Cosmic Slop #131: The Michael Jackson Quandary

By Shaun Ponsonby
Fri 15 March, 2019

After Channel 4’s devastating Leaving Neverland, Michael Jackson fan Shaun Ponsonby has been forced to face some uncomfortable truths, and wonders how Jackson’s legacy should be framed going forward.  

Deep down inside, we probably all knew it. But it was convenient to turn a blind eye. All the signs were there, and we ignored them all.

But enough about Danny Dyer being related to the royal family. Because more importantly, it looks like we have ultimate confirmation that Michael Jackson was, indeed, a child molester.

This wasn’t an easy conclusion to draw. I have been a fan of the Jacksons, collectively, for my whole life. My earliest memory is Michael Jackson’s Black or White video. I have everything. Like, everything.

I had been a bit on the fence ever since the trial. I was able to rationalise with myself with his “not guilty” verdicts. Fourteen of them. The FBI released their files on Jackson, and they found nothing incriminating. His first accuser, Jordy Chandler, identified him as being circumcised, but his autopsy confirmed he was uncircumcised. All of these little things; denial, rationalising.

But there are a number of differences between reading court testimony and seeing that testimony playout before your eyes, especially when it is accompanied by full context. And once you have that realisation, you start to look at things in a different way.

Leaving Neverland, the film that documents Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s journey from fans to victims of Michael Jackson is incredibly moving. It would be difficult for anyone to argue against it and not look ridiculous. This is probably the most powerful document of the grooming process ever captured.

I mean people have argued against it and supported him – convicted Rihanna beater Chris Brown and fellow (also convicted) nonce Jonathan King amongst them. But it’s the Jackson fandom, whom I was once a part of, that have been blithering the loudest.

There is an article doing the rounds from Forbes called What You Need To Know About The Michael Jackson Documentary. It was written by Joe  Vogel, who admitted that he was yet to see the film. And in light of finally viewing it, the article means nothing.

Vogel touches on Wade Robson’s changing testimonies. But Wade‘s timeline is dealt with completely rationally and believably in the film. So we can throw that out. Calling his inconsistencies out feels short sighted. They’re events he lied to himself about that happened 25 years ago, of course things are going to be muddy. Viewing the film, his changing stories makes perfect sense.

Saying they found nothing in the raids isn’t strictly true. There’s a very specific legal definition of child pornography which is why he wasn’t charged with owning some pretty revolting books. It seemed careful rather than innocent. I wouldn’t be friends with anyone who owns them and if I posted the images here, we would probably be taken offline. The books are called The Boy: A Photographic Essay and Boys Will Be Boys. If your interest has piqued, I wouldn’t recommend searching in a public place (or ideally, at all), and definitely don’t save the images.

It is popular to claim that the FBI investigated Jackson for ten years.  This isn’t strictly true. Yes, he was investigated by them, but they only assisted LAPD with their investigations separately in 1993 and 2003, likely because of the magnitude of investigating the most famous man on Earth. Besides, the problem with historical sex abuse claims is that it is nearly impossible to find physical evidence. So what concrete proof would the FBI find? Once the door is closed, that is it.

Just because people claim Jackson didn’t molest them doesn’t mean he didn’t molest anyone. It also doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t molest them specifically, as for many years Wade was one of them. People speaking out in his defence include former child stars Corey Feldman (who has since retracted his defence), Macaulay Culkin and Aaron Carter. Is it not possible that he just found it too risky to molest famous kids?

A regular thing I’ve seen is that they’re both actors. This is disingenuous. Safechuck was in a few commercials when he was about ten years old and Robson has only played such challenging characters as “Wade“, “Dancer” and “Teenage Boy“. So…no.

The fans shrieking about biased media keep sharing this article, which was written by Joe Vogel, who has written books on Jackson and has even been involved in projects authorised by his estate (for example, he features prominently in the two Spike Lee documentaries). So who has more reason to be biased here?

