There’s No Severing Michael Jackson’s Art From His Obsession With Children

It’s in his songs. It’s in his videos. You’ll never hear him the same way again.

Michael Jackson with Macaulay Culkin in the video for "Black Or White."
Michael Jackson with Macaulay Culkin in the video for “Black or White.” Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photo by Michael Jackson/YouTube.

When I was a young child in the mid-1980s, I had a book on tape of a kiddie novelization of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. I had probably listened to the thing hundreds of times before I ever even saw the movie. E.T. was one of those things where if you were a certain age at a certain time, you just knew everything about it through cultural osmosis. The album was a well-produced affair, full of sound effects and scoring, and came with a read-along book with stills from the movie and text that a child (or beleaguered parent) could use to follow along with the recording. It was narrated by Michael Jackson, who was, at the time I was listening, the most famous person in the world—I’m pretty sure I knew who Michael Jackson was before I even knew who E.T. was.

In retrospect this is all a little weird—after all, Michael Jackson isn’t even in E.T., and in 2019 it’s hard to imagine such a major pop star signing on to narrate the audiobook for a novelization of a kids’ movie. (He went on to win the Grammy for Best Recording for Children, an award no comparable idol has ever won.) And while my own memories of this book are probably from around 1984 or 1985, I recently learned that it came out in late 1982—a few weeks prior to the release of Thriller. In other words, Jackson made the E.T. album when he was certainly very famous but before he was the most famous person on Earth, which suddenly made the whole thing feel much more bizarre to me. What I’d long assumed to be a “natural” pairing of the biggest pop star in the world narrating the biggest movie in the world now struck me as something more calculated.

A photo of Michael Jackson and E.T. from the audiobook for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
A photo of Michael Jackson and E.T. from the audiobook for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. MCA

I’ve found myself thinking about all this a lot since I first saw Leaving Neverland. It’s impossible to watch Dan Reed’s film and the testimonies of its protagonists, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, in good faith without concluding that Michael Jackson molested children, and did so repeatedly, methodically, and remarkably flagrantly. It’s this last part—flagrantly—that has most haunted me since watching the film. As Slate’s Sam Adams wrote in his review of the film, Jackson comes off as “a Pied Piper who, it now seems, was masking his abuse by parading it in plain sight.” One way Jackson did this was by constructing one of the most unusual celebrity personae in history, the King of Pop whose most prized court members were, unfailingly, young children.

Children and childhood loom enormously over the whole of Michael Jackson’s work. No other adult pop star has ever been so blatantly preoccupied with children and childish things—I can’t think of another who’s even in the remote vicinity. Particularly from the mid-1980s onward, children are everywhere in Jackson’s audiovisual oeuvre, deployed incessantly as sidekicks, props, and foils. There’s the strange centrality of children to the Moonwalker film and particularly the “Smooth Criminal” segment that serves as its centerpiece; the Macaulay Culkin cameo at the top of the video for “Black or White”; the video for “Will You Be There” from the Free Willy soundtrack that juxtaposed images of Jackson with images of orca whales and the film’s young male protagonist. This continued up to the end of his life. The 2009 runup to Jackson’s planned series of comeback concerts in London included reports of the singer’s demand for a choir of “clean-cut” children of “mixed ethnicity” who would perform his songs in sign language.

MJ Reckoning

Each of these spectacles taken on its own would seem innocent enough (well, Moonwalker would still be pretty weird), but taken as a whole—along with the many, many other instances of this sort of thing in Jackson’s work—the pattern becomes overwhelming. A coterie of kids was simply part of Michael Jackson’s iconography, and this was so true for so long that we rarely stepped back to consider just how unusual it was. Sure, there were jokes and rumors and even the occasional accusation, but mostly there were excuses, halfhearted explanations and rationalizations that did just enough to lower the fleeting raised eyebrow.

Two of these stand out. The first was gesturing toward Jackson’s much-publicized charitable work. He founded the Heal the World Foundation (named after one of his own songs) dedicated to alleviating global poverty and illness among children, and established the Michael Jackson Burn Center for Children at what was at the time the Brotman Medical Center in Los Angeles County. He donated profits from “Man in the Mirror” to Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, for children with cancer. In light of such activities, Jackson’s preoccupation with children was often cast as an eccentric but ultimately benevolent quirk of an eccentric but ultimately benevolent entertainer.

