Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
I believe Wade Robson and James Safechuck. Not because I believe all accusers of sexual molestation should be believed; I don’t. Not because I believe that “Leaving Neverland,” the HBO documentary by Dan Reed in which both men accuse Michael Jackson of sexually molesting them, answers all the points made by the dead singer’s family in his defense; it doesn’t.
Instead, I believe Robson and Safechuck because, for me, the weight of evidence indicates that Jackson, that mercurial, troubled, talent-kissed child of the gods, could also have been a child molester. It is not in dispute that he wove the families of young boys into his life with gifts and glimpses of starry limelight. Nor is it in dispute that he slept with those children in his bed night after night, calling it in one interview “the most loving thing to do.”
There are subtle, difficult questions now on what this means for Jackson’s musical legacy, and reasonable people can disagree about them. But no reasonable person would call his relationship with children a healthy model.
As Constance Grady writes persuasively at Vox, celebrity lulls us into trusting strangers. Yet the parents of children left with Jackson have made themselves vulnerable by admitting they neglected basic safeguarding norms – it is hard to imagine their confession is self-serving. (“The stage mother in me kicked in,” says the mother of Robson, recalling how she pushed an opportunity to get Robson on stage with Jackson at a concert; Safechuck’s mother recalls Jackson breaking down in tears and pleading with her until she agreed to let James sleep in his bed.)
Similarly, it is hard to imagine why any two men would pit themselves against the legal and financial heft of the Jackson estate, or invite the obsessive hatred of Jackson’s fans worldwide, for any reason other than the psychic need finally to tell the truth. Jackson defenders allege a financial motive, but both men have already had their lawsuits against the estate dismissed for technical reasons, without a ruling on the credibility of the accusations. For the reasons those initial suits were dismissed – an expired statute of limitations against the estate and a ruling that Jackson’s corporations were not responsible for his private actions – their appeals seem unlikely to succeed.
Yet the issue of Jackson’s guilt is already being forensically assessed across the web at far more length than I have space for here. Those debates will go for years – just imagine being Robson or Safechuck, with strangers in every continent calling you a liar because they love “Man in the Mirror.” The more practical question that remains for those of us already sure of Jackson’s guilt is a different one. Should we still play his music?
This is a perennial question of art and ethics: How do we separate the artist from the man? Like many feminist critics, I despise the poet Ted Hughes as a terrible husband, two of whose female partners killed themselves: Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill. Yet his muscular, mythic verse made him without question one of the greatest poets of the 20th century – and the deep sympathy for female desire that I sense in his poems like “Tales from Ovid” has enriched my life profoundly. I can’t imagine wanting to ban it – and what intelligent person believes in banning books?
On the other hand, as a theater critic in the wake of the #MeToo movement – and as someone who made a #MeToo complaint myself against a powerful UK politician – I’ve watched and even publicly cheered as a number of theater directors have been sacked after being found to have sexually harassed young people. Many of them made great work, the loss of which will impoverish my industry. But many of them also inhibited younger performers from reaching their greatest potential and enriching us with what they might have made.
There seems to be a basic difference between these examples, which could teach us how to treat Jackson’s back catalog. The performing arts are fundamentally collaborative – and when we collaborate with abusers, we open our other colleagues up to their abuse. It’s right that producers have stopped employing the stars who might prey on children who adore them or offer career perks to younger co-stars in return for sex.
But Jackson is dead. Royalties from his records no longer line his pockets – Jackson’s children, who will inherit the bulk of his estate, are neither responsible for his crimes nor likely to be undamaged by his bizarre life. No one is continuing to be abused if you download “Thriller” on iTunes.
Rather, the music of Jackson, like the poems of Hughes and like those ancient male poets Hughes liked to translate, has taken its place in our cultural legacy. Songs with the impact of “Billie Jean,” itself a dark lyric about a false accusation (what games was Jackson playing with our minds?) are not some isolated cancer that can be cut out and cast aside.
Those songs belong on documentaries, on college culture courses, and yes, in clubs and in our bedrooms. Jackson’s work isn’t always philosophical and tortured – it is powered by peppy pop. To some, that makes it less worth saving: but even that levity should remind us how easily genius can mask pain and dysfunction.
Forget that an abuser was a genius, and next time a genius is accused of abuse we may disbelieve again. Do we assume that all artists whose art we enjoy were good men or women? Should we tell our children that, if Spotify streams a musician, he or she is automatically a good influence?
The people who talk most complexly of Jackson are his accusers. “He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew,” says one in the opening minutes of “Leaving Neverland.” In other words, they never deny Jackson’s humanity.
The people who insist on seeing this story in binary divisions – good versus evil – are Jackson’s superfans. I cannot imagine what it is like for Robson and Safechuck to talk publicly of their seduction by Jackson, to praise his kindness and his talent, to place that against his abuse, and then to see a community of people fund billboards on buses to drive around London and label them liars, as Jackson’s fans have done. If you wonder why people don’t come out earlier with accusations of abuse, then attack those who do, you are part of the problem. This is behavior as closed-minded as that of any religious cult or third-world village.
Instead, appreciating Jackson’s music should help us see him, and humanity, as susceptible to complex tragedy. Jackson’s own father has been called “one of the most monstrous fathers in pop” – and we know how many children of abuse go on to abuse others in turn. Jackson’s superfans would do well to reflect on how quick they are to believe Jackson’s own tales of childhood abuse – whippings with electric cords and belt buckles – and how quick to disbelieve his accusers.
Jackson’s critics should be open-minded enough to recognize that his impact on our musical landscape can’t be reversed. But his defenders should be open-minded enough to accept he may still have done terrible things. The rest of us should keep playing those tracks – and test how easy it is to lose ourselves in the music.