We may never resolve our conflicted feelings about Michael Jackson

The King of Pop is dead, long live the king, chant Michael Jackson’s die-hard fans. The king is dead, may he and his music end up in the dustbin of history, taunt his critics. 

It’s been 10 years since Jackson died and his legacy, reinvigorated in the wake of his demise, is once again being challenged as fans and critics alike grapple with conflicting feelings about the late superstar. (He died June 25, 2009, at his home in Los Angeles of a drug overdose administered by his doctor. He was 50.)

So which is it going to be? Is it possible to love and listen to (and buy) Jackson’s remarkable body of music – and also believe he molested little boys, as the recent HBO film “Leaving Neverland” alleged? 

“It’s the challenge of holding two opposing ideas in your head at the same time,” says Mark Feldstein, a University of Maryland journalism professor who teaches about the Jackson case in his popular “Scandals” class.

Or will we always view Jackson through an extreme either/or lens: He’s either an innocent naif and musical genius – or he was a wicked predator and let’s burn all his records.

Ten years may not be enough time yet to work this out, what with Jackson fans and critics occupying hostile camps and lobbing toxic tweets at each other.

Michael Jackson in 1996, three years after the superstar was accused of child molestation in a civil suit. He settled out of court and no criminal charges were brought in the case. (Photo: Vincent Amalvy/AFP/Getty Images)

USA TODAY reached out to the Jackson estate (which labeled the “Neverland” film a “public lynching” and has sued HBO) to ask if it planned to mark the anniversary. Spokeswoman Diana Baron says she does not believe people are conflicted about Jackson, citing statistics she says prove he’s still a superstar. 

As an example, she says, Jackson’s Facebook page has more than 72 million followers, “up 2 million from a year ago,” and his Instagram account now has 3.2 million followers, which she says represents “20% growth over the last six months.”

Maybe more to the point in the social-media era is that nobody is pushing a successful campaign to get Jackson and his music banned from the public square. Gregory Tate, a writer (“Flyboy in the Buttermilk”) and cultural critic, says he still hears Jackson’s music everywhere.

“It’s being proven every day that his music legacy will survive,” Tate says. “The public has already made its stand because (the music) comes on in all kinds of public places and no one is saying turn that off.”

The most significant backlash possibly traced to “Neverland” is that a Jackson family film on the 50th anniversary of The Jackson 5 is in limbo. A network backed out after the HBO film aired, according to producer Jodi Gomes, who worked on TV’s “The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty” and “The Jacksons: An American Dream,” in an interview with The Associated Press. 

Baron also cites other entertainers who have recently expressed support for Jackson or acknowledged his influence, including Madonna, who told British Vogue that “people are innocent until proven guilty,” and Chance the Rapper, who told NME that Jackson is his biggest inspiration in blending music with philanthropy.

Barbra Streisand is facing criticism for her eyebrow-raising take on the Michael Jackson HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland," saying she has a "combination of feelings." Nathan Rousseau Smith has the story.
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Jackson’s youngest sister, pop star Janet Jackson, said in a rare interview that she believes his legacy will live on. 

“It will continue,” she told The Sunday Times of London. “I love it when I see kids emulating him, when adults still listen to his music. It just lets you know the impact that my family has had on the world. I hope I’m not sounding arrogant in any way – I’m just stating what is.”

But some people have been conflicted about Jackson ever since he was tried and acquitted on separate molestation charges in 2005, four years before his death. The “Neverland” film only raised the ugly questions again. 

“I am not sure people will ever really resolve their feelings,” says Allan Mayer, co-CEO of 42West, a major entertainment public-relations firm in Los Angeles and New York, who is a former journalist-turned-crisis management expert. (Years ago, he briefly represented one of the two accusers of Jackson in the “Neverland” film.) 

“At the end of the day, people believe what they want to believe,” Mayer says. “And there are enough facts (available) so they can pick and choose what they want to believe. It’s what psychologists call ‘confirmation bias,’ and we’re all guilty of that to a greater or lesser extent.”

