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  1. Culture
6 March 2019

Michael Jackson’s hollow crown

In the decade since his death, the singer’s afterlife has been contested territory. But the revelations of a new film may dethrone the king of pop forever.  

By Yo Zushi

Diamond Joe Esposito was once plain Joseph Carmine Esposito, an Italian-American mechanic’s son growing up in Chicago during the Second World War. In the paranoid 1950s, he was drafted into service and sent to West Germany, where he met and befriended Elvis Presley. After their discharge, the singer employed him as his road manager and they remained close until the end – at least, the premature, undignified end of Presley’s life on 16 August 1977. Esposito was among the first to see his still-young body sprawled on the floor of his bathroom, beside some vomit and a book about the Turin shroud.

Ten years later, Esposito was in the service of another king – this time the king of pop, Michael Jackson, for whom he was overseeing the logistics of the Bad tour. Jackson was another kind of pop star altogether, and big on a scale that would surely have been unimaginable even for Presley. But his confounding descent from great American icon to lonely, seedy, delusional butt of lazy comedians’ jokes would follow – with considerably more darkness – the template established by the first rock ’n’ roll icon. Neverland substituted for Graceland, the powerful sedative propofol for sundry uppers and downers, yet the grand narratives rhymed. When Esposito encountered Jackson at the peak of his powers, did he think, “Here we go again”?

After Elvis’s drug-related death at the age of 42, his cash-money manager Tom Parker said, “This changes nothing.” In a way, he was right. Presley’s music has continued to sell; a couple of years ago an Elvis album debuted at number one in the British charts. And since Jackson’s drug-related death at the age of 50, on 25 June 2009, his work has earned his estate more than $2bn.

Yet death is the moment when a star loses control of his image once and for all, if he ever truly had control of it in the first place. And where the afterlife has been relatively kind to Elvis, who remains loved despite the fat jokes, I’m not so sure that Jackson the superstar will survive his. The taint of paedophilia is so strong now that even if his innocence were somehow established conclusively, the myth is spoiled. Not long ago, Mike Davis, the 74-year-old leader of Elvis in Essex – a fan club with the rare distinction of official acknowledgement from the Presley estate – told me that he loved his idol “with a capital L”, and that the singer was “like Jesus”. I wonder whether even the most diehard Jackson fans can maintain such unwavering faith in their hero as new allegations continue to emerge, most recently in the British film-maker Dan Reed’s documentary Leaving Neverland.

Reed’s film, which stretches to almost four hours over two parts (broadcast on 6 and 7 March on Channel 4), is a post-#MeToo masterpiece of accusation. It focuses entirely on the stories of two men who claim to have been victims of sexual molestation and rape at the hands of Jackson – horrific abuse that began when they were as young as seven and went on into their teens. James Safechuck was a child actor who appeared with the singer in a 1986 Pepsi commercial and quickly bonded with the star: an “otherworldly, impossible experience” that somehow happened anyway, initially to the delight of his middle-class American family. The Australian choreographer Wade Robson first met the singer the following year, aged five, after winning a Jackson-themed dance competition in Brisbane that took him backstage – then onstage – at one of Jackson’s shows.

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In the opening minutes of Leaving Neverland, Robson, now 36, describes Jackson as “one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew”. Then he adds: “He also sexually abused me for seven years.” Those words haunt the next half-hour of Reed’s film, which nonetheless captures the excitement and wonder of life in the orbit of the most outsized pop star the world has ever known. Here was a celebrity-artist who had transcended his child-star roots, the black conqueror of white MTV, a merchandising executive’s dream, a cultural prime mover as radical in his own way as the Beatles and Dylan, spending hours on the phone each day in affectionate conversation with Safechuck’s hairstylist mother and the young Safechuck himself; here he was again, watching cartoons with Robson and teaching him how to moonwalk. It’s a fairy tale so giddily joyous that, watching it unfold, I almost forgot what this film was for, until I heard Safechuck abruptly say: “In Paris, he introduced me to masturbation, and that’s how it started.”

