We’re Off to Never-Neverland

Psycho. I’m liable to go Michael. Take your pick:
Jackson. Tyson. Jordan. Game Six.
- Jay Z

It has taken me 10 days to bring myself to write this post. But what you have to understand is that I grew up idolizing Michael Jackson. I even had the glove — and I cried during a family trip to Disney World after leaving it hanging in a Burger King Bathroom. #Humpty

In 1982, I was six years old. My Dad had set up our new Harman Kardon receiver and Bose speakers and had been playing all sorts of American music for months, sometimes so loudly that, in a strange role reversal, I as a son had to tell our Dad to keep it down. He played everything — Mtume, Eddie Grant, Sheena Easton, The Talking Heads, The Rolling Stones. My Dad was cool! And then one day, he brought home Thriller. We listened to every song from that album incessantly.

Before I became known in the Cincinnati Indian community at the age of 13 for hosting annual events from Holi to Diwali, I was a dancer. Just like kids all over the world, I watched MTV and learned every single move to “Thriller.” I was so into it that I signed up to perform at a Diwali Event. But on the side of the stage, moments before I was to go on, I glanced down at the program and saw “Rajiv Satyal — Break Dancing.” And I freaked out. (Not like the Le Chic song. I mean, I panicked.) I called to my Mom and said, “Mommy! Mommy! But I don’t breakdance! I don’t know how to breakdance!”

Mommy tried to tell me that it was just the way it was written and that I should just do my usual moves, but I got psyched out. The host called my name and about a thousand people sat quietly and waited. (OK, it was an Indian event. No one sits quietly and waits. But there was a sustained pause.) My name rang out across the PA system, “Rajiv Satyal! Breakdancing! Rajiv Satyal… Rajiv?” The stage sat empty. I had retired from dancing, at the ripe old age of nine. Like Michael, I was never gonna dance again. (That’s George Michael, but hey.)

The day of Jackson’s death, I was in my comedy manager’s office when we heard that he was on his way to the UCLA Medical Center, a mere seven miles from where we were sitting. And eight years later, in my 2017 musical tour, Taking a Stand, I said:

“I loved Michael Jackson. It wasn’t just the little boys — he touched us all.”

(I have to do a little name-dropping and tell you that even Dave Chappelle liked that one. Guess I didn’t have to tell you that, but now you know this.)

Yet immediately after that quip, I staunchly defended MJ:

OK, OK. I don’t think he did it. You know why? With Michael, you always have to go with the weirder choice. A grown man sleeping in the same bed with little boys is weird. Granted — we have a name for that: a pedophile. But you know what’s weirder? A grown man sleeping in the same bed with little boys just because he wants to sleep in the same bed with little boys. Full stop. Nothing more. That’s so weird, we have no word or phrase for that. The only phrase is “Michael Jackson.”
Why? Why was he so unique? Because of all 100 billion people who have ever lived, Michael Jackson had more people know who he was — as a gross number and as a percentage — than anyone. In human history. Even Jesus Christ’s hits weren’t big till he was gone. And by the way, this is for most of Michael’s life. Nobody else has ever been like this. Sure, Shirley Temple, Drew Barrymore, Jodie Foster, and the Olsen Twins are all huge, but their images are not worn on T-shirts in Africa.
I don’t know what prompted Michael Jackson to become white. In any case, “They” destroyed him. Was it plastic surgery? Was it medicine? When he died, was Michael “Black or White”? Apparently, he was hooked on oxycontin. Well, we found out he’s black because the media reported he died of drugs. You see, in our racist society, whites die of painkillers. Blacks die of drugs. Elvis died of painkillers. Michael died of drugs.

And then last week, we watched the two-part, four-hour documentary, Leaving Neverland, on HBO. To me, it devastatingly proved the guilt of Michael Jackson, beyond a Reasonable Doubt. #JayZ

In fairness, whenever I watch true crime, I generally think the person did it. I’m like a police officer that Sarah Koenig describes in Serial:

~“Cops pretty much think everybody is lying to them all of the time.”

