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How Michael Jackson Became the Thriller Monster

It’s been said there’s no real dignity in death. And despite his legendary career, dignity was certainly in short supply the day Michael Jackson died from a Propofol-induced “nap” at his $100,000-a-month Bel Air palace nearly a decade ago. Certainly the horrific revelations of the new HBO documentary Leaving Neverland [1] should settle any question over whether “in” should be placed before “famous” when describing the King of Pop.

Personally, I have always, and with sadness, felt that Jackson was guilty, from the time the first allegations surfaced in the early 2000s. I have also believed his guilt was by reason of insanity and diminished capacity. Jackson was not some kind of Freddy Krueger-like monster who got off on overcoming and hurting helpless creatures. Clearly, all of his creative ambition in those later years was aimed at trying to recreate a childhood he never had, to un-ring the cynical, sexualized, tarnished bell of adulthood, to fly off and become Peter Pan. There was something broken and unformed about him.

Jackson had toyed with and subverted gender and race roles throughout his career—only David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince came anywhere close to the number of reboots and reinventions he had. By the time he got to Neverland, he still physically “presented” himself as a grown man. But by his own admission, he literally wanted to transform himself—not into another gender or even another race (though his furious cosmetic and surgical alterations might suggest otherwise)—but into a pre-pubescent child. He spent mega-millions building a private theme park fantasyland for just that purpose.

And as the documentary chillingly reveals, he also had a child’s lack of ability to see or truly care about anything from any perspective other than his own. That along with his instinctive, defense-mechanism capacity to obfuscate and avoid getting caught at all costs made him into what he became: a juvenile sociopath. As the latest allegations of child abuse suggest, all of this was caught up in sexual perversions for which we have no explanation, only revulsion and a million questions about what really animated this man-child pop legend.

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What we do know is that he was an incredibly gifted, cheerful young kid with a cruel and abusive father who did everything in his power to exploit his uber-talented family. As a child in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Michael was already onstage, backed up by his older, young adult brothers, doing his baby-burlesque pantomime of grownup sexuality (“Shake it, shake it baby! Oooh! Sock it to me, mama!”). In his young adult prime, he had hormone-crazed fans grabbing and pawing and screaming at him like he was a piece of meat. Instead of enjoying the superstardom that he found in the 1980s with the record-busting album Thriller, however, he spent the last decades of his life irrevocably altering his appearance (he reportedly had no nose left when he died) and attempting to distance himself from his father and siblings. All the other grotesque abuses and manipulations revealed in the documentary seem to flow from those early years, the fruit of that poisoned tree.

The roll call of child stars for whom adulthood brought unbelievably grim fates—Dana Plato, Corey Haim, Judy Garland—chills the blood. Even the ones who survived relatively unscathed, or who courageously pulled themselves up from trauma to triumph, like the late great Patty Duke, almost all had stories of beyond-underage sex and severe substance abuse dramas.

So where were the interventions for these child stars? For Michael? For the children he is accused of abusing on his Neverland ranch? Where were the parents?

It’s a story as old as celebrity itself. There’s a very big reason why Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, Matt Lauer, Roger Ailes, and Bill Cosby all got away with things for years that would have utterly destroyed anyone else on the planet. It’s not that “nobody knew” what they were up to in their Hollywood media bubbles. It’s that their handlers, lawyers, and courtiers understood that if they upset the gravy train in any way—especially after they’d bowed and scraped and clawed their way into the inner circle in the first place—it could all disappear in a flash.

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This is what happens when you can clearly see that the golden goose is a monster but your personal ambition compels you to never speak about or acknowledge it, much less do anything about it. So the monster gets bolder, sicker, more powerful, even as he’s laying enough eggs to serve as hush money and then some.

At the time he died, Michael Jackson was funding a small army of hangers-on who were literally being paid to enable his destruction. Was there ever any hope he could be healed, let alone for justice for those he hurt?

Some may call it justice that the latest revelations have led to a widespread rejection of his music, with radio networks all over the world taking his massive discography off of the air. Knowing what we know (or at least think we know) about the pain Jackson caused these children and their parents and families, can we ever listen to his songs or watch his movies and videos guilt-free again?

Norman Mailer was a wife beater. Joan Crawford was an alleged child abuser. Roman Polanksy is an accused statutory rapist. Nothing can or should excuse those things. But to “erase the existence” of these people or their genuine artistic achievements—to me, that’s also untenable. It’s denying history instead of fleshing it out and understanding it more fully.      