In reality, it appears these endeavors created a blurring of Jackson’s charitable work with children and the more sinister sides of his fascination, which undoubtedly worked to his advantage. One of the most sickening things about Leaving Neverland is its forceful implication that all of these endeavors, charitable and non-, were effectively grooming grounds for Jackson’s alleged victims. James Safechuck met Jackson while filming a Pepsi commercial, and while still a child he became part of his stage shows; Wade Robson entered Jackson’s orbit as an onstage gimmick on the Bad tour and was then lured to Los Angeles under the impression that he would have a starring role in the “Black or White” video (a part that ultimately went to Culkin, to Robson’s crushing disappointment). And Gavin Arvizo, Jackson’s accuser in his 2005 molestation trial, was a cancer patient who’d been introduced to Neverland under the auspices of Jackson’s charitable work.

The second, and even more powerful, way of sidestepping the topic was by appealing to Jackson’s own history—and, by extension, ours. Before he was the King of Pop, Michael Jackson was the greatest child star of the post–World War II era. As the lead singer of the Jackson 5, he recorded four No. 1 singles before he turned 12 years old, an astonishing achievement that also feels vaguely amoral. In her short and terrific book On Michael Jackson, Margo Jefferson connects Jackson’s child stardom to the 19th-century institutions of the minstrel show and the Barnumesque “freak” show, a late-20th-century vestige of the violently racist and exploitative roots of the American entertainment industry itself. These are legacies that many Americans have taken great pains to avoid reckoning with, but Jackson made their scars feel unusually present, even if only subconsciously. And of course there was the real physical and emotional abuse that Jackson and his siblings allegedly suffered as children at the hands of their father, details of which first became public in the 1980s.

Much of Jackson’s adult behavior thus became submerged under a vague, collective guilt. Michael Jackson never got to have a childhood, we told ourselves, because we’d taken it from him. All the sleepovers at Neverland and pubescent “traveling companions” were recompense for a childhood denied to him by his father, by Motown, by the insatiable appetites of popular culture and those who consume it. The original sin, in this telling, was our own, his unseemly activities a penance we had to endure for the unsurpassed pleasures of “I Want You Back” and everything that followed it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the biggest proponents of this narrative was Michael Jackson himself. Jackson himself spoke openly and often of not having had a childhood, and framed his interactions with children as a sort of vicarious form of redress. Explaining Neverland Ranch to CBS’s Ed Bradley in 2003, Jackson remarked, “I wanted to have a place that I could create everything that I never had as a child. So, you see rides. You see animals. There’s a movie theater. I was always on tour, traveling. You know? And—I never got a chance to do those things. … And we have busloads of kids, who don’t get to see those things. They come up sick children, and enjoy it. They enjoy it in a pure, loving, fun way. It’s people with the dirty mind that think like that.”

The logo for the Heal the World for Children Organization.
The logo for the Heal the World for Children Organization. Heal the World for Children

These types of statements would come up again and again in defenses of Jackson, from himself, from his various advocates, even from this very publication. Their oversimplicity both exploits and assuages that looming sense of collective guilt: They feel true. He gave up his childhood for us. We did this to him. It’s only when you are faced with the reality of the toxic manipulation and control allegedly wielded by Jackson behind closed doors—examples of which Leaving Neverland offers no shortage—that the self-pity starts to curdle into something more monstrous. Michael Jackson may not have had a childhood, or at least not the one he thought he wanted, but that didn’t give him the right to anyone else’s.

One of the hardest questions in all of this is where to go from here. Jackson’s influence over global popular culture is so massive that to even try to erase him would render the entire enterprise incoherent. My favorite Jackson album is Off the Wall, his 1979 masterpiece that was the first of his collaborations with Quincy Jones. It was recorded when Jackson was 20 and remains, to my ears, the most mature work of art he ever created. There’s an undeniably adult sexuality that pulses through tracks like “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” “Off the Wall,” and “I Can’t Help It” that’s rarely heard elsewhere in Jackson’s work, including Thriller. (Look no further than “Billie Jean,” maybe the most famous song ever written about not having sex with someone.)

Off the Wall also contains “She’s Out of My Life,” a pristine lament written by Tom Bahler that’s one of the best ballads Jackson ever performed. It’s a corny but sparkling piece of music and Jackson sings the hell out of it, until the song’s end, when something truly bizarre happens: He starts audibly crying, in a moment so jarring that Eddie Murphy did a whole stand-up routine about it four years after Off the Wall came out. It’s an immature and startlingly unmusical simulation of vulnerability, a stagey piece of manipulation that doesn’t even seem sure of whom or what it’s trying to manipulate. It sounds like a little kid, or like someone pretending to be a little kid. I can’t listen to it right now, and I’m not sure when I’ll be able to again.