Musicians, actors, comedians, directors, chefs, novelists, journalists — in the past 18 months, many famous people have been cancelled.
Not literally cancelled (though sometimes that, too) but disowned and boycotted by the gatekeepers of popular culture: fans and consumers, who shift their tastes, and movie and TV studios and radio stations, who shift their investments and endorsements.
But if what’s known as cancel culture — a term that has come to prominence since the #MeToo movement emerged — managed to topple Michael Jackson, that would be unprecedented.
Could Leaving Neverland, the controversial four-hour film telling the story of two men’s alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Jackson, destroy the legacy one of the biggest icons in the history of music?
Let’s go through what this documentary does and doesn’t explore, the impact it has had, and what its ramifications might be.
Claims of abuse by Michael Jackson go back decades
In 1993, Michael Jackson was sued by a family who claimed the singer sexually abused their son, Jordan Chandler, whom Jackson had befriended and whose family he had invited to his Neverland ranch.
Police in California investigated but did not file charges. That lawsuit was labelled an extortion attempt by Jackson’s lawyers and was later settled for an undisclosed amount, reportedly millions of dollars, but with no admission of guilt on Jackson’s part.
In 2003, the singer was charged with molesting a different boy, a cancer patient. After a 14-week trial, which was covered in great detail by the world’s media, he was found not guilty.
The two alleged victims in Leaving Neverland are different people, but have told their story before.
Several years ago, after Jackson’s death, Australian-born choreographer Wade Robson and American James Safechuck sued the Jackson estate over sexual abuse they allegedly endured as children.
Those suits were dismissed, on two separate occasions, for technical reasons, including that the pair waited too long to come forward. Those court decisions are under appeal.
“There were never any rulings to the court as to their testimony,” the pair’s lawyer, Vince Finaldi, said in the wake of the documentary.
“We stand by our clients, and we believe them, and we fully expect them to be vindicated.”
Why has this documentary caused so much controversy?
The testimony of the two men is compelling and uncomfortably graphic — it goes into considerable detail, in a direct-to-camera fashion, about the sexual acts each was allegedly forced to perform.
“He was one of the kindest people I knew,” Mr Robson says at one point.
“And he also sexually abused me for seven years.”
“There was no thoughts of this was wrong or anything,” Mr Safechuck says.
“It was just a very accepted way of exploring your love — that’s what he would say.”
Over four hours, the two men tell how what happened impacted their families, and how they came to terms with it as they grew older, married and had children of their own.
Michael Jackson’s supporters say these men’s stories cannot be trusted.
Mr Robson testified under oath for the defence at Jackson’s criminal trial, when he was 22. Mr Safechuck spoke in defence of Jackson when the 1990s allegations emerged.
Jackson’s family, his estate and his most fervent supporters — labelled by some media outlets as truthers — say the fact their stories have changed shows they cannot be considered credible.
The estate, which is now suing broadcaster HBO for $100 million, says that the fact the pair’s lawsuits remain on appeal proves they, like the accusers in prior decades, are motivated by money and that the film is a ploy to drum up support.
The film is told solely through the voices of Mr Safechuck and Mr Robson and their mothers, wives and siblings. No-one else appears on camera, including from Jackson’s family, which the estate says shows director Dan Reed’s bias.
Reed said he did not want to include any comment from anyone who was not in the room when the abuse allegedly took place.
“We don’t make any allegations about the Jackson family, so why would I go to them?” Reed asked during an interview on British TV.
“This is a case of what happened in the dark behind closed doors.”
Reed said the corroborating evidence around their accounts was “very strong”, but that he wanted the film to focus on them telling their stories. He also said Mr Robson and Mr Safechuck had not been compensated.
Michael Jackson fans are fighting for their idol
As the documentary screened in the US, Jackson fans ramped up their support for the singer on social media, using the #leavingneverland and #MJinnocent hashtags to attack journalists and share what they consider relevant contextual information about the two accusers.
MJ truthers are blowing up my mentions for pointing out the obvious: Michael Jackson sexually abused kids for years. Dan Reed, who directed the docu, is also awash in fan outrage. He told me MJ's victims became numb to this sort of thing long ago. pic.twitter.com/Hlm5dVfNSK
— Maureen Dowd (@maureendowd) February 16, 2019
Many adopted the same avatar — Jackson’s face with the word “innocent” across the lips — and quoted the line “facts don’t lie, people do”, which also appeared on placards at a protest this week outside the headquarters of Channel 4, which screened the documentary in the UK.
Australian Damien Shields, the author of a book about Jackson’s artistic process and a longtime fan who has come out against the documentary, said the MJ supporters felt motivated to protect the star’s legacy.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say that the Michael Jackson fans are biased, and they don’t see anything other than Michael is not guilty, and that they don’t raise any points other than all the things that they believe exonerate him. And that’s true,” he said.
“But the reason we are in a position where that is necessary is because the other platforms that are telling this story are not telling that side of the story.”
Mr Shields said because the truth could not be known definitively, it had become a question of the credibility of the accusers.
“They need to be heard, for certain, but once we hear them, [and have] given them their chance to raise their voice, we need to be critical, we need to figure out if they are actually credible or not. Because Michael is not here to even say anything about it.”
What this will mean for Michael Jackson’s legacy?
If the documentary succeeds in cementing the idea that this revered singer was a paedophile — and it seems to be making an impact, given radio stations are beginning to drop his music — Michael Jackson will be the biggest scalp yet when it comes to cancel culture.
How many of us grew up singing along to The Beatles despite being born years, sometimes decades, after the band broke up? That band’s legacy, reach and influence is almost unmatched in the canon of popular music — except by Michael Jackson.
That an artist who wanted to be made immortal through monuments of sound might become at least partially muted seems to be the animating fear when it comes to the estate and Jackson’s fans.
“The Michael Jackson estate, in the months before this all blew up, [was] still making big, big deals,” Mr Shields said.
“They made a deal with Broadway to have a show on Broadway in 2020. The show was supposed to preview in Chicago prior to its Broadway launch. The Chicago preview has been cancelled. Is the whole Broadway show going to be cancelled?
“Will the Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil One show be cancelled? Is Sony Music going to renew its contract with the Michael Jackson estate the next time that comes up?
“The domino effect of [the estate] not countering this in an effective way is going to be huge.”
For New York Times cultural critic Wesley Morris, enjoying Michael Jackson’s music in the wake of this documentary may become more complicated, but not impossible.
“Even being a little bit aware of the accusations against him, you carry around this awareness that it’s not an entirely clean fandom,” he told Hack.
“It isn’t so much that the music has to go away, and you can’t listen to the music anymore, it’s that you keep with you this heaviness that you have as you move though the world.
“I think we should be sophisticated enough people to understand not so much that people are fallible in any way that exonerates Michael Jackson of what he is being accused of, but just to acknowledge that there is a lot of awful people who do a lot of good and make a lot of great music.”