The below was written for a Guardian feature about Michael Jackson but was cut for space. This version is longer.
Michael Jackson was as creative an abuser as he was a musician. Neverland was built for pedophilia—flowers and lakes for the parents, locks and secret rooms for the kids. We all failed to hear the smooth criminal telling us about his badness. Who travels with a series of ten-year-old boys, none of them family? Why did we let Michael fog our glasses with his special alien routine?
The Jackson estate has already filed a $100 million suit against HBO. They didn’t do this because of the stories Jimmy Safechuck and Wade Robson tell in Leaving Neverland, but because the documentary allegedly violates a non-disparagement agreement signed by HBO in 1992 when the network aired Michael Jackson Live In Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour. The estate can’t sue HBO or director Dan Reed for saying bad things about Michael because the dead are exempt from that legal protection. The estate can only crow about people either violating contracts or exploiting Michael’s name for money, even though neither Robson nor Safechuck received an upfront fee or points. What the Michael Jackson Company, Inc. will not be able to do, after Leaving Neverland airs, is plausibly claim that his accusers are lying. A rumor is a line of text, a stranger talking about another, an abstraction. Don’t like the accused? Let them embody your fears. Don’t like the accuser? You’ll never meet them—tear them apart on YouTube.
Axiomatic questions like “What to do with a problematic artist?” are besides the point. As long as the subjects involved are dead or distant, these discussions are governed by affection and bias. The responses form meaningless patterns. The testimony of the survivors in Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland ends water cooler games. Anyone who finds their strength in another’s weakness is fighting time, and that has never been a bettor’s pick. Someone’s truth, told in their voice, will break any hand that stays it.