“I don’t care what people do in relation to Michael Jackson and his music. What I’m interested in is continuing the conversation of who are we worshipping and why, and making people look at the whole story. Michael Jackson was incredibly talented, there’s no questioning that. But just because someone is talented doesn’t mean they’re not a predator.” Wade Robson.
Hanging is about the dangers of idolising pop musicians. The song was released in 2010, but has been on my mind a lot recently, partly because I’ve revisited/re-recorded it for a new album, partly because its subject matter is currently topical, thanks to Ryan Adams and Michael Jackson.
Last week I listened to Thriller for the first time. I hadn’t planned to, I was just driving across Lewis a couple of times and there were various CDs in the car that we’d bought in a charity shop a few months ago. I’d forgotten we even had a copy. It was strange, stumbling across this CD just as Leaving Neverland was about to be televised and everyone was talking about it. I wondered if I’d feel differently about these songs, most of which I knew from the radio, at this moment in time.
I didn’t, for the most part, although it made me think a lot about fandom. The first bands I loved as a teenager were A-ha, Prefab Sprout and the Pet Shop Boys. In each case it was partly because I felt a human connection to them. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe seemed ordinary and relatable, a music journalist and an aspiring architect. They were also from the north of England, like me (Newcastle and Blackpool). Paddy McAloon was another northerner, while A-ha were three Norwegians trying to make a life for themselves in the UK; a lot of their songs seemed quite melancholy and lonely, and the lyrics were clearly the work of people wrestling with an unfamiliar language. All three bands were funny and clever and self-deprecating in interviews, and seemed like people I might get along with if I met them. I saw a lot of myself in their songs.
On one level, then, I think I can understand why so many Michael Jackson fans are so hostile to Leaving Neverland, and are protesting his innocence even now. If I’d been told that Paddy McAloon or Neil Tennant had been abusing children, what would it be like to have to acknowledge this was true? Abusers are deeply manipulative, dishonest people. Would I feel that I’d also been manipulated and lied to for years? Would I feel somehow complicit in the abuse? Would I wonder what bad things I was capable of myself, given how much I’d related to these people and their music? Yes, yes and yes, probably. It would be a very difficult thing to accept.
On another level, though, I wonder what on earth goes through the minds of Michael Jackson fans. If you feel a strong connection to Jackson, what is the nature of that connection? What is it that you relate to in a multi-millionaire with a face systematically destroyed by cosmetic surgery, who lived alone in an estate designed like a children’s theme park, sharing his bedroom with other people’s children? How was that connection not severed in 1993, when Jackson paid $23 million to Jordy Chandler’s family after they accused him of child abuse (not the same as a guilty verdict, granted, but pretty damning)? How on earth has it not been severed now, when the evidence that he shattered the lives not just of children but of whole families is more compelling than ever?
As a teenager it would never have occurred to me to be a ‘fan’ of Michael Jackson, however much I liked some of his songs. It was partly because he was just so famous and ubiquitous – wouldn’t being a fan of Michael Jackson be like being a fan of shops, cars, or roads? But it was also the weird quasi-religiousness of it all, which always made me uncomfortable. Jackson’s public image often suggested he wanted to be seen as a kind of god, especially by the early 1990s, with songs like Heal the World and Earth Song, that ridiculous statue he floated along the Thames, the likening of himself to Jesus, the vainglorious performance at the 1996 Brit Awards, and the insistence on being referred to as the ‘King of Pop’. I’ve often wondered whether there’s a correlation between Michael Jackson fandom and religious observance. The relationship between him and his fans seemed more like a human/god dynamic than an equal exchange between kindred spirits.
A few days ago the comedian Pete Davidson made headlines by comparing the Catholic Church to R Kelly. My first reaction was that the joke would have been funnier if he’d said Michael Jackson. Catholic Church representatives sexually abused children for decades in plain sight, manipulating vulnerable boys in thrall to god-like power. The Vatican’s self-righteous demand for an apology from Davidson, ‘disgusted by the harassment by those in news and entertainment’, sounded very much like a statement from the Jackson estate.
After watching Leaving Neverland music journalist Laura Snapes wrote: “The irresistible power Jackson brought to his music is the same power he wielded to abuse children and hoodwink their families into letting him do so.” This, I’m assuming, is what Wade Robson meant when he said we should consider “who are we worshipping and why”. That said, the danger of focusing on obvious eccentrics like Michael Jackson is that it diverts attention from abusers like Ryan Adams, more outwardly ‘normal’ men who present themselves (like Jackson) as sensitive and vulnerable, but are actually calculating and exploitative.
Hanging wasn’t actually based on examples as extreme as Jackson or Adams (although a few lines in the song could apply to either of them). It was more that there were a lot of male singers around 2009 who prompted the sarcastic observation ‘he must be very sensitive to have come this far’, in other words a suspicion that, in order to succeed in their field, they couldn’t possibly be as sensitive as they made themselves out to be. The final section is about me worrying that I might be one of those singers, perhaps someone like Tucker Crowe from Nick Hornby’s book Juliet, Naked, a singer-songwriter who is admired for his sensitivity and emotional insight by a small following of mostly middle aged male music geeks, but is really a self-obsessed prick. That’s still an active concern ten years on. The lesson is that separating art from the artist is pretty much essential if you’re going to avoid disappointment.