A star is dead: What to do when your idols are ‘canceled’

How can you see clearly when you’re looking into the sun? How can an icon be a con?

-Maureen Dowd on Leaving Neverland

I believe that my generation of young Egyptians who grew up with the January 25 revolution experienced ‘cancel culture’ way before it amplified. The term for boycotting celebrities for exposed unacceptable behavior might be new to global millennial culture, particularly with the advent of #MeToo. But there we were, a full eight years ago: in an atmosphere of sifting figures into “blacklists” and “whitelists” depending on their political stances toward the revolution. Those stances included ‘opinions’ like explicitly supporting the killing of our friends on the street.

That constant re-classification was a process that never sat easily. My fourteen-year-old self struggled with questions. How can I shift my view of those who shaped my popular culture, my memories, the imaginary of my nation, and even myself? These TV silhouettes on my screen, the ones stapled to the Eid comedy plays, the Ramadan soaps, the Melody Hits videos, how can they suddenly have a role in condoning something so grave and horrific? Yes, this bonkers music composer thinks I’m part of US espionage and wishes me dead, but he’s made half the Amr Diab songs I’ve loved and grown up to. What do I do?

Just recently, rock band Massar Egbari — who had made a name for themselves on the underground music scene writing and performing songs of social satire and found relative mainstream success after the revolution — did something many fans are still grappling with. Contrary to previous anthems of rebellion, they recently released a song in spirit of the regime’s constitutional referendum, urging people to participate for the well-being of the nation. Despite some sympathy with the lead singer’s personal plea on Facebook (now deleted) implying that he did it in protection of his daughter, fans were left indignant and many reconsidered their affinity towards the band.

The exposed abominations of those I admired never stopped stinging. If anything, I’ve witnessed the tumbling of political figures from even my own camps of thought. If the blacklist situation was seen by some as a gray area, where people take certain political stances for complex reasons, we now have the more clear-cut testimonies of sexual assault. This is no longer some ambiguous battle of ideology. These are the loud, disarmed narratives of violated bodies pointing out men in human rights law offices, leftist political campaigns, and press headquarters. A particular stab to my oblivious back was the proven accusations against a veteran TV journalist who extensively supported the revolution. The same man whose famous “fiery episode openings” on freedom and power-struggle have validated my political anger for many nights.

But while disenchantment feels like a persistent theme of my generational experience, I still wish any of this has prepared me for Michael Jackson.

He was god-like. It’s reinforced by everybody else in the world, so it’s a really intense feeling. It’s like everybody is on board. He’s a creative genius and he thinks you’re special.

-James Safechuck, Leaving Neverland

I hadn’t yet been born the first time Michael Jackson was investigated for child molestation in 1993, and too young to grasp the implications of his trial — and subsequent acquittal — for the same charges in 2005. The recent Michael Jackson allegations were more grievable than I thought. I wish I could say I’m able to transfer my local wisdom to international millennials of the world who are new to this. But not even the serial crashes of confidence I’ve experienced in post-revolution Egypt have helped me easily digest this. I did, however, learn a thing or two about power and oppression.

I innocently open the Google search bar one morning, and find “leaving neverland michael jackson” headlining a list of trending topics. I click the first result, and I read a brief overview of documentary, directed by Dan Reed and featuring narratives of Wade Robson and James Safechuck alleging abuse by Michael Jackson. For some reason, that was that. It dawned on me. With what I know now about persistent testimonies of sexual assault and men in power, I was hit with what I was defending religiously for years. I don’t think I was able to do anything that morning.

 

Michael Jackson and James Safechuck on their way back from a trip to Hawaii.

 

Michael Jackson’s death was the beginning of his birth to my imaginary. People talk about seeing him on 80s television sets and VCRs, but I explored The King of Pop through his YouTube legacy and pirated MP3 tracks. I remember on a summer evening of 2009 when I listened to “Billie Jean” for the first time at the age of 12. I know it was that summer, because his music would play nonstop, the soundbites of that baseline meshing with the heat waves of our unconditioned room. Michael’s melancholic, pleading voice, the haunting dismissal in the chorus, his alluring cry for everyone to believe him; to almost rescue him, had captured me fully. “The kid is not my son,” Michael told me so assuredly. I had heard nothing like it, and I believed him. I had been devoted ever since.

