The camera never lies. One can’t watch Leaving Neverland and not viscerally feel that every single word uttered by Safechuck and Robson are true. Even beyond what they say, it’s the pauses, those devastating moments when the truth of what happened to them flashes across their faces and registers in their eyes as they grapple with it that make it the most obvious thing in the world.
One conjectures endlessly about Michael and his strange and sad fate: to be gifted with such genius and noble intentions, and yet perpetrate such monstrosity. Beyond the talent, the elements of his narrative have always been plain enough: the trauma he suffered at the hands of his father, the entitlement and power of insane levels of fame and wealth, denial, self-justification, race, pain, victimhood, narcissism, messianism…His own truth is deep, complex, unfathomable and ultimately unknowable, as these things always are. Of course, he was all of it, everything, the good and the bad.How could he not be?
In the end we are left to make our own judgements, for what’s left beyond the pain he caused is the music he left to the world. Much has been written about how to reconcile the music with the truth going forward, whether to keep playing his music or not, and how one can never quite see him in the same way.. It’s easy enough to understand those who might write him off and close the door on him forever, especially if they suffered sexual abuse as children themselves, as so many have. Harder to understand the die hard fans who refuse to accept any of this, but in this age celebrity worship knows no bounds. Back in the 80s when he was shaking the world, I watched Michael perform at Giants Stadium from a platform high above the stage. I’d been around and seen a few things but I was stunned by the sheer religiosity of that worship—it was scary.
As far as what to do with his music, that has to be an individual prerogative. The sight of Bill Cosby’s face sickens me, for example, and I’ll have nothing to do with his work, but I feel different about Michael when I hear his music. I’m still able to somehow appreciate his gifts and contributions. I wonder, is that because I’m more willing to accept Michael’s humanity than Cosby’s? It’s tricky.
It’s nothing new that great artists can be the most beastly people. The great poet Ted Hughes by all accounts was a despicable scumbag who no doubt played an important part in the suicides of Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill—should that diminish the majesty of his poetry? Perhaps a better example for me is the music of Wagner—a vicious anti-semite who wrote some off the most sublime music ever put to paper. It’s very hard for me to listen to his music and transcend the knowledge that he was Hitler’s favorite composer, that divisions of the SS were named after his operas, that his music was played in concentration camps as people went to their deaths—but sometimes I can allow myself. Perhaps that’s precisely why Jewish artists like Bernstein and Barenboim have made such a point of embracing him.
It’s the same with Michael. I’m certain that at some point I will be on a dance floor and hear “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and be able to once again dance like a mad fool—just as I’m certain that at some point I will hear “Bad” and not be able to stop thinking about how bad Michael really was…