I was DJing on the night Michael Jackson died. In the basement of The Social near Oxford Circus. Around 8pm, friends and punters started giving me rumours from the hospital via TMZ. When it was confirmed, I played the acapella of ‘You Are Not Alone’ through layers of slightly ghostly echo. It seemed fitting at the time.
Now, having watched a screening of a forthcoming documentary film about two young boys close to Jackson, I’m not sure I ever want to hear his music played out again. I know this sounds extreme, but I honestly think you’ll feel the same, very soon.
Set to show on Channel 4 next week, ‘Leaving Neverland’ is a four-hour HBO/Channel 4 doc that lets two men – an American, James Safechuck, and an Australian, Wade Robson – tell their unconnected but darkly similar life stories, having encountered Jackson aged ten and seven respectively.
Both were publicly and visibly child companions of Jackson in his late-’80s megastar heyday, accompanying him on tours, in TV interviews, adverts and more. Both claim they endured HORRIFIC sexual and emotional abuse by Jackson, the details of which are ghastly and intensely shocking. Too shocking for us to print, I’m sorry to say. (For the record, the Jackson estate denies all the film’s allegations and has called the documentary a ‘tabloid character assassination’)
Now, if you love MJ’s music, your impulse might well be to avoid this film. To turn a blind eye to the colossal depravity alleged in it. To continue to stifle the hunch many of us have about him – based on decades of rumours and allegations, evidence from investigations and a trial, plus his very public, unashamed interest in children.
But I’m here to tell you that’s not an option. If you love his music, you can’t run away from the film’s claims about paedophilia. Honestly, what’s more important: music or serious allegations of child abuse? How can there be any debate here? I own the bulk of Jackson’s work on vinyl. I’ve loved his music my entire life, but having seen this film there’s simply no choice. It’s time to stop listening to Michael Jackson.
You might think it’s a waste of time to boycott a dead person’s music. But there’s a greater reason why I think the music is done. Jackson’s biggest accomplice in becoming what the film’s director Dan Reed calls ‘a criminal sexual predator’ was his fame. He allegedly used it to dazzle parents with opportunities and wow children to the point of devotion. But like democratic power, fame is something that we the people bestow. And we can take it back.
Carrying on partying to his music sends out the message that we as a society are cool with allegations of child abuse. Doing nothing sends the message to the next powerful and abusive man (it will obviously be a man) that if they couldn’t even be bothered to cancel Michael Jackson, nobody is ever going to stop him. Victims of abuse need our solidarity. They don’t need club after club humming to the sound of an alleged rapist. It’s time to stop listening to Michael Jackson.
Luckily, I genuinely believe this city’s music and nightlife community has the strength and morality to respond to this extraordinary issue. Take London’s clubbing scene, which has proved to be a staggeringly progressive force in European culture in the last ten years. It’s worked better than any section of the entertainment industry to promote gender equality, respect LGBT+ creativity and – relevant to MJ – take a moral stand against artists who are proved to be sexist, bigoted or abusive. Put simply: if an artist fucks up, the scene will shun you. Period.
Techno producer Ten Walls never got a gig again after he made outrageously homophobic comments. Ditto, arena-packing DJ Jackmaster after he admitted to being abusive at a festival. Azealia Banks called Zayn Malik ‘curry-scented… Punjab… dirty bitch’ and immediately got dropped as a headliner. And so on. With respect to my fellow Time Out section editors, this kind of decisive moral activity is still rare in the worlds of food, bars, comedy, movies and art.
Off the record, DJs I’ve spoken to recently have already started saying goodbye to their disco edits of ‘Rock with You’, prizing ‘Off the Wall’ out of their record boxes, deleting ‘PYT’ from their memory sticks. I can’t stress how much this is for your own good. After this film, you will not want to listen to Michael Jackson on the dancefloor, at a wedding, at a club, anywhere.
I think it’s essential that ‘Leaving Neverland’ sparks so much outrage that a movement for change begins straight away. Yet outrage itself is a complicated issue in 2019. Take a common reaction to any artist accused of wrongdoing, which goes: ‘But this is hypocritical. If we censor X, then surely we should censor Y and Z too?’ Yes, it’s true that hypocrisies occur. For instance, there’s no mob of people trying to purge the music of David Bowie, despite a well-known claim that he took a 15-year-old’s virginity in California during the early ’70s – which under state law would classify Bowie as a rapist. That’s undeniably a double standard, but it shouldn’t stop us getting mad about Jackson.
When conversations around abuse and morality explode and become newsworthy, they genuinely have the ability to affect the way the world thinks. This is finally happening with R Kelly, whose alleged sexual abuse victims are only now being supported by the mainstream. This is also happening with Ryan Adams, who’s been accused of being deeply abusive to young female fans and respected fellow artists alike. Hypocrisy is a small price to pay if victims are finally being believed, if marginalised voices are being heard. Don’t we all now wish we’d supported sooner the brave people who spoke out about Jimmy Savile? Or Bill Cosby? Or Gary Glitter? For the chance to show support with victims alone, it’s time to stop listening to Michael Jackson.
If you’ve read all this and think I’m overreacting, see the film and make up your own mind. If you’re cynically minded and instinctively think the two men are liars (or just after money, a picture Jackson habitually tried to paint of any accuser), see the film and make up your own mind. Yes, Michael Jackson made some of the finest music ever recorded, but it’s not enough any more. Letting his songs stay ingrained in the fabric of our society says that our society is morally dead.
‘Leaving Neverland’ will be shown in two parts on Channel 4 on Mar 6 and Mar 7.