Saturday, March 09, 2019

Does Leaving Neverland mean we've adored our last pop star?

I watched the whole of the first part of Leaving Neverland. Then I watched the whole of the second part. Finally I watched Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, the two men whose recollections of their time in Michael Jackson’s retinue of pretty young boys make up the film.

Before I watched it I wondered why it needed to be four hours long. Afterwards I thought the length amply justified. The film needs the time to take you through the experience of the boys as they and their parents were slowly lured into an unfamiliar world of unbelievable privilege and fathomless indulgence, as they were made to feel that they were among the Elect and their first duty was to protect the misunderstood demi-God who had put them there; as slowly, friendship turned to wooing and wooing turned to touching and then outright abuse in the many hiding places afforded by a sinister palace like Neverland. It’s a gradual process, which I gather is standard in these cases.

You’d have to be either a purblind fan or in some way financially dependent on the Jackson estate not to believe these two men. The film and the Oprah interview explain why they might have given contrary testimony in the past and also makes it clear they were not paid for their participation in the film. And even if they were no amount of money could possibly compensate them for the death threats they seem to be on the receiving end of today.

Was I shocked? After the supposedly clean-living River Phoenix was found dead on the pavement outside the Viper Room I stopped being shocked by the things that very famous people are capable of concealing from the public. And River Phoenix couldn’t buy anything like as much privacy and looking the other way as Michael Jackson could.

I didn’t feel betrayed either. Certainly not in the way many other, younger people have been. I couldn't be betrayed because I was never devoted.

I don’t believe you can ever be a fan of anybody who’s younger than you are. The only people you really look up to are the people who were already stars during your formative years. I was already an adult when the young Jackson started his career and so there’s always been a certain amount of detachment to my admiration of his gifts.

One of the things that comes through in the film is that Jackson had two gears. The first was "I love everybody in the world and I want them to love me" and the other could be perfectly expressed in the sentence he uttered to one of the parents, "I always get what I want".

I don't believe in the banning of music – or anything else for that matter. However I'm glad I don't have any shares in Jackson's catalogue because he and his music are about to disappear from the airwaves and streams, if not for ever then certainly for the next few years. Even the charity shops will be having to decide how they feel about selling all the copies of "Thriller" that are bound to be traded in.

Is it possible to separate the man and the music? Yes, it should be. Problem is the world which made Jackson a superstar operated on the principle "love me, love my music". His personality was baked in to ever last note. Every video Jackson made was an advertisement for himself. It was an invitation to join in his adoration. There was no modesty in his make-up, false or otherwise. In his case people are going to find it harder than ever to separate the music from the persona and the persona from the culprit.

My new book "A Fabulous Creation" is all about the age of the LP, which began with "Sgt Pepper" in 1967 and finished, for a variety of reasons, with "Thriller" in 1982. Jackson set out to make "Thriller" the biggest album in history and he succeeded. Everything he did was designed to make him the biggest. Being the biggest mattered to him in a way that it doesn't matter to most stars.

After watching Leaving Neverland we can only conclude that the biggest star in pop has also turned out to be its biggest creep. He believed what Goebbels believed – that if you're going to tell a lie, you may as well tell a big one. A lot of people believed it. Some still do. You have to wonder if they really do in their heart of hearts. As the producer of the film says to Oprah Winfrey, "all these people rushing to his defence – how could they possibly know what went on behind closed doors?"

Fandom's a kind of madness. All too easily it spills over from liking somebody's music and the way they do their hair into a blind belief that everything they do is beyond question. To some extent idols have always let us down. But in the past they've let us down gently. That's not the case here. After Leaving Neverland I find myself wondering. Have we adored our last pop star?


  1. With the possible exception of Billie Jean, Jackson's music has never done it for me. Your book, 'Nothing is Real', however, is extremely enjoyable, as have been the two before this. And now another new one to look forward to. Will pre-order directly!

  2. Having grabbed an advance copy (as an unexpected but hugely welcome benefit of fourth-estate membership), I'm thoroughly enjoying A Fabulous Creation; I think it might be your best yet, which is a high bar.

    The Jackson documentary was genuinely stunning, especially for parents left wondering at which point we'd have had the steel nerve to drag our own starry-eyed groomees away kicking and screaming.

    As for being a fan of someone younger, there might - just about - be an exception for footballers. I've certainly felt very fondly for some born well after me – although on reflection I doubt such affections had quite the white heat of youth. (Does anything, once we've rounded the block a few times?)