The allegations here are deeply disturbing and, despite my reservations about the ethics of Reed’s decision to exclude any contradictory perspectives, I found myself unable to listen to Jackson’s music with the usual pleasure for a long time after watching the film. For what it’s worth, I was convinced by these men’s accounts. I knew that, after Jackson’s death, Robson and Safechuck had sought millions of dollars in damages in lawsuits that were quickly dismissed, having testified under oath in previous trials that the singer was emphatically not a predator. I knew that they had been represented by the same law firm. I knew that the singer was cleared of child molestation charges in 2005, four years before his death, and that another case had been settled out of court. I knew that the testimonies in this film had no greater claim to truth-telling than the insistence of, say, Jackson’s daughter, Paris, that the accusations of abuse were hurtful distortions made by people who simply wanted a payout. (“Picture your parent crying to you about the world hating him for something he didn’t do,” she told Rolling Stone in 2017.) But I believed Robson, Safechuck and their families. Their terrible stories have become part of my relationship with Jackson’s music.

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A subjective response from someone like me – not connected in any way to those involved – might not amount to much. But that’s how it goes with stars, when they’re alive and when they’re dead. All we have are the public mythologies. Some performers make a performance of “authenticity”, while others simply perform, thrilling us with warped visions of the human experience. There’s nothing that is objectively more “for real” about the work of Ian Curtis or Bob Dylan than that of Madonna or Michael Jackson. There’s stuff that resonates with us and there’s stuff that doesn’t. There’s stuff we believe and there’s stuff we don’t.

What goes for the music goes for all that surrounds it. Now that Jackson is dead and these new claims can’t be tested in any meaningful way, it’s a matter of whose version of what happened resonates, and whose version you believe.

This subjectivity is something that troubles Paul Morley in his new book, The Awfully Big Adventure: Michael Jackson in the Afterlife (published by Faber & Faber on 4 April), a work of astonishing narcissism that appeared in an earlier form a decade ago in an obscure periodical. Though ostensibly a study on the meaning of Jackson’s death, Morley frames his observations – many of them wise – in a weirdly off-putting and repetitive narrative about feeling a bit anxious as a professional critic because he had nothing to say about his subject when the news first broke. (Perhaps this was a common predicament among music writers at the time, judging by their noticeably less reflective reaction to Jackson’s sudden passing compared to, say, Bowie’s.)

Morley describes himself as the kind of rock critic who, until the late 2000s, was “powerful enough to be in control… of music’s creative and cultural direction, taking responsibility with a few others for the shape and content of its past, present and future”. Jackson, however, had only offered a “fictional portrayal” of himself in his music and so befuddled him. “There is no actual Michael Jackson to actually say anything about, not in the ways we like to think,” Morley decides, exasperated.

But in forensically analysing his not particularly significant exasperation, Morley dramatises our own self-absorbed relationship with Jackson and pop culture in general. We choose between myriad Michael Jacksons: “The loved Jackson, the gloved Jackson, the wealthy Jackson, the bankrupt Jackson, the Motown Jackson, the moonwalking Jackson, the MTV Jackson, the despised Jackson, the genius, the mutant, the addict, the oddball, the victim, the black, the white, the creepy, the glorious, the pathetic, the gentle, the monster.”

Jackson may have the lead part in our thoughts about him but we, as fans, critics or casual listeners, are the writer-directors with the ability to frame him however we choose. Morley’s book is among the most honest pieces of music criticism I’ve read, and is full of rewarding insight almost in spite of itself – even if its central conclusion seems to be something as prosaic as that it’s all conjecture in the end.

And even conjecture ends eventually. It stops when a star ceases to shine: who wonders today about the innocence or guilt of Fatty Arbuckle, mentor of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and the biggest movie star of the 1910s, disgraced after accusations of rape and manslaughter? Scandals, if big enough, can erase the cultural imprint of a celebrity before its time. Gary Glitter was an important glam rocker, once, but few will remember him for that achievement, or at all, in a decade. But what of Michael Jackson? Will we always wonder? Will we believe his accusers, or not believe them, forever?

Joe Esposito died as a vocal Elvis loyalist in 2016 but had surprisingly little to say in public about his second king. Once, he told a third king, CNN’s Larry King: “People that know [Presley]… will never say a bad word about him; only people that don’t know him.” Though this isn’t exactly true, it makes me wonder whether a fan’s conviction of knowing – truly knowing – their idol, beyond the level of facts, on an almost spiritual plane, is what protects stars (and their legacies) from the consequences of their misdeeds. Maybe it’s why people take it so personally when stars are accused: a fan feels somehow implicated in that accusation. At any rate, there will be some who will never accept that Jackson was a scheming paedophile, and there will be others who take his guilt for granted.

I hope Safechuck and Robson manage to find whatever justice they deserve, but at this point only God knows what that might look like. When, a few years ago, Robson appeared on NBC’s Today show to speak out about the abuse for the first time, he said, “This is my truth.” It’s his truth. Other people will have their own.