We watched Steve Avery in Making a Murderer on Netflix. He did it. We started The Case Against Adnan Syed on HBO. He did it. We watched The Ted Bundy Tapes on Netflix. He did it.

Serial. Murderer. Bundy. We live in a joyous household.

Obviously, Bundy’s a safe bet. The difference, of course, is that Syed and Avery were charged with one count, whereas Bundy and Jackson (and R. Kelly and Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and the Catholic Church) are charged with multiple counts. They used to say that, due to the enormous number of pension and benefits it owed to its workers, General Motors was basically a healthcare company that happened to make cars. In that way, the Catholic Church is basically a scandal that happens to hand out wafers.

Harsh? Well, I cannot think of a single case where an institution or a celebrity implicated by multiple victims has ever turned out to be innocent. Can you?

In the long run, female and child abuse are the consistent themes here. (I’m generally hesitant to use the term “rape culture,” but I was stunned to learn that 17 states in America have no minimum marital age requirement. Between 2000 and 2015, over 200,000 minors were legally married in the United States. If that’s not rape culture, then what is?) What is abundantly clear in Leaving Neverland is that Jackson was a strong misogynist. There are only oblique references made to this fact, but he clearly hated women. Of all of the themes, this struck me as one of the most chilling. The fact that Jackson was effeminate only serves to make him more of a Buffalo Bill type of character.

The MJ documentary begins with a disclaimer: “The following film contains explicit descriptions of sexual abuse that may be disturbing to viewers.” They should add a line: “And if you don’t, yeah, get that checked out.”

The two men who have come forward against MJ are James Safechuck and Wade Robson. (Ya gotta love those names, by the way. Straight out of Central Casting. They’re a little on the nose, huh? Jackson chucked their safety and robbed their son.) Safechuck was born in the States and Robson was born in Australia. (MJ really does like to go Down Under.)

Did he really have to rub it in and claim he has two?

In excruciating detail, the boys (now men) describe how Jackson destroyed their lives and their families’ lives. The Jackson Estate is alleging they’re only doing this for the money. OK, then how come there are no allegations against Prince? Or Bruce Springsteen? Or Tom Petty? They’re all global ’80s superstars with wealth.

Yet another defense is: “Well, there were other kids, including Macaulay Culkin and Corey Feldman, who went to Neverland and have no stories of abuse.” C’mon. That’s flimsy and you know it. First off, Jackson wouldn’t target fellow celebrities; they’re too empowered and have a network of powerful people looking after them. Predators prey on the weak. (And btw, Feldman finally came out to say he can no longer defend Jackson.) Moreover, just because Michael liked boys doesn’t mean he liked all boys. That’s like the lame concern straight men have about gay men: “I don’t want them hitting on me.” Relax, douche. With that kind of homophobia, you’re lucky if anybody hits on you.

“Where were the parents at?” — “The Way I Am,” Eminem

Criticism of the parents is justified. That said, you have to put yourselves in their place. They’re middle-class families with no extraordinary means… child abuse wasn’t as well known as it is today… and Michael Jackson was the biggest star in the world. The documentary shows the parents tried to stop it, but eventually, Jackson manipulated them and won. In acting class, we learned that comedy derives from a sane person in an insane world (Arrested Development) or an insane person in a sane world (Borat). A sane person in a sane world is a documentary. An insane person in an insane world is reality TV. The parents had entered an insane world. Was it strange that MJ asked to sleep in the same room with their kids? Yes, but Michael Jackson is calling you on your home line and coming over to your house to play. THIS WHOLE THING IS INSANE. How do you make decisions about what your kids can and cannot do at Neverland?