And in terms of the children he had around him, they’re all pretty similar: take a look at Robson, Safechuck, Arvizo and Chandler (and other, lesser known accusers Jason Francia, Terry George and Michael Jacobsagen). When I think now, it’s odd that he never had girls around him, or boys who weren’t traditionally good looking (for want of better words), or overweight boys. If you look at them side by side, it definitely looks like he had a type. Especially when he dressed them up like him. The same hats and military CTE jackets. It’s really odd, and creepy.

The defences aren’t surprising. As someone who used to post on Jackson fan forums, I have enough first-hand experience to state without fear of contradiction that the Michael Jackson fan base is a cult. Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed has likened them to ISIS. He was obviously exaggerating, but actually has a point. It doesn’t take much to receive a trumped up death threat from a Jackson fanatic. In fact, “trumped up” is pretty apt. They’re not far off shouting “Make Michael Great Again”.

There is a site called MJJ Community. One of the active threads on that forum is an ever growing list of people that any fair minded Jackson fan should avoid at all costs because of their crimes against Michaelogy. It’s a diverse list, ranging from TV presenter Chris Evans to the wrestler Ultimate Warrior. Infractions that inspired this vitriol include not taking Jackson’s telephone call, not playing his new single at a specific time and date, and daring to utter the ultimate heresy “I don’t normally like Michael Jackson, but I love this song”. It covers four sides of A4 and comes across as a little psychotic.

I do feel pity. Some people love Jackson so much that he has become a part of their identity. Their love of him has inspired their life choices. One distraught comment I saw on an article I wrote for another website told me how they were inspired to begin working in child services because of Jackson’s then-presumed innocent affinity for children. For something like that, this is finding out that your whole life is based on a lie. Who would want to admit that?

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What is sad, though, is that most of their arguments do not hold up to scrutiny. They clearly haven’t watched the documentary; they constantly wail, asking rhetorically why the two men have changed their stories. If they watched the documentary, they would see it clear as day. Calling them “admitted liars” is desperately cold hearted, especially when Jackson himself has a documented history of mistruths and manipulation on a worldwide scale, from obviously lying about his plastic surgery to planting tabloid gossip about himself in the press (oxygen tank, Elephant Man’s bones etc), then crying to Oprah about those specific stories and how hurt he was that someone would make it up, even tying his explanations to his own charity and victimhood (for the oxygen tank, he invoked both his infamous Pepsi accident and his sizeable donation to the Michael Jackson Burn Centre, for the Elephant Man that he identified with his tragic story).

In fact, those two images of Jackson are central to his later brand; the victimised saint. The angelic man, bullied by people who don’t understand him. From the time the earliest allegations date from, every album had a song like Leave Me Alone, or Why You Wanna Trip On Me, or Tabloid Junkie, They Don’t Care About Us, Scream, Privacy. Every interview he gave focussed on this aspect of his persona.

Meanwhile, the man his fan base insist was “humble” was floating a statue of himself down the River Thames and pretending to be Jesus at the Brit Awards.

For years, I dismissed this as mere publicity. Even now, I’m confident that we can all agree that he was severely damaged and had a warped sense of reality. But following Leaving Neverland, this comes across as part of his grooming technique. As Robson explained to Oprah after the broadcast of the film; “He groomed us before he met us”. He groomed the world.

There is an irony to all of those fans demanding that we all do our research, as if only a die hard Michael Jackson fan has the key. The vast majority of it is pretty flimsy. Chandler did mis-identify Jackson’s lack of circumcision, but there’s also a whole lot of weirdly specific marks that the 13 year old successfully identified. I didn’t know what circumcision was when I was that age. Yes, Jordy’s father Evan was caught on tape planning to take Jackson down via an extortion, but listen to the whole tape. He sounds like a man who is angry about what has happened to his son. Nothing that was said on the tape points to the allegation being untrue. And many of the specific arguments against Robson and Safechuck are central themes of Leaving Neverland – a fatal mistake of criticising something you haven’t seen.

The question for us is; what now?

