HBO’s two-part documentary, Leaving Neverland, had all the makings of a #MeToo bombshell: Over four hours, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two former child performers, describe, in often excruciating detail, the way Michael Jackson allegedly groomed and sexually abused them while they were children. The ratings were high; the press surrounding the film was plentiful; Oprah co-signed the documentary by interviewing Safechuck and Robson; and the Jackson Estate engaged in a full–throated counter–offensive, denying the allegations, questioning Safechuck and Robson’s credibility and claiming the film “violates all norms and ethics in documentary filmmaking and journalism. It is a disgrace.”
But nearly two weeks since Leaving Neverland premiered, Michael Jackson’s posthumous career is showing few signs of major distress. Leaving Neverland arrived on the heels of Surviving R. Kelly, the Lifetime docuseries that detailed years of allegations of abuse against R. Kelly and ultimately led to a new slate of criminal charges and an end to the singer’s longtime deal with RCA. Obviously, Jackson, who died in 2009, cannot face new criminal charges (he was acquitted on child molestation charges in 2005), but his estate remains a massive business.
Last year, Sony Entertainment spent $250 million to secure the distribution rights to Jackson’s music for another seven years. The label has not issued a statement since Leaving Neverland premiered. As far as merchandise and image rights go, Jamie Salter, the founder and CEO of ABG, which manages non-musical licensing for Jackson and other celebrity estates, told Rolling Stone a few days before Leaving Neverland premiered that he hadn’t received a single call from any concerned companies.
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When asked about Robson and Safechuck’s allegations in the film, Salter replied, “Being in the entertainment business, there’s real news and fake news. And sometimes you never know the truth … Honestly, it’s an old story. Any news is good news. Honestly, I haven’t gotten one call. Not a peep. Maybe after it airs. Everyone says these guys have changed their stories 17 times. It’s hard to believe what’s true and what’s not true.” (Salter has not returned Rolling Stone’s follow-up requests since the documentary aired).
Jackson’s former lawyer, Mark Geragos, who represented him during his 2005 trial for child molestation, also took a shot at the documentary’s credibility. In the film, there’s a clip of Geragos speaking at a press conference in 2003, after Jackson’s arrest, and the footage appears to show Geragos suggesting that Jackson’s accusers are “seeking money.” On Twitter, however, Geragos said the press conference was actually about Jackson’s lawsuit against a private jet firm that was found guilty of secretly filming him and Jackson during a flight to Santa Barbara, where Jackson turned himself into police.
Radio and streaming numbers could be a bellwether for Jackson’s legacy and the financial viability of his estate. In the days after Leaving Neverland premiered, Jackson’s spins on U.S. radio dropped from about 2,000 a day to 1,500 a day, while several stations in New Zealand and Canada announced they would stop playing his music altogether. But on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, Jackson’s solo music notched 16,497,000 streams in the week after the documentary aired on March 3rd and 4th — falling squarely within his typical range of 16 to 17 million plays-per-week. Additionally, Jackson’s music remains on several big Spotify playlists, including “All Out 80s,” which boasts nearly 5 million followers (his artist-specific playlist, “This Is Michael Jackson,” has more than 1 million followers).
One place that has taken action to scrub Jackson’s presence is the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which removed a pair of the musician’s iconic gloves, plus a fedora and an autographed poster. “When you learn new stories or you look at something historical in a different way, then sometimes we re-evaluate whether that’s appropriate to be (on display),” said the museum’s director of collections, Chris Carron.
Jackson’s music was also dropped at the Staples Center, where ESPN’s Los Angeles Lakers correspondent, Dave McMenamin, noted the team had replaced “Beat It” with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” as the soundtrack for its “Air Band Cam” jumbotron segment.
Many celebrities — including Ellen DeGeneres, Molly Ringwald and #MeToo activist Rose McGowan — have voiced their support for Robson and Safechuck, as have musicians Sia and Amanda Palmer, though neither mentioned Jackson by name and instead shared messages about believing survivors. On the flip side, T.I., Juice WRLD, Jason DeRulo and India.Arie have all issued statements on social media, or in the press, that appeared to defend Jackson.
“Don’t just listen to one side and expect to find truth,” T.I. wrote on Instagram. “Oh that’s right…Dead men can’t speak. So what was the point again? Destroy another strong black historical LEGEND?!?!”
Drake reportedly dropped his posthumous MJ collaboration, “Don’t Matter to Me,” from his setlist when he resumed his Scorpion tour in Europe this month, but he has yet to release a statement explaining this decision. (A rep for Drake declined to comment on the rapper’s decision.)
Two of the most prominent public rebukes have come from non-musical entities. Last Thursday, Louis Vuitton announced that it no longer plans to produce several garments from star designer Virgil Abloh’s Jackson-inspired fall 2019 menswear show. The fashion giant claimed it was unaware of the film and its allegations when the collection debuted in January before the doc’s Sundance premiere. In a recent New Yorker profile, Abloh spoke about Jackson as an inspiration, and when asked if he’d heard about Leaving Neverland, replied that he wanted to focus on “the Michael that I thought was universally accepted, the good side, his humanitarian self.”
Upon Louis Vuitton’s decision to axe such pieces as a pair of sparkling white gloves from his show, Abloh later said, “I am aware that in light of this documentary the show has caused emotional reactions. I strictly condemn any form of child abuse, violence or infringement against any human rights.”
The producers of The Simpsons, meanwhile, decided to pull Jackson’s 1991 episode, “Stark Raving Dad,” from syndication after watching Leaving Neverland. In an interview with The Daily Beast, former showrunner Al Jean suggested that Jackson used his appearance on the show for nefarious purposes: “[Y]ou watch that episode, honestly, it looks like the episode was used by Michael Jackson for something other than what we’d intended it,” Jean said. “It wasn’t just a comedy to him, it was something that was used as a tool … I think it was part of what he used to groom boys.”
Among the general public, Jackson’s legions of still-devoted fans have vociferously defended him at every turn. They’ve swarmed the Twitter mentions of public detractors and even crowd-funded a series of ads proclaiming Jackson’s innocence that briefly appeared on buses in the United Kingdom.
But opposition has grown as well. The activism team at Care2, a social network that connects activists around the world, launched a petition urging the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to remove its statue of Michael Jackson and cancel its in-house Cirque du Soleil show, “Michael Jackson One.” The petition has over 12,000 signatures, but since the premiere of Leaving Neverland, “One” has continued to run, twice a day, uninterrupted. Though Cirque du Soleil declined Rolling Stone’s request to comment on ticket sales, a quick perusal of the show’s website reveals that most seats for all upcoming shows have been sold.
The fact that the Cirque du Soleil show — a family-friendly program centered around Jackson’s biggest hits — is still up and running could be a positive sign for the planned Jackson jukebox musical, Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough. In February, the Jackson estate called off a trial run in Chicago, blaming the cancellation on a scheduling conflict caused by an actors’ strike. The estate and its producing partner, Columbia Live Stage, have said they now plan to bring the show directly to Broadway in summer 2020.
It remains possible that Jackson is too big to fail: His loyal fans may form a large enough contingent to keep him afloat on their own, or at least long enough for the shock of Leaving Neverland to disappear.
Salter didn’t seem too concerned about the long-term impact of the documentary. “The worst case is, the licensee would call me up and cancel,” he said. “And we would go to their closest competitor and do a deal with them.”
Additional reporting by David Browne and Elias Leight
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