Michael was different musically. He gave me a formula that mainstream pop at the time didn’t. Listening to an artist who made accessible statements and paid attention to lyrics was mind-blowing. I carved those same lyrics into my 8th grade school-desk as I myself began developing an interest in writing. Rhythmically, it sounded like he had the beats of the world in reins, never rehashing a sound. He also sang on a whole different spectrum of feeling that was new to me, especially for male artists.

Michael was odd. He was performatively weird and wonderful and flaunted it. He wore gold, swimsuit-like outfits on stage, shimmied suggestively, covered himself in glitter, and wore his body in a way that transcended every norm I knew. It was radically empowering for a strange, questioning little kid like myself.

Michael had a cause. He would skip-dance his way across favelas, singing “they don’t really care about us, and the locals, dancing in solidarity with him, couldn’t agree more.

Michael was angry, anti-institutional; he was tired of injustice, tired of the schemes.” He wrote nearly half of the History album song lyrics against the media machine, and filmed a video from prison.

Michael was sad. He was not afraid to be vulnerable; in fact, it was part of the narrative he portrayed. He told the world all about the cruelty of his early life and we were there to sympathize with every single plea he made. “Have you seen my childhood?” He asks, like every orphaned prophet who was lost in the desert, only to find greatness instead.

Michael made me feel like I had agency in the world. His calls to action, from the self-reflection of Man in the Mirror to environmentalism and universal healing were values he successfully brought forth. In fact, it was only the advent of the revolution that replaced this higher moral compass Michael inspired in me. Before January 25, I had MJ.

God-like is not an overstatement, because we all liked to think we had a special connection with him, personally and collectively. It’s impossible to track the traces of Michael’s influence on the world we live in. In this very region, we have just made an identity crisis movie inspired by his legacy, we were fascinated and humbled by his brief Bahrain residency, and many of us secretly wanted those Muslim conversion rumors to be true.

I always get what I want.

-Michael Jackson, narrated in Leaving Neverland

 

Michael with young Wade Robson and his family

 

Leaving Neverland is not about Michael Jackson. It is rather about the many tentacles that a man of such mega-power can have. In this case, it was a story of abuse, told in all its entanglements, of the victims, their families, their current partners, and trying to heal. I sat through the pirated four-hour documentary, observing a familiar world of Michael Jackson in the late 80s/early 90s, my favorite era of his. This time, I was seeing it through very different eyes. It was an arduous process to get through, and I had trouble sleeping in the nights afterward.

Neverland was no longer just the pathetic-but-adorable setting of animals, play castles, and candy venues; it also housed multi-doored venues for Michael’s abuse, embedded into recreational activities of movie-watching and endless playdates. It was where he would teach his victims drills to get dressed quickly before anybody arrives. Before it was built, he told six-year-old James, Michael’s first ‘favorite,’ that “Neverland is for you.”

The iconic “Black or White” video in all its vibrance and celebration of life was not just that. It was also the point when Michael decided young Wade, who dances in the children’s rap part of the video, is no longer a favorite. You clearly see the camera lens, and Michael’s attention, switching to Macaulay Culkin. Gone were the days when Wade would be summoned to stage on Michael’s tours, performing his miniature MJ moves in a little fedora hat and curls.

 

Michael Jackson and James Safechuck

 

Michael’s self-victimizing, imploring attitude which drew upon his difficult past was not just a musical aesthetic. It was a means of grooming those children into feeling attached to him. Wade says in the documentary that moment when he and his sister — who was later disinvited to Neverland — had their first sleepover in Michael’s bed. At the end of a fun night, they found him weeping in the corner of the bed, begging them not to leave the next day with their parents.

Michael’s magnificent wealth was not only spent magnanimously on charitable matters. It was also spent on jewelry he bought for James after every violating act. It was also what he used to book hotel rooms for James’ family intentionally as far away as possible from Michael’s own room, where he would host James. It was how he later maintained a multi-million dollar legal team. It was why he threatened Wade’s mother when she refused Michael’s demand of ‘keeping’ Wade with him for a year: “I always get what I want.”