I, for one, think it’s still morally defensible to enjoy Michael Jackson’s music, even after leaving the nightmare world of Leaving Neverland. The 50-year-old “Wacko Jacko” who flatlined in June 2009 may have been a monster, or at least way too close to one for comfort. But the almost supernaturally talented, lovable little boy singing his heart out on The Hollywood Palace and The Ed Sullivan Show certainly wasn’t. The early 1980s civil rights icon who moonwalked and breakdanced his way to becoming the King of Pop, who made music videos into an art form and earned his place alongside Sinatra, Elvis, and the Beatles—he wasn’t yet a goner.  

Maybe that’s just a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s engaging in rationalization. But I don’t think it should be impossible to think of the beauty and the promise of what he once was—and maybe, if life had been less cruel, of what he might have been.

Telly Davidson is the author of the book Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not) [2]. He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "How Michael Jackson Became the Thriller Monster"

#1 Comment By Hd On March 11, 2019 @ 9:44 pm

Not a pop music fan but how are you so sure he is guilty? He was weird and destroyed and it is easy for people to make this kind of accusations for fame and money. But more than likely he was just asexual and naive. The accusers must explain the silence when he was alive and since. They weren’t kids anymore.

#2 Comment By Mike N in Massachusetts On March 11, 2019 @ 10:09 pm

Jackson was a serial pedophile, which was obvious decades before this documentary came out. Child stars definitely lead strange lives and are often exploited by adults and hangers-on, but usually they don’t turn out to be child rapists like this sick pervert. I have no more sympathy for Jackson than I would have for any other pedophile. I’m glad he’s dead, but I wish he could’ve spent the last 25 years of life in prison like he deserved. I’m baffled as to why this vile person inspires so much hand wringing and pearl clutching. Good riddance.

#3 Comment By Uncle Billy On March 12, 2019 @ 7:16 am

The parents of the boys who were abused by Jackson should shoulder much of the blame. What responsible parent would allow their ten year old son to sleepin the same room with a very weird man? The mother of one of the boys says that Jackson fooled her, indeed seduced the entire family. Of course, Jackson provided lavish gifts and cash to the families. In effect, the parents pimped their sons to Jackson for money. They are as bad as Jackson.

#4 Comment By GaryH On March 12, 2019 @ 7:22 am

how we can ever hear him the same way again?

Back to before Thriller was released, I saw Michael Jackson as some kind of freak. He struck me as something not right, a person off the wall, if you will. When the Thriller mania was at its peak, I was asked by a small group of Michael Jackson fanatics what I thought of Jackson the person after I’d said that his musical work was addictive to many, like cocaine, and that was reason enough to avoid it. My answer was that I saw him as a ‘girl’ in the original sense, which is: a young person of either sex, and especially indeterminate sex. I told that group that such ‘girls’ who did not grow up almost invariably would be monsters, and that is the reason that Jackson’s title track deeply disturbed me.

That group, college students or recent college graduates, concluded that I was a racist, for only a racist could not love Michael Jackson.

That discussion has never left me, even in its particulars, because it was the first time that I asserted something that I think has been proven true beyond any doubt: that a growing number of Americans would rather be seen as pedophiles than as racists.

The cultural phenomenon of Michael Jackson is at the heart of all subsequent growth in public sexual perversion right down to the new religion of transsexualism – which is a perfect product of deifying ‘girls’ in the original meaning of the term.

Michael Jackson was a freak. His daddy almost certainly oversaw his being made as much a freak as possible, which makes Michael Jackson a victim. But that does not exonerate him. Michael Jackson spread his freakishness, polluting multitudes.

#5 Comment By Richard Fasse On March 12, 2019 @ 10:12 am

The documentary is BS. Those guys are about as believable as Joe Isuzu.

#6 Comment By JCM On March 12, 2019 @ 10:38 am

Nobody in their right mind would do that to their face. MJ tried to sell the notion that he was beyond gender, age or ethnic background. He was almost a species unto himself who should/could not be judged by normal standards. At the height of his popularity enough of the public and press bought into this pathological sham to condone behavior that would have been unthinkable for an age and gender-specific individual. The Emperor of Pop was quite naked for anyone willing to admit it.

#7 Comment By Mike N in Massachusetts On March 12, 2019 @ 10:54 am

Gary H – exactly. I am incredulous how many people are still fooled by this wack job. He flaunted his perversions in the most flagrant way possible.

