Watching ‘Neverland’

[Monday Musing]

[Asok Pillai]

As a kid growing up in the ‘80s, I was, like millions across the globe, a star-struck Michael Jackson fan. As if mirroring Wade Robson and James Safechuck, in an unremarkable little town on this side of the world, I bought a videocassette of The Making of Thriller, and I must have seen it dozens of times, trying to ape Jackson’s mannerisms and dance moves. My dancing skills were certainly not up there with other Jackson fans’, but they weren’t all that bad, either. (Not to put too fine a point on it, I can still do the moonwalk when I’m sufficiently drunk.)

When it came to music, Michael Jackson’s songs, with their post-disco, rock and funk beats – particularly his ballads – unwaveringly stood second on my list of choices (country/bluegrass being the first). I would try to sing along with his songs like Off the Wall, Human Nature, Farewell My Summer Love, and, later, Man in the Mirror. I never could hit the high notes, but I knew the lyrics word for word.

After Thriller was released in 1982, Jackson gained a cult stature; he became a demigod, a figure of worship, almost a surreal being. For better or worse, I was one of those who wanted to sing like Jackson, dress like Jackson, walk and talk like Jackson… not that I succeeded.

Then, as Phil Collins sang, something happened on the way to heaven. Jackson’s seventh studio album, Bad, was released in 1987. When the video of the title track was telecast during the 1988 Grammy Awards season, I failed to identify with Jackson’s looks, his dress, or his music. Looking back, I figure it must have been because by that time I had ceased seeing him in isolation, as a haloed icon smiling down from a gilded picture frame. I was staying in a boarding school, where I was introduced to several other genres of music, and, being in the process of learning how to appreciate music in its diverse forms, I guess I had matured as a listener.

The years went by, Michael Jackson started becoming weirder and whiter, and his music’s rhythms began bearing more and more of a staccato quality, as if keeping up with the android-like appearance Jackson was apparently working hard to achieve. By the time he announced his concert residency, This Is It, in March 2009, he was looking like a mannequin with a wig on. He was reportedly deep in debt, and was scheduled to do 50 concerts at London’s O2 Arena to pay it off. The concerts never happened. Michael Jackson died on 25 June, 2009.

As I write, I have just seen the first part of HBO’s documentary, Leaving Neverland, which was released earlier this year. I’m not sure if I can stomach the second part, but I intend to plough my way through to its end.

Wade Robson and James Safechuck are the subjects of the documentary – two former child performers who describe, in graphic detail, how Michael Jackson allegedly groomed them and sexually abused them as children. The alleged abuse began when Robson was 7 and Safechuck was 10.

Whether or not the allegations are true, one thing is for sure: this documentary is tailor-made for the #MeToo era. That’s my first impression. It doesn’t show too much of Michael Jackson himself, and it doesn’t feature any interview with Jackson’s family members to learn their side of the story. Its maker, Dan Reed’s approach is decidedly biased. Reed explained that it is so because the documentary is “not about Michael Jackson” but about the larger issue of the survivors of child sex abuse – even though Jackson is the centre-point of Reed’s spin.

Leaving Neverland has attracted fire and fury like the world of entertainment has never seen before, coming as it does in the wake of another documentary about another superstar accused of abuse, R&B singer R Kelly. Warriors are still fighting on the social media, rapping on Michael Jackson and offering thoughts and prayers to the alleged victims. The intensity of their hatred is matched scale for scale by Jackson’s fans, pointing out that Robson and Safechuck were the same people who had testified in the court, as adults, in favour of Michael Jackson in earlier charges of child abuse which had been brought against the singer. Jackson had been exonerated on all counts on the strength of the testimonies of Robson, Safechuck, and former child actor Macaulay Culkin.

So, were they lying then, or are they lying now? That is the question to grapple with. Was Jackson, in truth, guilty of the crimes he is being accused of posthumously? This is a cloud of suspense which will not be lifted until there emerges concrete evidence, either from the accusers (that he did it) or the Michael Jackson estate (that he didn’t).

All said and done, however, Michael Jackson is not alive anymore, and we’ll never know how he would have defended himself this time. Sitting at a computer, in a small corner of this overgrown town on this side of the world, I am watching a video on YouTube. A young Michael Jackson – then himself a black child with an Afro haircut and a wide nose – is singing Who’s Loving You?… and I cannot bring myself to believe that the same child could have grown up into the man his accusers say he was.

And, watching Neverland, a question bubbles up to the fore of my mind: Good or evil, black or white, angel or monster… what kind of man did Michael Jackson see in the mirror?