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Even a confirmed fan like Margo Jefferson, author of the biography/cultural study “On Michael Jackson,” a former New York Times critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer, told the Times she is working on a new introduction to her book inspired by “Neverland.”

She doesn’t believe fans can separate his music from the allegations, but she believes people could “get wiser” about holding conflicting opinions, feelings and sets of facts simultaneously.

She says Jackson’s death “allowed the (music) canon simultaneously to re-acknowledge the greatness of his art and to look at him as a damaged, harmed and harming person,” Jefferson told The Guardian in 2018. “I have to live with, and keep analyzing, this contradiction. In deciding I love Michael Jackson, I take it all in – his music, the crimes he may have committed, his inner turmoil. I need the pleasure and the complications he gives me.”

Meanwhile, the power of the internet and social media give anyone a chance to comment, to spread and to pick and choose what to believe, Mayer says. 

“In previous eras there were scattered, disparate groups with (views not widely shared) but they had no impact on society as a whole and were easily dismissed, thought of as outliers,” Mayer says. “Now, because of social media and the internet, they can come together and they’re not outliers anymore. … If you are a Michael Jackson fan looking for reasons not to abandon your idol, you’re getting psychological ammunition” to stick with him.

On the other hand, one scandal may quickly replace another – because another scandal always comes along, says Feldstein. 

Michael Jackson's gold casket, topped with a huge spray of flowers and a crown, rests at his funeral service at Glendale (Calif.) Forest Lawn Memorial Park on Sept. 3, 2009. (Photo: AFP/HARRISON FUNK/THE JACKSON FAMILY)

“These tsunamis of scandal spread instantly, globally and vociferously because everyone has a chance to comment and spread it, and that tends to make these things bigger,” Feldstein says. “But it also tends to make them shorter because there are so many of these scandals erupting that we can’t sustain the outrage for so long.”

Opinions about Jackson are especially intense, Mayer believes, in part because pop-music stars worm their way into hearts and minds when their audience is young.

“They tend to hit us emotionally when we’re still forming personalities, so they take outsized space in our psyches,” he says. “If we’ve put a lot of psychological or emotional investment in someone and then we find out years later he’s not who we thought, it’s asking a lot of someone to reject that investment.”

Tate says that “music just works in a way that has nothing to do with the person and persona of the artist – you associate it with some of the best times in your life and you’re immediately caught up in the rapture of the songs.” 

Thus, Mayer says, there are plenty of smart, sophisticated people who refuse to believe Jackson (or other accused entertainers and political figures) ever did anything wrong – to the enraged bafflement of accusers who can’t understand why their testimony is being rejected.

“That is, for better or worse, human nature,” he says. “There are narratives we create to get through life and it’s not just a matter of weighing up the facts on a scale and going in the direction that falls heavily on the facts.”

Michael Jackson accuser Wade Robson, left, with "Leaving Neverland" director Dan Reed and fellow accuser James Safechuck. (Photo: TAYLOR JEWELL/INVISION/AP)

British filmmaker Dan Reed, who directed “Neverland,” told Vulture in January that he set out to change public perceptions about Jackson “because of his presence in the fabric of American life and people’s lives worldwide.” He acknowledged that one consequence of things like the film is “the lights have gone out” in the cultural space for many music fans. 

“And it’s part of this era where we’re suddenly having our eyes opened about all sorts of people to whom we looked up,” he said. “Institutions that we thought would always be there to protect us are being challenged. It’s a time of re-evaluation.”

But will cultural historians of the future, near or far, re-evaluate Jackson’s music?

Feldstein thinks that all of the current furious debate about Jackson will eventually fade “but the music will endure.” 

He believes the latest surge of “historical revisionism” about Jackson might have more to do with the needs of the moment, especially the influence of the #MeToo movement, when so much in the culture is being re-evaluated and “refracted” through a lens of calling out alleged sexual misconduct.

“But this moment will pass and (sexual misconduct) will not be as unique a litmus test the way it is in the moment,” Feldstein says. “Ultimately, (Jackson) will be remembered mostly for the music, with a little bit of awareness of the allegations.” 

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