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Georges Biard / Wikimedia Commons


In the new HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” two men, Wade Robson and James Safechunk, allege that the late pop megastar Michael Jackson molested them as young boys. The documentary was released at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 31 and will be airing on HBO on March 3 and 4. 

Robson and Safechunk’s horrific accounts of abuse join a series of other allegations of sexual misconduct against Jackson, who died in 2009. 

In 1993, the Los Angeles Police Department investigated Jackson for pedophilic sexual abuse; no criminal charges were brought. A second investigation, following an explosive documentary about Jackson’s alleged pedophilia that aired on ABC in 2003, led to Jackson’s indictment for child molestation, serving alcohol to a minor, conspiracy, and kidnapping. He was ultimately acquitted of all charges. 

Still, the Jackson allegations are a tough pill for our culture to swallow. 

Jackson was one of the most influential American artists of all time and perhaps singlehandedly reoriented mainstream American music from rock and roll to pop. Needless to say, Jackson’s music is still ubiquitous, regularly played on popular radio and incessantly streamed on digital platforms. 

Throughout my life, I have religiously listened to Jackson, and during each anniversary of his death, I nostalgically indulge in the mythos of the King of Pop and listen to radio stations blast “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean,” from sunrise to sunset, celebrating the life of a supposed artistic superhuman.  

Yet, of course, this superhuman was also an alleged pedophilic abuser. 

In retrospect, Jackson always seemed to exist in a curious moral and sociocultural liminal space. He straddled blackness and whiteness, femininity and masculinity, queerness and straightness, decency and brutality. The duality of Jackson’s identity is, in part, what made him great. But this duality was also a mechanism for deception. 

In other words, we saw what we wanted to see in Jackson; and seeing Jackson as a pedophile was, for a long time, unthinkable. We deluded ourselves, believing Jackson’s irresistible, soul-affirming music exonerated him from moral accountability and exonerated us for reliably looking the other way. 

It also seems that Jackson deceived himself as much as he deceived us. Perhaps Jackson, much like his fans, couldn’t admit his cruelty and abuse to himself, much less the world. Perhaps Jackson consciously constructed a moral liminal space to avoid internally confronting the paradox of his softness and barbaric violence. Perhaps Jackson’s profound, world-historical fame was just as blinding to him as it was to us. 

Furthermore, it must noted that Jackson was reportedly abused as a child — when he and his siblings formed the Jackson 5 band — by his maniacal father, Joe Jackson. As The Guardian explains, “[Joe Jackson] would beat [his children] with a belt buckle or the cord of an electric kettle, or make them spend hours carrying cinder blocks from one side of their garden to the other when they incurred his wrath.” 

The singer also allegedly endured multiple plastic surgeries and skin-bleaching to be white-passing. Undoubtedly, Jackson was a troubled soul, tortured by unshakeable inner demons and eternally scared from a childhood of violence and an adulthood of suffocating fame.  

Hence, Jackson likely committed unspeakable evil, but I don’t think he was a fundamentally evil human being. On the contrary, to me, he was a fallen person who at once survived and perpetuated senseless cruelty — someone at once victimized by and exploitative of a broken world.

The elemental moral contradictions of Jackson’s life raise impossibly difficult questions about his historical legacy. For those us who study and research cultural history, and who may very well write on the life of Jackson at some point in our academic careers, how do we reconcile Jackson’s impact with his alleged abuse? Should our research emphasize his musical greatness or his apparent pedophilia — or must it emphasize both? Does historicizing Jackson as a brilliant artist distract from the harm he has done?  

In reality, separating the art from the artist — that is, dislodging Michael Jackson the alleged predator from Michael Jackson the moonwalker — is a fool’s errand. To say that art is wholly external to its creator is to render art arbitrary and meaningless. To say that Jackson’s alleged predation is sufficiently isolated from his work erroneously strips his music of interiority and individuality. It’s naïve to think that Jackson consciously turned off his darker sides when he made music; in fact, his music was, at times, demonstrably inspired by his obsession with children.

So, is it immoral to embrace Jackson as a musical genius — through our scholarship and through our earbuds — even if we condemn his depravity? I’m not sure; regardless, I think we must conceptualize Jackson’s music as a lens into a deeply troubled, abused, and abusive soul. 

At the very least, as we’re singing along to “Thriller,” we should cast no allusions about the character of the man behind the mic. 

Samuel Aftel is a junior from East Northport, N.Y. He can be reached at saftel@princeton.edu.

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