I did something stupid. I forgot, for about 10 years, that Michael Jackson was a pedophile.
When the documentary — which focuses on two of Michael’s victims, Wade Robson and James Safechuck — debuted earlier this month, it relaunched the conversation that the “Smooth Criminal” singer was not only a musical genius, but first and foremost, a child predator.
As for why it took us as a society so long to remember that Michael Jackson was an abuser, I guess we can chalk it up to denial. Not wanting it to be true. Not willing to let our favorite music be ruined. The usual, stupid, inexcusable blinders.
Society, Michael Jackson fans, the general public — we weren’t the only ones unwilling to label Michael Jackson as a pedophile. Wade Robson, who alleges Michael abused him from age seven to 14, acted as Michael’s star character witness in his 2005 child sex abuse trial. He vehemently denied that Michael ever touched him inappropriately until 2013.
By the time Robson came forward about his sexual abuse, Michael had been long-dead and judges said too much time had passed in order for the Jackson estate to be held liable. Robson’s case was thrown out.
If it sounds like a familiar story, maybe it’s because the women R. Kelly is allegedly holding hostage are also unwilling to face the reality of their abuse. Robson himself said it best on The Today Show in 2013, when he went public with his allegations,
“I never forgot one moment of what Michael did to me, but was psychologically and emotionally completely unable and unwilling to understand that it was sexual abuse.”
With so many parallels between the R. Kelly case and the Michael Jackson child sex abuse allegations, you’d think it’d be easy to come to the same conclusion about both musicians. R. Kelly manipulated, abused, and hurt underage women; Michael Jackson sexually abused young boys. Yet, I struggled.
Why was I so willing to believe R. Kelly abuses women but, in comparison, struggled to rebrand Michael Jackson in my brain? Not as a musical genius or icon, but as a predator?
Maybe because I idolized Michael Jackson in a way I never idolized R. Kelly. Or maybe because I remember sitting on my living room couch in June 2009, watching Brooke Shields eulogize her friend Michael and hearing Usher’s voice crack as he crooned, “Gone Too Soon” over the casket. Maybe I remember the dialogue, the national conversation that was Michael Jackson’s death — how it centered around his iconicity, the charts, the records broken, his single-handed gloves, red leather jackets, the This Is Us touring footage cut off too abruptly…
Perhaps we were brainwashed into remembering Michael Jackson a certain way. After the allegations, the trials, the court dates, Michael Jackson was hated by many people. (Of course, there were always ardent fans and believers who defended Michael, just as many defended R. Kelly for years). But by the time Michael died, it was like the general public had forgotten it all.
Headlines stopped calling him “Wack-O Jack-O” and the focus shifted to his contributions to the music industry again. The dancing, the choreography, the singing, the stage presence; “Bad,” “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” “Black and White…” We remembered it all. Just like that, the focus on Michael Jackson shifted to all the good he did instead of the unforgivable.
Unlike Michael, R. Kelly is facing serious, long-term consequences for his actions. For one thing, Kelly is still alive. And for another, Kelly’s finances and career are taking a hit. He faces severe repercussions in his career, with Spotify pulling his songs from marketed playlists and radio stations ending his radio play. Even concert venues have canceled R. Kelly’s shows and the overall consensus is that the world is ready to Mute R. Kelly.
But I wonder: Will we ever be ready to face Michael’s crimes and by the same logic, Mute Michael Jackson?
Michael Jackson: the most awarded recording artist in the history of pop, the recipient of Most Successful Entertainer of All Time award, the 13-time Grammy award winner, not including both his Grammy Legend Award and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Are we ready to mute “The Man in the Mirror?”
Radio stations in both Canada and New Zealand have pulled Michael Jackson’s discography from their radio stations after the debut of Leaving Neverland. But stations in the US are a bit more hesitant. Cumulus Media, the second-largest radio station in America, is leaving the decision to its local stations but issued a statement saying it “is never in favor of censorship.”
Maybe we’re taking the steps to Mute Michael Jackson. Or maybe we’re just not ready to see it for what it was. Because facing the truth means coming to terms with what Michael did to young boys.
It’s easier to be in denial about it. When we’re in denial, we don’t automatically have to conflate Michael’s music to his abuse.
But what he did to young, impressionable boys is more important than any music he made, any awards he received. It’s difficult for us to wrap our heads around the truth of Michael Jackson because we love him. Reconciling with the fact that Michael was an abuser removes a veil and tarnishes the Michael we thought we knew, even if we only knew him through Pepsi commercials and records.
What does it say about us, as a society, that so many of us are unwilling to even hear that Michael was capable of such abuse? What does it say about me that I can understand R. Kelly’s crimes, but struggle with accepting Michael’s?
I think it’s a testament to star power. In our society, man can be made into a god, solely because of talent. Celebrities can get to a level of “untouchability,” and we forget they are human, subject to the same laws and rules we are.
Michael was too successful, too loving, too generous. He became an idol to many; not a person. He moved people with song, with dance, with odd but likable charm, and with one white glove. His career touched everyone. And so, we made him into a deity.
Though he may have been an incredibly talented and beloved artist, Michael Jackson was still first and foremost, an abuser. And it’s about time we call a spade a spade.
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Steph Osmanski is a freelance writer and social media consultant who specializes in health and wellness content. Her words have appeared in Seventeen, Life & Style, Darling Magazine, and more. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton and writing a memoir.