It’s nowhere near the most disturbing moment in Leaving Neverland, but somehow it’s the one that’s remained etched in my brain: fans reacting to Michael Jackson’s death, grown men and women crying in the streets as though there’d been a natural disaster or a mass shooting. The moment comes near the end of Dan Reed’s HBO documentary detailing Wade Robson’s and James Safechuck’s accusations that Michael Jackson preyed upon them as children. And it’s rendered as one of those monocultural instances of collective grieving; you imagine people remember where they were when they got the news.
In the film, the reaction to Jackson’s death stands out against what’s come before it. We’ve spent the past three-plus hours hearing stomach-turning tales of Jackson’s monstrosity. And then Jackson dies, and people react as though we’ve lost a national hero. The juxtaposition serves to implicate everyone. By the time of his death on June 25, 2009, Jackson had been through two court cases in which young boys had accused him of child sexual abuse. We, like the boys’ mothers, knew that Jackson was fond of befriending children, and even sleeping in the same bed with them. We knew his behavior was erratic and, at times, extremely concerning. But the same celebrity worship that led people to treat Jackson’s death as though it were a tragedy made us overlook the actual tragedy that came at the hands of Jackson.
The reaction to Jackson’s death also stood out for me, though, because it seemed so out of step with the Jackson I had experienced. By the time I was aware of Michael Jackson, he was already a punchline, a go-to “NAME” you’d use in games of Mad Libs. The late Jackson, with his stub of a nose and hollow cheeks, looked on the verge of disintegration; his white glove and Peter Pan estate made him seem clownish; his high voice and trademark he-yip made him ripe for impersonation. I associated Jackson more with the eccentric caricature parodied by South Park and Eminem’s “Just Lose It” video than with the larger-than-life pop superstar he had once been.
As it turns out, the best cleaning agent for a reputation is death. In an instant, Jackson the Pop King overtook Wacko Jacko in the cultural imagination. We walked back a couple decades of troubling behavior as nimbly as Jackson famously executed the moonwalk. At Jackson’s star-studded funeral, Reverend Al Sharpton gave a speech in which he told Jackson’s children, “Wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with.” And when a big Michael Jackson tribute concert was held in 2011, Beyoncé performed. So did Christina Aguilera, CeeLo Green, and Smokey Robinson.
For nearly ten years now, we’ve lived with a sanitized image of Michael Jackson. To invoke Michael Jackson has been to invoke his power and grace, his status as the King of Pop, not his strange, frightening metamorphosis, the court cases, or the questions to which we didn’t want answers. And perhaps as a result, his influence has swelled. Blatant stylistic descendants, like The Weeknd and Bruno Mars, have risen to prominence since Jackson’s death, modernizing Jackson’s smooth, catchy pop R&B for a new generation. And Jackson has become an invaluable sample.
But Jackson’s impact has also been felt in more unexpected places. Jackson is a commonly cited influence for the rising generation of hip-hop stars, artists who are largely too young to recall Jackson in his heyday, and in some cases too young to recall much of Jackson at all. Artists like Drake (who just cut his posthumous Jackson track “Don’t Matter to Me” from his tour set list), Trippie Redd, Swae Lee, YNW Melly, Quavo, A$AP Rocky, and A Boogie wit da Hoodie have all professed their admiration for Jackson in recent years. Lee even dressed up as him for Halloween a couple years a