It took years after Michael’s death for Wade and James to come to terms with the abuse. Meanwhile, its imprints continue to act upon them and stifle their lives. Wade reveals the guilt he felt about testifying numerous times on Michael’s behalf and avoiding confrontation. He vents about his dancing career and how deep down, he always felt he needed to prove he was good enough for Michael.

James and his wife talk about the crippling anxiety and depression he had when settling into adulthood and marriage, and how agonizing the birth of his child was. On the brink of his marriage falling apart, and after he heard about Wade filing a lawsuit, James decided to come clean to his family. He and his wife both talk about the excruciating complications of forgiveness for their families. The wound is very grave, and very fresh.

“Have you moved on?”

“Actually just this last weekend, I felt guilty. I felt like I had let Michael down.”

-James Safechuck in a 2019 interview

 

Wade Robeson, Dan Reed, and James Safechuck - Courtesy: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock (10072840c)

 

The number one debate that these allegations have sparked is the classic “separating the art from the artist.” Sanitize the art from the artist’s actions and abominations, and perceive the art “for what it is.” These are valid reactions, given the multiple radio stations, TV features, and live shows from which Michael’s music has been scrapped following the film’s release. There is a public question of “Should we pull the plug on Michael Jackson’s iconic discography? How do we even begin to do that?”

Despite my attempts to do so myself, I’ve come to realize this sort of separation is not possible. One of the most striking parts in Leaving Neverland is when both men, at different points, mention Michael making misogynistic comments about their mothers, and women in general. “Women are evil; they are not to be trusted.” I cannot help but do a mental rewind of songs where women were positioned exactly as such. Songs like “Dirty Diana,” “Blood on the Dancefloor,” and “Billie Jean” are songs I will never hear the same way.

And I will never see the Pepsi commercial, where Michael first met five-year-old James Safechuck, the same way. I will never view Michael’s humanitarian calls to “make a better place for our children, and our children’s children,” the same way — even though they’re the same calls that once shaped me for the better.

You do not pull the plug on a legacy; it hunts you down. It leaves its traces everywhere, and censorship and denial is only an act of violence to your own reality. You can only re-examine a legacy.

And maybe you find yourself not wanting to pull the plug. Last week, “Rock with You” came on in my Uber, and I smiled. Not just at the cheeky wink from the Egyptian radio station, who were probably asserting their eternal allegiance to the King of Pop, but also because I loved this song. I loved how Michael sang this song. I loved my memories of dancing to this song on a relaxed evening with people I now miss. This is what this song meant to me.

In a show on child abuse survivors, Oprah Winfrey screened the documentary and hosted the filmmaker and the two subjects. She asked Safechuck if he has moved on, and forgiven himself. He reveals his enduring guilt toward Michael; that he might have “let him down.” Those who have been harmed are struggling with shadows of the past that still manifest themselves into reality. The struggle is only their own, and it begins by acknowledgement of those crimes. We do not do anything for them or for potential victims when we attempt to take down the abuser’s Spotify discography.

In fact, if there has been a takeaway for me from the many January 25 letdowns, it is not to overly personify evils like abuse and violence. I remember a discourse at that time that always implied the image of “people’s masks falling.” I remember it emblemized in Hamza Namira’s political song about “people’s true faces” being revealed. Essentializing abuse and linking it to people’s evil “essences” beneath their masks is a diversion from actual efforts that need to be made. There is a systemic enabler of political corruption. There is a systemic enabler of sexual assault in workforces and civil society spaces. There is a systemic enabler of child abuse. Maybe this is what we should work towards canceling.

So for anyone grieving the canceling of someone they idolized — take your time. Try to leave guilt aside, for you did not know they were going to let you and other people down. Do not try to butcher your stash of memories and slice away their untrackable traces. Accept the way they once built you up, and try to peacefully deal with the abominable parts that came with them doing so. Remain conscious of the harm they’ve inflicted upon others, and hold them accountable to it, but do not ever try to simplify the complexity of dealing with the newfound realities of what they did.

When I come across Michael’s music now, I feel something so far from the binary of either canceling him or “separating the art from the artist.” I feel this ambivalent disarray of discomfort and longing, shock and familiarity, nostalgia and disappointment. I also believe that this complexity is here to stay, forever.

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