechuck, he corrupted their childhoods. The damage Jackson allegedly did wasn’t limited to sexual abuse; he also enmeshed Robson and Safechuck in his own frightening maze, convincing them that if any outsiders learned about Jackson’s conduct, both he and his victims would be in grave danger.

Jackson’s seduction of the public was an insurance policy, and judging by how tenaciously some of his supporters defend him in death, and even when faced with evidence like “Leaving Neverland,” it was an effective one. And that’s why it’s important to listen to Jackson’s music one more time, even if it’s a repulsive experience rather than a joyful one. Though it’s valuable to listen to Robson, Safechuck and their mothers, it’s not enough to sympathize with the sons and express horror at the mothers. The more any of us loved Jackson’s music, the more we owe it to ourselves, and to Robson and Safechuck, to grapple with that love and to try to understand how we might have listened to Jackson selectively, praising the seeming introspection of the “Man in the Mirror” over Jackson’s alleged transgressions.

“He helped me tremendously. He helped me with my career, he helped me with my creativity," Robson says at the beginning of “Leaving Neverland.” "And he also sexually abused me. For seven years.”

Michael Jackson gave the public less than he gave Wade Robson, and he took less, too. So follow the excellent advice of Richards, Stuever and others, but pause before you light the bonfire. Hiding away Jackson’s music and any lingering affection for it before taking one more hard look at what Jackson was telling us all along isn’t a reckoning. It’s an escape.

Read more:

Chris Richards: Every Michael Jackson song sounds different today

Hank Stuever: A devastating and credible ‘Leaving Neverland’ will turn you off Michael Jackson for good

How ‘Leaving Neverland’ puts Michael Jackson’s cultural legacy and $2 billion empire in jeopardy

Oprah Winfrey aired a powerful interview after ‘Leaving Neverland’ and is ready for the backlash

Who is Wade Robson? The choreographer accuses Michael Jackson of sexual abuse in ‘Leaving Neverland.’