There have been numerous think pieces written this past week about how to frame Jackson’s legacy in the wake of this. They range from, “separate the art from the artist”, to “I can’t do that because he always had kids in his videos”, to “burn all of his records immediately” and “I never listened to him anyway, so I don’t care” (the latter really like making that point).

Many people have indicated that Jackson’s imprint on popular culture was too huge to cancel. But few have considered why that is, and it isn’t because he sold a gazillion records. Absolutely nobody has mentioned the part race will play in how is legacy is framed.

Naively, few have even considered it a factor.

The Jackson 5 were the first black teen idols. They were the first black faces on teen mags and lunchboxes. They were the first black cartoon characters. The first all-black cast of a TV variety show. They’re part of the history of both Motown and Philadelphia International, two of the most lucrative black-owned businesses in American history.

Away from his brothers, Michael Jackson crossed over out of R&B and single handedly ended the backlash that black music had received since Disco Sucks. As a black performer, he was on near enough every chart. He put black artists in stadiums. As a black business man, he owned the publishing rights to the most lucrative song catalogue on the planet – think of that in the context of decades of white artists stealing black music. And there is Jackson, swiping it all back.

I could go on, but it may seem insensitive to list his achievements here. I only use it as an indicator of why he will not be removed from history like Gary Glitter’s novelty records or Jimmy Saville’s disposable Saturday night TV shows. You cannot pretend these things didn’t happen. You can’t write the book of 20th century culture and omit Michael Jackson. There would be too many holes. His crimes should not be forgotten, and an asterisk will always appear next to his name, but – for better and for worse – Michael Jackson cannot be airbrushed from history.

Even if we do cancel him, is there a cut-off point? Are the Jackson 5 records OK? After all, he obviously wasn’t a child molester when he was 11. There are so far no allegations that pre-date the Bad album, so is everything up to that point – with the possible exception of Pretty Young Thing – up for grabs? Anyone with any taste thinks that latter day, messianic Jackson was shit anyway.

I certainly think of him differently now, but I don’t know if I can never listen to Michael Jackson again. And that’s the thing with all of these knee-jerk think pieces; surely it’s too soon to know what to do? There are apparently a lot of emotional journalists trying to prove they are the most disturbed by the film and have been writing about how much they cried when they heard Blame It On The Boogie being played in a café. Well, of course it affects you now. You literally just watched it. It’s still raw, it’s still sinking in.

I turned Jackson off this week because I wasn’t ready to hear his voice, but I still listen to convicted murderer Phil Spector, and to thuggish wife beater James Brown. And the world is so desperate for a Led Zeppelin reunion despite the downright disgusting and equally evil actions of one of the surviving members that they have convinced themselves that Greta Van Fleet aren’t a bit embarrassing. Besides, if you do mute MJ, how are Robson and Safechuck going to get damages from an Estate with no income?

I have been trying to find something to take from all of this, and perhaps the greatest reason not to airbrush Jackson is that, if we do, we learn nothing.

We learn nothing about the dangers of child stardom, about the cult of celebrity, about not treating severe mental health issues, body dysphoria and, more importantly, about grooming and how child sexual abuse develops.

There is a reason we used an image of the young Jackson as the lead image to this article. Before all of this, the world saw the Jackson 5, and this innocent young prodigy who was full of life. What happened? Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed has suggested a sequel focussing on Jordy Chandler and Gavin Arvizo could be possible. But surely that would be a re-tread? Perhaps more useful would be a prequel. Abusers were often abused themselves, and there has been much talk about paedophile rings in Hollywood. So what happened to Michael Jackson to make him this way? Maybe his accessibility can be used to bridge a gap, where we understand the mechanics of this kind of abuse, and where it comes from.

That isn’t to say we should let him off the hook. He deserves to be vilified and I’m pretty sure each of us can come to a personal decision regarding where we put his work. But perhaps if we can understand how we got here, we can save a few people.

Lead Image: The Jacksons Facebook page.