If Michael Jackson was really a paedophile, can his music survive? For a hardcore of increasingly marginalised fans, it will always be ‘Jackson forever’. But for a mainstream audience for whom Jackson was a fascinating star rather than a mythic icon, a fatal blow may have been dealt.
Yet the bitter truth is that the damage was already done, a long time ago. The documentary, Leaving Neverland, is unequivocal about his behaviour, the alleged sexual grooming and assault of minors, using stardom to hide in plain sight. It has left its first audiences at the Sundance Festival in Utah shocked.
It is forensic in its detail. And yet there was still a small protest outside the cinema, with fans holding saintly pictures of their pop hero, bearing the quote: “Lies run sprints but truth runs marathons.”
I suspect that marathon is coming to an end, and not in the way those fans might like. Jackson’s Willy Wonka-meets-Peter Pan persona had been making people uncomfortable for decades. It is almost hard to remember now what a pariah Jackson had become in his lifetime.
Serious allegations about Jackson first surfaced in 1993 and the effect was to put his career into a tailspin. His final album, the inappropriately titled Invincible, was a critical and commercial disaster in 2001. When Jackson died on June 25, 2009, aged 50, he hadn’t released new music in eight years and his finances were in a parlous state, with debts approaching $500m.
Court documents revealed Jackson’s lifestyle to be hopelessly dissolute: sleeping late, self-medicating on painkillers, watching Disney films and drinking bottle after bottle of expensive wine. His planned live comeback O2 concert series was meant to restore his fortunes, but there were serious doubts about whether Jackson would even turn up.
Death changed everything. Ambivalent feelings about his behaviour were overwhelmed by a potent combination of tragedy and nostalgia, with Jackson evoked in terms of his incredible youthful achievement rather than adult decline. A decade on, his estate is worth more than a billion dollars, making him the top earning dead celebrity of our times. But surely that is over now.
Art can certainly survive crimes by its creators. Caravaggio was a murderer, Genet was a thief, Byron committed incest. Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite but we still listen reverently to his music. But it wasn’t pop music, which thrives on innocence and escape.
The kind of effervescent dance pop Jackson excelled at needs to be light and buoyant, pure at heart and nimble on its feet. Time can take the sting out of almost anything but pop doesn’t have time. It is a phenomenon of the moment, existing in an eternal present. Pop, at its very essence, is a music of youth, which makes paedophilia an ultimate transgression. You never hear Gary Glitter any more. And though he was nowhere near as famous, talented or culturally significant as Jackson, the retrospective tarnishing of his music is essentially the same.
For a pop star to be a paedophile is like a priest or teacher taking advantage of their vulnerable charges.
The sheer size of Jackson’s global audience means that he will never fade away entirely. Already some fans have been going into the IMDB database and changing the name of Leaving Neverland to ‘Liar Liar 2’. But his most deluded admirers have been in denial for decades. Some may make excuses and say Jackson was a damaged, tortured soul whose own childhood was stolen from him by showbusiness, in a career driven by an unloving, domineering father.
Some will argue that the music should be separated from the musician. Many will retain a vestige of affection for tracks that meant something personal to the listener.
But, if the documentary’s revelations become the accepted narrative, Jackson will surely disappear from public shared spaces. His music will no longer be heard on radio stations and streaming playlists. They will no longer be sought out for advertising sync deals and film and TV soundtracks, because programmers will have second thoughts about unwanted associations.
And Jackson will slowly vanish from view, surviving only in our nostalgic remembrances of more innocent times and, perhaps, as a bogeyman figure, a symbol of how fame can create monsters.
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