I was a true believer back when the allegations first hit. I loved Michael Jackson with the bone-deep intensity only teenagers get to feel, when music feels important. When it feels tribal. When the heavy metal mob splits from the goths, when the indie kids look down on manufactured pop fans. His late-80s imperial phase turned me onto him but it was the Black Or White video that blew my mind, its broadcast a watercooler moment for the whole of my school; then the whole of my world. I spent the next couple of years in second-hand record stores, car boot sales and memorabilia fairs building a collection so obsessive it could have scored me a diagnosis and a decent whack of DLA.
When allegations of child molestation appeared I was so well insulated by fanboy loyalty it didn’t even occur to me to question his innocence. Of course it was bullshit. Of course it was a shakedown. It was another tabloid hitjob from the dirtbags who brought you the oxygen chamber and skin bleaching and the Elephant Man’s bones and 7,000 other malicious rumours I’d learned to put aside. When the accuser took a settlement; when the grand juries dead-ended; when witnesses dug up by the media were discredited; when it was alleged the boy’s disclosure came under the influence of sodium amytal; and when a tape emerged of the kid’s dad bragging about how rich he’d get if he could pull this off my insta-scepticism was satisfied. I moved on, yer man hit back with Scream and an album of self-righteously angry belters, and if he was diminished in the eyes of the world he wasn’t much changed in mine.
That was my starting point when the second round hit in 2003. Here was another bunch of tabloid bullshit, I figured, made in the aftermath of a documentary so skewed and dirty it instantly discredited itself. If I grimaced slightly at footage of a grown man holding hands with a child that wasn’t his and talking about the innocence and purity of their time in bed together, my Kool-Aid took away its aftertaste. And when the allegations made it to court and he was found not guilty I had something concrete to point to.
As the years passed I scattered my collection across eBay, he was killed by medical incompetence, the world seemed to realise what it’d missed and mistreated, and for a while there he was respectable again. But as the world got kinder to him, I got thinking. The further I got into child protection social work, the more I talked with children about their abuse experiences, the more I learned about men positioning themselves for access to children, the more uneasy I felt. The holes in the allegations were still there for me, but gradually I reached a point where I thought even if those allegations weren’t convincing there was probably something dodgy going on. But then if they weren’t convincing, there was no basis for thinking there was anything dodgy. This was the circle I chased myself round for years, copping out on the basis of the not guilty verdict because I didn’t want to lose his music.
In the age of #TimesUp and #MeToo, in the age of Trump and Kavanaugh, I’ve started from a point of belief with every new accusation. But I’ve realised how low the stakes have been for me. I wasn’t into Woody Allen, Bill Cosby hadn’t made me laugh for about 30 years, Harvey Weinstein didn’t cost me any movies. With the Leaving Neverland documentary about to hit, if I’m hashtagging #IBelieveHer I should #BelieveThemToo, the men who are talking now about the harm done to them by that singer I like. So why the unZeroish double standard? I think because selfishly, hypocritically, I can’t bear the loss.
The moonwalk. The Thriller video. The Smooth Criminal lean. The white glove. The black armband. The fedora. The popcorn-eating gif that’s been essential in the Trump era. That 11-year-old boy’s impossibly soulful take on Ain’t No Sunshine and Who’s Lovin’ You. The dozens and dozens of classic songs, spanning four decades. And all that’s basic. That’s entry-level pop-culture stuff. That shit’s for tourists. I can pinpoint my highlights down to seconds. I’m talking the Vertigo zoom in Thriller, the hard cut to Zombie Jacko, the little gasp he gives.
The little head bump in Remember The Time. The wink in Smooth Criminal, just before he defies gravity.
These riches that have kept me happy for 30 years – increasingly blindly and hypocritically – will be lost now. Because finally the walls I put up that allowed me to compartmentalise are coming down, giving way to what was always there. Because I think the man who did these amazing things also did the foulest things imaginable to children who trusted him. I think I’ve thought that for a long time, as probably millions of people have. We are the townsfolk in Derry, blind to Pennywise. And really you shouldn’t give two shits about the effort this has taken me, because against his victims’ experiences my loss is nothing. But God damn.
As this documentary hits, as these men tell their stories, I think… I think… #IBelieveThem. I think #TimesUp. I think I’ve been complicit, for years, up until about two minutes ago.
I think sometimes principles are a fucking bummer.
Photo credit: The Zero