Leaving Neverland: It is time to re-examine Michael Jackson's music, and the art of every perpetrator

Titled Leaving Neverland, the documentary tells the harrowing account of James Safechuck and Wade Robson, two former friends of Michael Jackson, and how they were sexually abused, repeatedly, by the 'pop god' when they were just kids.

Arnav Das Sharma March 08, 2019 11:04:50 IST
Leaving Neverland: It is time to re-examine Michael Jackson's music, and the art of every perpetrator

One of the biggest questions the Me Too movement threw up when it exploded in October of last year, was particularly a moral one: do we change our view of artists and their work now that their names have cropped up in the movement as potential sexual harassers? Alternatively, is a work of art intrinsically tied to the life lived by the artist?

There are no easy yes or no answer to these questions. But it is also true that while there may not be easy answers, it in no way means we can ignore them anymore. These questions have come to the forefront now – and in a much shriller voice – in light of HBO’s documentary on Michael Jackson, which aired this week.

Titled Leaving Neverland, the documentary tells the harrowing account of James Safechuck and Wade Robson, two former friends of Michael Jackson, and how they were sexually abused, repeatedly, by the "pop god" when they were just kids. Of course, allegations about Michael Jackson sexually abusing kids are not new. From 2002 to 2005, the recording artist was on a very public criminal trial over allegations of him abusing Gavin Arvizo, a 13-year old boy. Similar allegations against the star had also come out in the public in 1993.

Leaving Neverland It is time to reexamine Michael Jacksons music and the art of every perpetrator

File image of Michael Jackson. Reuters/Russell Boyce

In the HBO documentary, the two survivors speak about how when growing up they had begun to idolise Jackson, to the point of even imitating his dance moves, and the clothes he wore. In many ways, the documentary portrays Michael Jackson as being a man of many faces, a shape-shifter. He starts befriending the boys, who at that time were both under the age of 10, begins to win over their families. At one point in the documentary, the mother of Safechuck tells us that Jackson would drop in at their home, and stay over, eat meals cooked by her, call the family from far-flung places like London, and speak on the phone for hours. In fact, such was the connection between the star and the survivor’s family that the mother even began to see Jackson as her adopted son.

Then comes the manipulation. Jackson, who by now had bought his mega ranch and called it Neverland, begins to invite the families, one at a time, always ensuring they never overlap. Neverland, as described in the documentary, begins to resemble a maze, a labyrinth, meant to lure innocent boys with dreams about never-ending candy, movies, pillow fights, endless sleepovers, and a slice of rich life lived by Jackson. All this aimed at one outcome for Jackson: to separate the boys from their respective families, both physically and emotionally. Once they begin to depend on Jackson, then slowly the abuse would start. More than just being about Jackson, the documentary becomes a harrowing look at how power operates, and its intrinsic connection with abuse.

Art and Power

While watching the documentary, in some ways, I was left with a feeling, not of horror, but déjà vu. In particular, what left me shaken was not the abuse per se, but its gradual evolution. The way it unfolded, the slow patient way Michael Jackson went around with his manipulation, very much like a serial killer, plotting, ensnaring, and eventually, leaving two families devastated.

Michael Jackson isn’t the only one. Ever since Me Too erupted, both in the United States and India, our public consciousness has exploded with names we were all familiar with earlier, but not in the same way as before. Names like R Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Bryan Singer, MJ Akbar, Vijay Nair, Jatin Das, and many more. And if there is one thing that runs common between all these men, it is not just the fact that they are abusers, but more importantly, the slow methodology of abuse and manipulation they perfected, and which they all share.

In the November of 2018, when Me Too movement was at its peak in India, I, and two of my colleagues, had investigated one of India’s largest entertainment companies, Only Much Louder and its founder, Vijay Nair, for the news magazine Caravan. Of course, there were multiple takeaways from that story, such as how an organisation overlooks complaints of sexual harassment, the functioning of the sexual harassment Act in actual workplaces, and ideas about consent. But there was also the larger theme of power we tried to explore, and which while watching the documentary, hit me all over again. The patterns were the same. The same slow manipulation, the way a sexual predator begins to take the victim first into confidence, to a point where the latter comes completely under the grip of the former. And then the abuse starts.

And that brings me back to the question I posed in the very beginning, and which I will modify just a bit. If Me Too threw up moral questions about whether we can look at the professional body of work done by these men – which are astounding and there is no doubt about that – and now if we begin to include the element of power which they wielded over their survivors, does their art then not become problematic?

One of the arguments that gets thrown around a lot when we discuss this issue is that most artists, throughout history, have been horrible people in their personal lives, so big deal. But it is a big deal. If there is one thing the Michael Jackson example is teaching us now, it is that the moral question of taking the art done by perpetrators of sexual abuse is more urgent than ever. I, for one, having grown up in the 90’s when Jackson was the biggest craze, cannot listen to his music the way I did when I was 10. And mainly because I cannot shake away the uncomfortable thought that I used to listen to Jackson’s music roughly around the same time when Robson and Safechuck, and several other boys, were being abused by the same person. Similarly, when I was preparing to be a journalist, one of the books I read over and over, was MJ Akbar’s India: A Siege Within. Now, since last year, I cannot stand having the book in front of me.

Art – and I am going to club everything under this general term for convenience’s sake – functions in our society as a moral barometer. It is vocal, it goes beyond the normal everyday newspaper headlines to speak a little extra about the present. It encapsulates within it anxieties and predicaments about our condition.

But more than anything else, the relationship between art and its consumer is also built on a sense of trust. I trust the voice of an artist and hence I would consume more of his creations. But in the case of Michael Jackson and others whom I have mentioned above, the trust between the artist and I, the consumer, has been eroded. If I can’t trust an artist any longer, by what degree can I begin to consume the art produced by that same artist? By what degree can I trust that voice? Because the sense I get when I listen to, say, Thriller by Michael Jackson, and watch that music video now, for instance, is rather eerie: what if he is manipulating us? And if I consume his art, am I also not in a way contributing to his beatification, to his canonisation, which would become his sure shot ticket to bypass the uncomfortable questions the sexual abuse allegations have left in its wake. And, most importantly, by doing so, am I not also sidestepping the experiences of his survivors, contributing to the silencing of their voices.

Arnav Das Sharma is a writer and journalist. His debut novel, Darklands, is slated to be published by Penguin Random House in 2018. He lives in Delhi.

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