#8 Comment By Dennis On March 12, 2019 @ 11:16 am

Early 2000s? You’re at least a decade off. The only thing new in this documentary is perhaps the degree of explicitness of the allegations, but they have been there for at least 25 years, not merely since the early 2000s.

Given that this documentary present nothing essentially new, I don’t get the sudden hand-wringing about Jackson now, 10 years after his death. I never cared for his type of pop music anyway, but for those who do, why stop listening now, when you didn’t in the early 90s?

#9 Comment By Rick Steven D. On March 12, 2019 @ 12:27 pm

Telly, you are amazing. No matter what the subject, you always, always give a fair and balanced account. I would expect a TAC article to just condemn this degenerate in the strongest possible terms. For myself, I haven’t been able to stand so much as looking at this creep’s disintegrating face for the something like the past thirty years, and always just reflexively assumed he was guilty of all the worst charges. But I actually felt ashamed of myself as I read this. While you don’t soft-pedal the abuse, I found your framing of it within the tragedy of this man’s unhappy life very powerful, and very sad. Thanks again, and keep up the good work.

#10 Comment By BradleyD On March 12, 2019 @ 12:35 pm

One thing if have struggled with and maybe made amends with is that talent or genius excuse badness. You don’t get to become a rock star, famous artist, politician, or billionaire by ‘goodness’. You get it by having the talent, regardless of your personal failings. A psychopath that can write a catchy tune is going to win.

You can pay your taxes, volunteer at the dog shelter, and hold open doors for people all day but if you can’t carry a tune you’re not a singer. No one wants to eat a pie by someone who can’t cook but always calls his grandmother or have their taxes done by someone bad a math but he always stops to help people change a tire.

I’ve seen the meme lately about President Trump that goes along the lines of, “I didn’t elect him for his personal life, I elected him to get things done.” Maybe someone is wholly distasteful but if they get results, do we keep them? We may as well count the angels on the head of a pin.

#11 Comment By Helen Willis On March 12, 2019 @ 2:39 pm

When Jackson was a little kid and sang with his family, it was not difficult to see the dollar signs in his dad’s eyes – and his mother’s. I think everybody making a buck of that family contributed to the family’s dysfunction. The writers who penned numerous articles about the shining, talented children, the children themselves, the family members. They would be doing all that today if they could make money off of the perversion, either the exploitation itself or the denial, the defense of “innocence.”

#12 Comment By straight On March 12, 2019 @ 10:30 pm

I’m 51, loved lots of music, and MTV, and was always grossed out by Michael Jackson. His prissy voice. (I appreciated Prince, because he had Sound.) I didn’t get Michael’s glove or Thriller. The only interesting thing about him was the moonwalk. The only people I knew that liked him were either younger than me (mostly girls), or gay men. (If they were closer to my age, then they just had generally bad taste in music.)

I think GaryH is on to something. Wow. What a revelation. I think Michael Jackson did kick off this weird sex freak-show we’re seeing now. I also think, since he really wasn’t that good, that, like Madonna, his popularity was due to changes in marketing strategies that began at that time. MTV…. and so on.

#13 Comment By charles cosimano On March 12, 2019 @ 11:10 pm

I never cared for Michael Jackson and his music but if had liked it his personal life would not have mattered any more than would not listen to Wagner because he was an anti-Semite.

#14 Comment By Jim Crabbe On March 12, 2019 @ 11:42 pm

Great article! I think it’s important to establish that we can respect an artist’s work and not their personal life. There is an endless list of artists who I admire greatly who weren’t good people. Phil Spector comes to mind first, but the list is endless, really, with names like Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry. Some monsters, some just seriously flawed individuals. It’s really unfortunate that people are pulling Jackson’s music from the airways, and it’s really little more than a sign of our “woke” culture and the fake outrage common today. Why don’t they stop playing that Gary Glitter song, which is played at pretty much every single sporting event! Enjoy the music, enjoy the literature; separate the art from the artist unless your taste is limited to being a reflection of your morality. Morality can work well in some art but is not a necessary requirement for good art.

#15 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On March 13, 2019 @ 9:23 am

I can’t listen to anything sung by Michael Jackson. Am just too repulsed. In the end, one can only feel pity for this poor creature who was clearly afflicted with who-knows-what which was caused by who-knows-what.

Very sad…very sad.

#16 Comment By Katrina On March 13, 2019 @ 12:53 pm

Roman Polanski is not an “accused” statutory rapist. He was convicted.

