Is Michael Jackson’s image being cleaned up?

Michael Jackson

He was one of the world’s most iconic musicians, so it’s no surprise there’s a continued desire to tell his story. But critics have suggested the allegations that plagued him are being ignored.

“There is nothing natural about the making of child stars. They are little archaeological sites, carrying layers of show-business history inside them. Fragments of history and tradition,” says United States writer Margo Jefferson in her celebrated 2006 book ‘On Michael Jackson’.

When a famous life story is told, invariably elements may be cut to fit the page, stage or screen. When the life story is that of Michael Jackson – prodigious child star; King of Pop; showbiz eccentric; self-styled Peter Pan or alleged serial predator – the omissions feel far more onerous.

Fifteen years after his sudden death in 2009 (recorded as an overdose of sedatives and propofol anaesthetic), Jackson’s status remains legendary, intensely familiar and infamous. Even his initials are instantly recognisable: ‘MJ The Musical’ is a jukebox show, which opened in London’s West End recently, to add to its hugely successful Tony-winning, Grammy-nominated run on Broadway.

A biopic entitled ‘Michael’, directed by Antoine Fuqua and produced by Oscar-winning producer Graham King, and starring Jackson’s nephew Jaafar Jackson in the title role, is also in production for release next year.

Both projects feature big-hitting talents and the involvement of the Jackson family estate. However, the musical does not address the horrific allegations – forcefully denied by the singer and never proven in court – that he was a child abuser, while entertainment journalist Matthew Belloni recently alleged in a piece for new media platform Puck News that an early script for Michael he has read “wants very much to convince you Michael is innocent” of them.

These allegations plagued Jackson from 1993, when he was accused of child molestation by 13-year-old Jordan Chandler and his father Evan Chandler.

Further accusations continued to surface, during and after Jackson’s life; the 2019 documentary ‘Leaving Neverland’ centres two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who graphically claim that they were childhood victims of sexual abuse by Jackson.

The Jackson family estate issued firm rebuttals, including a statement condemning ‘Leaving Neverland’ as “a public lynching”; they also sued broadcaster/producer HBO for violating a 1992 agreement never to disparage Jackson’s image.

In a recent interview, ‘Leaving Neverland’ director Dan Reed told The Times that he had been informed of the draft script for the upcoming Michael biopic, and branded it “a complete whitewash”.

A spokesperson for the film ‘Michael’ told the BBC in a statement: “From the beginning, the Michael Jackson estate put their trust in Graham King, stepping out of the creative process.”

Meanwhile King himself said in a statement: “I went into this project with an open mind and spent years researching Michael Jackson’s life and work – from his artistry to his public and private struggles, to his humanitarian efforts.

“Michael’s life was complicated. As a film-maker, I look to humanise, but not sanitise and present the most compelling, unbiased story I can capture in a single feature film and let the audience decide how they feel after watching it.”

The BBC has also contacted the Michael Jackson estate for comment, but they have not responded.

Without doubt, the abuse allegations deeply corroded Jackson’s reputation; in 2021 a US tax court judge stated that Jackson had “earned not a penny from his image and likeness in 2006, 2007 or 2008”, showing “the effect those allegations had, and continued to have, until his death”.

What’s intriguing, though, is that Jackson’s popularity appears to be steadily rising again in the digital era. As Billboard recently noted, between 2021 and 2023, global consumption of his music grew from 4,7 billion to 6,5 billion on-demand streams, meanwhile, in February, Sony Music Group confirmed it would acquire half of Jackson’s catalogue, in a deal that values his music assets at more than US$1,2 billion.

The basis of his fandom

The clean-up of his image – via bombastic display or damage-limitation – has arguably been ongoing for decades. British journalist Laura Lee Davies was the music editor at Time Out London when she covered the surreal publicity stunt around the release of Jackson’s ‘HIStory’ album (1995), including a megalithic sculpture of MJ floated down the River Thames.

“The thing was: he [Jackson] was the biggest artist on the planet, he needed to rehabilitate a bit because while there wasn’t anything proven, there were definitely allegations that hadn’t gone away,” recalls Davies. “We were used to pop spectacle at that time – and then this thing appeared which actually looked tiny and insignificant and kind of funny… because you saw this 30ft statue next to Tower Bridge, which is 200ft (61m) high.

“But still, this was to launch the most remarkable greatest hits album of all time, because it had all these amazing hits on it, but also another 15 songs that were presented as history, even if they hadn’t been released yet. There was that enormous statement of belief, and – I think this is the key thing – it was almost like: ‘love my hits, love me’.”

That encouragement to his fans of unconditional devotion has perhaps led to the sanitisation of Jackson’s legacy, as seen in long-running tributes (such as the ‘Thriller – Live’ stage revue, which ran across international venues between 2009 and 2020) and the latest musical, among other things.

Alongside the exquisite catalogue of signature music and moves, audiences are repeatedly reminded of Jackson’s sacrifices, his altruism, his vision to heal the world. Even those who don’t regard themselves as “super fans” might still be startled by the emotional hooks of his work, and the stories of the years of childhood abuse he suffered, as well as callous media intrusion.

How his legacy has endured

Countless publications, exposes and hagiographies (besides his own blockbuster 1988 autobiography, ‘Moonwalk’) have excavated what Jackson means. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Jefferson’s excellent ‘On Michael Jackson’ notes that “Michael Jackson became world-famous because he was a world-class talent”.

Given his genuinely extraordinary music/performance, I wonder if it was inevitable that Jackson’s legacy would endure even serious scandals and allegations?

“Not inevitable, but likely,” Jefferson tells the BBC. “I’d say there are at least two legacies, though – one for fans who know the worth of his talent despite and amid the horrors of his life [and] one for fans whose worship still depends on their vision of him as a martyr and innocent victim.”

Jefferson’s book was published in 2006; how might its perspective have shifted, if she’d begun writing it with present-day knowledge?

For all the discussion of so-called “cancel culture”, we arguably exist in an age of rehabilitation, where high-profile pop culture or political figures stage lucrative comebacks even after serious controversy. Jefferson, however, is not convinced that Jackson’s brand would have been sanitised were he still alive.

“The public would be responding to and judging every word and action of his, every image of him, every response from his siblings and his children,” she says.

Perhaps it’s not so much Jackson’s “cleaned-up” reputation as his hazy mythology that continues to command audiences. As an artist, there remains nobody who sounds or looks quite like him; even in life, he seemed to exist not just in the spotlight, but some fantastical stratosphere – he defied gravity, he transformed reality. – BBC

Stay informed with The Namibian – your source for credible journalism. Get in-depth reporting and opinions for only N$85 a month. Invest in journalism, invest in democracy –
Subscribe Now!

Latest News