We all know that periods of time get names. There are the decades like the roaring 20’s or the great depression in America’s 1930s. Artistic styles are also name periods of creation baroque, rococo. There may be more scientific namings, covering great swathes of time in geology before humans even graced the planet, or by people who were alive, defined by the narrowness of a kingly or queenly reign. There are so many ways to name any kind of time frame, decade, century or the amount of time it takes for a continent to break up and move away from itself. One thing all these names have in common is it is rarely those who are alive at the time who get to do the nameing.
So what may the future decide to name now? What will be the most defining element of the lives we are currently living? If we focus purely on the genre of crime I propose that this may be called an era of hindsight, or reckoning. One in which we have had to come to terms with the fact our sometimes willfull blindness as a society has allowed abuse to flourish. Wether it is against children, other ethnicities, or in the workplace, we are more aware than ever that these things happen, when before they were uncerimoniously swept under the carpet or hushed up.
We are not yet out of this age though, perhapse only part of the way through it. Because while we have now all woken up to the abuse that can so easily happen we are still as a culture or society a bit confused about how we can deal with it. Nowhere are we more confused than when it comes to a great artist, in the broadest sense of the word. A person whoes work has become so ubiquitous or well loved that large amounts of people form varying degrees of parasocial relationship with them. That invisible bond means that many people feel much more investment in that person, in their success, in the narrative of their life than they do for others whom they have the same amount or sometimes even more day-to-day contact. This means the shock of their fall can reverberate through people in a way it would never happen for less public figuers.
There have always been people of extream talent who have done bad things. Caravaggio, who painted wonderfully dark and violent paintings was tried eleven times for various crimes and also committed murder. This is sometimes remarked upon when his work is disussed, but the horror he himself committed in taking anothers life is seen more as a kind of artisitc influence. Creativity and crime does not however stop at Carrivaggio. Richard Dadd stabbed his father to death. Picaso recieved stolent goods. Schiele was arrested and run out of Cesky Kromlov for painting local girls in the nude.
It doesn’t stop and start with visual artists either. Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spurgen. Chuck Berry was arrested for armed robery, and Ian Watkins lead singer of Lost Prophets is currently serving time in jail for some truely horrendous sexual crimes against children and infants.
After “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson was tried and acquited on several counts of child molestation in 2005 many fans breathed a sigh of relief, being able to say that indeed he was innocent. Their parasocial relationship remained in tact, perhapse for some even strengthened by the fact they had stayed stalwart fans while others had deserted him.
The taint of the accusation never left Jackson however, and he decended into drug addiction that evently ended his life. After his death the film Leaving Neverland came out. It is hard to watch the men, who at primary school age probably struggled to make sense of and understand what had happened to them speak openly about how Jackson had exploited their fandom and age for his own sexual gratification. There is much respect for they way they have been able, even in the face of disbelief and pressure from fans, been able to now tell their story with the benefit of hindsight and adult knowledge.
There is indeed a ring of truth to not just their words, but their whole demeanour, tone, bodylanguage. The looks to the side or down to their laps when pausing in a despcription. The quiet pain you can see when another closes a box of jewellry Jackson had bribed him with in return for sexual favours. These powerful testimonies mean that everyone who watched the film realised that yes, Michael Jackson sexually abused children. With the star dead, and no longer able to answer for his crimes, people were left in a strange place, loving the music and art he created, but yet hating the crimes he had commited, while understanding that the thing that made him a genius, was also the thing that arrested his development and probably set the stage for him to become abusive later in life.
Michael however isnt the only musican to have had underage sexual contact. David Bowie, Steve Tyler, Mick Jagger, all commited this crime in the chaotic age of the groupie, and their actions are not so openly talked about. So what makes Michael Jackson stand out? Partly the fact that many of the children were much younger in Jackson’s case, him meeting them before puberty, which puts the contact into a different category than that with a child who has gone through puberty. Though that is not to in any way dismiss the experience of young teens who have also been sexually abused. It is all abhorant.
In Think Twice hosts Leon Neyfakh and Jay Smooth, let the story of Jackson life unfold with interviews from many people who were far closer to Jackson, and the circus that surrounded him than any of his fans were. We hear from a woman who was being set up to be his beard, from journalists invovled in the planting of stories, even old school friends. All people who at some point had the chance to observe Jackson. Not one of them tried to defend what he did, and it was palpable to hear that some of them are yet to find resolution between their fandom and the knowledge of what he was capable of.
It also at times feels like there is also a struggle between the crimes that he committed and his innate innocence. We like to think that those we percieve as innocence are… well, innocent. However it was Jackson’s innocence, his boyish joy, that enabled people to think he was not a threat, but it was exactly the thing that made him one. Mentally he was not able to relate well to adults, and openly admitted he related more to children because of his lack of childhood and his lonelyness. Still as childlike as he may have been he was someone who was living in a grown up body with all that it needs and wants.
Neyfakh and Smooth have struggled with thier Jackson fandom, and understanading him and it in a bid to resolve their feelings which is the central conflict of Think Twice. It is something of a biography, or fanography, picking over what we already know about Jacksons’s traumatic childhood, which is probably the root of his offending, and also historisising the parasocial relationship his fans had with him, and attemps to mainpulate the media.
Think Twice Michael Jackson is an important piece of the puzzel as people come to terms with their support of someone who abused young boys. Although I would suggest it is a stop along the way of resolving this issue, rather than the end. It will be interesting to also compare the reaction to Jackson’s behaviour, and the struggle to resolve that with the love of his art, with how we treat ordinary people who have behaved similarily. They are undoubably people who children need to be protected from, and they are unlikely to do well in a society where sexual abuse of a child is possibly seen as one, if not the worst, crime. Afterall there can be times when a murder could be consider justified, such as in the defense of self or others, however there is no time when abusing a child can be deemed morally right.
Which leaves us with the question when does celebrity wrong-doing mean compared to ordinary people’s wrong-doing? Are celebrity’s are somehow less culpable in the eyes of society? If we can sympathise with the child Jackson who was so beaten and lonely, do we then have to sympathise with the childhood of all those who comit similar crimes, and come to a place of understanding? A study from Cambridge University shows having been a victim in childhood shows a strong correlation with offending behaviour in adulthood. Does that mean that adult abuse of children is indicative of a society that has failed in it’s duty to help and support child victims to healthily manage and heal from the terrible circumstances they have been put through? And what exactly is fair for anyone who has been on the recieving end of this behaviour? Is the law for all, or only those to poor to afford excellent legal representation?
It is not for the Michael Jackson fandom to alone solve these difficult questions. However we cannot ignore that it is the ardent fandom of Jackson, his place above us all that contributed to his crimes. It is likely some of these questions will continue to linger for as long as we continue to put people on pedestals. As long as we use any metric to measure human worth that is more complex than simply being human.