#17 Comment By straight On March 13, 2019 @ 2:05 pm

I know no one thinks they have bad taste…Well, I have bad interior decorating taste…. If I had been born a couple years later and didn’t have older straight brothers who liked rock, and if I had been more conformist in my youth, I may have liked Michael Jackson.

I think Michael was ahead of his time, and that’s not a compliment to him. I think we were headed towards sex creepiness anyway. So I’ve changed my mind: I don’t think Michael alone jump-started it.

I’ve had food poisoning that turned me off food that I used to like. It can take years to like that food again. Artists can turn you off too imo.

#18 Comment By Old West On March 14, 2019 @ 1:41 am

I remember being in college back during the height of Jackson’s popularity. I was having a conversation with my father, who was in his 60s and the son of a very different era. He made reference to “that man who acts like a woman.” I kept stretching my brain trying to think of some cross-dresser that he might be aware of. Finally, he said, “Michael Jackson! That’s his name.”

I was a bit amused at my father’s unsophisticated ways, but clearly he had a nose for his androgyny in a way that I, as someone more conversant with pop culture (and who had like Jackson in his “Off the Wall” phase when he still looked pretty normal) was blind to.

I still think Jackson was one of the great entertainer geniuses of my lifetime, but chalk one up for the old man, who knew a freak and a perv when he saw one.

#19 Comment By Justice On March 14, 2019 @ 9:31 am

American will and can do anything for money. its easy to get people who agree with accusations that come 20-30 years later, mainly because we are angry that some people a over-achievers.if you want to know the truth, you will not get it from commercial channel but there is a fair judge who judges all mankind. one day He shall reveal all. But for now I don’t believe any of these accussations.

#20 Comment By MJ Is not a pedo On March 14, 2019 @ 9:31 am

-2 court cases found him innocent on 14 counts. This alone should exonerate him.

-California Police caught planting evidence

-Media caught admitting they wanted a guilty verdict for financial reasons.

-All accusers were previously found to have been trying to blackmail either Jackson or his estate before going public.

-Supposed book on child porn was found not to be a book on child porn. It was a medical book.

-All physical evidence like; gifts, letters, child wedding rings, photos, mysteriously disappear and are just alluded to in these “documentaries”

-The latest accuser defended Jackson in the last court case.

-Also the current accuser is in quite the bit of debt and threatened the Jackson Estate before going public.

-Leaving Neverland was bankrolled by Harvey Weinstein, wonder why he might want the media’s attention elsewhere.

Jackson is innocent, the Media is lying to drum up a lucrative story and its obvious.

#21 Comment By Deacon Blue On March 15, 2019 @ 4:21 am

“This is what happens when you can clearly see that the golden goose is a monster but your personal ambition compels you to never speak about or acknowledge it, much less do anything about it. So the monster gets bolder, sicker, more powerful, even as he’s laying enough eggs to serve as hush money and then some.”

In reading this passage I immediately thought of the likes of Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and now Donald Trump.

#22 Comment By Deacon Blue On March 15, 2019 @ 5:06 am

Jackson is considered an entertainment icon, but I think his songs, albums and “body of work” are overrated. I can think of maybe five memorable songs he recorded.

Compare this quantity of songs that will endure for generations to the career set lists of performers such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Neil Diamond, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, U2, Lynryd Skynrd, CCR, The Beach Boys, etc.

Songs (and albums) made famous by those in this partial list are going to be enjoyed and sung by future generations far more than songs associated with the career of Michael Jackson.

Now, Jackson could dance and was certainly famous (probably in part because of his “weirdness”), but as a recording artist, I doubt Jackson’s list of “iconic” songs will pass the test of time.

#23 Comment By Nancy Serrante On March 15, 2019 @ 8:14 pm

Michael Jackson was secretly investigated by the LA police and the FBI for over 10 years. He was acquitted on all 14 counts. NOT GUILTY. Do some research to find out about these 2 false accusers. They have incredible holes in their stories. I think your article is a piece of garbage. Now people accuse someone of anything they want and it’s truth? Weird don’t make you guilty of being a child molester. 10 minutes of research about these two…but no, you write garbage like this without facts.
Wade doing tributes to Michael Jackson, begging to do the circe de sole tribute and loses the gig. All of a sudden he’s a victim. one minute they didn’t know they were abused. The next they always knew but lied under oath. Please. You might disgust me for writing this article as much as they do.