I saw firsthand how crazy celebrities can make us. As I entered adolescence, two men dominated my bedroom walls: Jordan (the other Michael) and Andre Agassi. I can’t remember exactly when I met him. OK, it was April 3, 1991. Seriously. I don’t even need to look it up. Spring Break. In Orlando, Florida, with my family. (Perhaps to search for my lost glove.) Perkins Restaurant. 8:30 am. There he was, with his girlfriend at the time, Wendy Stewart (not to be confused with Wendy Darling from Peter Pan). I got a picture with him, and I spent the next few hours lying down in the back of our van, staring up at the sky. I couldn’t believe I’d met my idol; I was the very definition of starstruck. Years later, I met him several more times, as I volunteered as a ballboy and Player Locker Room worker at the ATP Tournament in Cincinnati. I thought I was obsessed with him until I learned what a ballgirl did. Agassi threw up in a towel and she took it home. I’m not joking. How in the world could anybody carry somebody else’s vomit to her house? I’m telling you — celebrities make people do crazy things.

When We Both Had Hair.
When I Still Had Hair.

There are three hard truths we need to take a step back and discuss:

1. As a society, what trade-off of Joy vs. Pain are we willing to accept? We all know that Michael suffered tremendously. We saw that in real time with the changes to his face. (Which leads to the question: if were alive today, how often would he have to update his iPhone’s Facial Recognition feature?) And yet, we as a society did nothing to help him. We just consumed his music, videos, concerts, and merchandise. We allowed — in fact, encouraged and enabled — a fellow human being’s self-destruction for our own enjoyment.

2. Here’s a similar but tougher question: what amount of abuse are we willing to tolerate for our own pleasure? Most great music has been created by people high on drugs. Turning from drug abuse to sex abuse, Jackson abused two kids. Is it worth all the happiness he brought to all of us? What about to all of the kids he didn’t abuse? He made a lot of kids and adults alike very happy. Can that be measured? Don’t say, “If he abused one child, then it’s all not worth it.” Really? What about Woody Allen? Roman Polanski? We still watch their movies. This is a great theory, yes. But in practice, I’m not sure we’re ready to make that trade.

3.And most jarring of all, haven’t we already made these trades on a large scale? Before you get all high and mighty, perhaps you should consider where you live, especially if you’re a fellow American. The most significant monologue in movie history is Jack Nicholson’s “You Can’t Handle The Truth” diatribe in A Few Good Men. Here’s an edited bit of it:

You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You don’t want the truth because deep down, in places you don’t talk about… at parties… you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.

And at those parties, we listened to Michael. We rocked out to MJ from 1963 to now, while our government was ransacking Vietnam, Iraq, and a plethora of other countries all for our benefit. Before you roll your eyes, I’m not impugning our nation and saying we should or should not have done those things. But our armed forces are charged with protecting the citizens of America. And to do that, like all militaries, it had to commit unbelievable atrocities. So, you can try to stop listening to Jackson now, but little good it does as long as you are somebody who, in Jack’s words, “rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it.” Say what you say, but without the protection of our soldiers, we wouldn’t have a country. America wouldn’t be able to cultivate some of the greatest artists — and certainly the greatest musicians — the world has ever known. Without our way of life, there wouldn’t even be a Michael Jackson. So, don’t think you can shelve those MJ records and suddenly take the high road. You still live here. You didn’t stop till you got enough.

And I still can’t stop. I’m not willing to part with my MJ. So, luckily for you, dear reader, I have a solution that doesn’t involve torching your mp3, CD, tape, vinyl, or 8-track collection:

We simply draw the line when the abuse began.

This means that we can enjoy Woody Allen’s movies up till 1988 (Thank God for Annie Hall) or R. Kelly up till 1994 (pretty much “Bump N’ Grind”) or Michael Jackson up till 1989. So, you’re good on The Jackson Five and Off The Wall and Thriller but not Bad or Dangerous (and I’ll gladly make that trade vs. the other way around).

In my current state of misery, this is a great solution. But if it doesn’t work for you, then let me make you a deal: we either get to keep the songs or the jokes. You can’t take ’em both away from us. I was remembering all of the old MJ classics, most of which are too dirty to share here, but I’ll leave you with this one I heard years ago:

Guess we all should’ve been suspicious of a grown man wearing one glove and telling us to Beat It.

Rajiv Satyal is a standup comedian who uses dark humor to process grief, gloom, and the like.