Sensational narratives of celebrity sexual abuse scandals are becoming a subgenre in print and television media in the #MeToo era. The Lifetime cable channel ran a docuseries in January detailing allegations against R&B singer R. Kelly, and The New York Times published an exposé on singer-songwriter Ryan Adams in February. Radio stations have since pulled both musicians’ music. Adams’ tour was canceled, and Kelly was arrested in Chicago. (The singer, whose legal name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, tearfully told CBS news anchor Gayle King this week that his accusers, including his ex-wife, are lying: “I have been assassinated. I have been buried alive.”)
But searing HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, in which two men say Michael Jackson sexually molested them as children, is forcing even casual fans to reevaluate how they approach one of the most popular and beloved music catalogues in American history.
Jackson, who died in 2009 at age 50, spent most of his later years dodging suspicions of child sexual abuse. He settled a 1993 civil child molestation case outside of court for a reported $23 million. Then, in 2005, he was acquitted of separate child molestation charges. On several occasions, Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 40, each gave sworn testimony of Jackson’s innocence. Now, the men say the singer threatened them into silence.
In Leaving Neverland, Robson and Safechuck describe in graphic detail how Jackson allegedly abused them as children. Both men claim it took them years to mentally and emotionally process their abuse. Their mothers also appear in the film, saying the singer groomed not only their sons, ages 7 and 10 at the time, but also the families, seducing them with fame and success.
Jackson’s fans, family, and estate have denied the accusations and condemned the documentary, directed by Don Reed. The singer’s estate filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO, accusing the network of violating a nondisparagement agreement.
Leaving Neverland has raised many unanswered questions, particularly whether it is morally wrong to enjoy Jackson’s songs. “What is the relationship of morality to art?” asked Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a WORLD News Group board member, this week on his podcast The Briefing. “Can we enjoy art by discredited artists? What about enjoying music when we discover that the writer, the performer, the arranger, you name it, was somehow morally corrupt? Perhaps, even a child sexual abuser? What happens to the music?”
Some radio stations in Canada and New Zealand have pulled Jackson’s music from their playlists. But through album sales, shows such as Michael Jackson: One by Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, and TV reruns of Michael Jackson’s Halloween, the estate continues to rake in money, earning more than $400 million in 2018, according to Forbes.
Jackson dazzled with his physics-defying dance moves and global hits like “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” and presented himself as a sort of “magical creature,” wrote music critic Mikael Wood in the Los Angeles Times: “To consider his career is to acknowledge the outrageous leeway we felt his work entitled him to in his personal life.”
As secular fans struggle with how to respond to Jackson and other now-disgraced artists and entertainers, Christians should understand “art cannot be totally and fundamentally separated from the artist,” Mohler said. “Christians have to affirm the fact that we do know that we are morally responsible for every one of our purchases. We are economic actors with moral significance and moral accountability for our economic and consumer decisions.”