Dear Michael Jackson,
This is the first letter I’ve written to a dead person, though you’re still alive in a sense, aren’t you? There were always two Michael Jacksons: one, the flesh-and-blood mortal who succumbed 12 years ago; the other, a product of countless people’s imaginations, a creation freed of the constraints of time and space who will live forever.
I’m writing to let you know that, since the death of — what shall we call him? — the corporeal Michael Jackson, there has been an afterlife that promises to be, if not quite as interesting as your actual life, at least interesting enough to suggest that the imagined Jackson will live on and affect us for many more years to come. Some may hate me for saying this, but I reckon people will carry on discussing you for decades and will eventually, and perhaps grudgingly, accept that you are an African American who made history.
Let me try to justify this. Think of five African Americans who have earned widespread social approval over the past 40 years. Michael Jordan will probably be on most readers’ lists. Barack Obama too, even though his presidential tenure revealed fallibility that was once considered unthinkable. Oprah Winfrey will surely appear on most lists. Beyonce, like you, a singer whose dreamlike rise has been followed by a generation, will feature too. George Floyd might crop up, not so much for what he did, but for launching an unprecedented global movement. But probably not you, Michael. Yet your achievements compare favorably with those of the others, and you remain as relevant and crucial as any of them.
At the moment, you’re certainly remembered as vividly. Why? Well, I need to fill you in on a few developments that happened after you lost consciousness at your home in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. Paramedics arrived at 12:26 pm and found you weren’t breathing. They tried CPR before rushing you to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, arriving at 1:14 pm. Surgeons couldn’t revive you, and you were declared dead at 2.26 pm on June 25, 2009.
The Afterlife Begins
That’s the point at which the afterlife started. Millions of acolytes all over the world went into the kind of mourning we hadn’t witnessed since the death of your friend, Princess Diana, in 1997. It might have been your music that touched people more deeply than probably anyone else since Elvis or the Beatles, but your videos also had something to do with it. The mold-breaking “Thriller” video has been seen by — and I’m guessing now — everyone alive and several million more who have left us in the intervening years since it was first broadcast in 1983.
There were other boldly original videos. But there was something else about you that moved people. Like other great artists, you found a way of turning fans from admirers to confidantes; they felt like companions, intimates, people with whom you shared secrets. I don’t think for a second you did. But you persuaded millions they weren’t just observing your life; they were parts of it.
Fans’ sorrow took on a commercial complexion when they stopped crying for long enough to buy your records. You sold a prodigious number of records in your actual life, of course. Your first single for Motown, with your brothers, went straight to number one in the charts. The Jackson 5, and later The Jacksons, were a record-selling phenomenon in the 1970s, but the 1980s were yours alone. As a solo artist, you were the heir to the position occupied earlier in the 20th century by Frank Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles. Only Madonna could claim to challenge you as the world’s premier entertainer. By the time of your death, you had sold over a billion records, either by yourself or with your brothers.
The “Thriller” album alone had sold 60 million (now up to 66 million). Sales surged after your death, not because consumers wanted to replenish their collections, but because they wanted a way to validate their relationship with you. In the first week alone after you died, 422,000 copies of your albums sold in the US (40 times the previous week’s total).
In June 2010, “Billboard” estimated that your estate generated more than $1 billion in revenue in the year after your death. This came from various sources, including the sale of 33 million albums globally, 26.5 million track downloads and merchandise. I have to tell you, Michael: You left an unholy financial mess when you departed. The dispute over the values of your assets wasn’t settled until May 2021 when a Los Angeles judge declared they were worth $111 million. Record sales in addition to the various licensing agreements brokered by your estate made you the highest-earning dead celebrity in history, according to Forbes, in 2020. It has been reported that you generated more than $2 billion in the afterlife.
Multitude of Rumors
But, despite the enduring commercial activity, your afterlife has not been an ennobling experience. Over the years, there have been a few allegations made about your conduct with boys, and these have given rise to a multitude of rumors. Yet none of them damaged your real-life reputation, not irreparably, anyway. Remember the first accusation? It was 28 years ago, in 1993, when 12-year-old Jordan Chandler, whom you had met the previous year, claimed you had molested him. He made the accusation largely at the urging of his father, and the response of your camp was that this was a shakedown. Another boy, Wade Robson, spoke up in your defense at the time. It seemed advisable to settle the case and, in January 1994, you did exactly that; the figure involved was said to be up to $22 million.
At that point, you had become one of those larger-than-life characters, full of quirks and eccentricities, but so loaded with money and so worshipped by devotees that you pretty much pleased yourself. You didn’t think it was necessary to play by the rules — you probably didn’t even know about any rules. That’s how it seemed in 2003 when you talked to the now-shamed British journalist Martin Bashir about having sleepovers with children, including a cancer patient named Gavin Arvizo. In the TV documentary, “Living With Michael Jackson,” you actually said on camera, “It’s not sexual. We’re going to sleep. I tuck them in. … It’s very charming.” It was either breathtaking naivete that led you to make such an admission or perhaps a self-assuring hubris. Either way, it brought the police to your ranch, an investigation, an arrest and charges that included child molestation, abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.
Robson defended you once again, this time at your trial in 2005. Members of the jury believed him and, presumably, you when they acquitted you of 14 charges. The not-guilty verdict came four years before your death, almost to the day. But a courtroom verdict is not the same as a social judgment, and suspicions grew. Your disappearance did nothing to kill them off. So, they were still swirling around when you resurfaced to announce plans for a series of concerts at London’s O2 Arena to take place over several months in 2009. It was a gigantic 50-gig undertaking, and not everyone thought you were capable of completing it at your age. In fact, you never even got started. You died, aged 50, while rehearsals were taking place.
A Great Leveler
Death is a great leveler, of course: It spares nothing and no one. But, in your case, it tilted the balance very much against you. Robson and James Safechuck both started legal actions in the years following your death. Robson changed his earlier story and alleged you molested him repeatedly over a seven-year period when he was aged between 7 and 14. Safechuck said you abused him on more than 100 occasions. Both Robson and Safechuck were frequent visitors to your Neverland ranch in California during the 1980s.
The bizarre fascination that both elevated and haunted you in your real life became a frightening execration in 2019 after the broadcast of a four-hour, two-part television documentary, “Leaving Neverland.” Directed by Dan Reed, the program focused on Robson and Safechuck. Both men were by then in their 30s. As children, they were swept away by your care, kindness and generosity. In the program, they described how they enjoyed wondrous times at your estate, which was decked out like a giant playground.
But they also provided accounts, often in granular detail, of events behind closed doors. These, they said, were harrowing encounters that involved the sexual abuse of young innocents. Their version of events was challenged by your family and diehard fans, of course. But you weren’t around to defend yourself, respond to the accusations and offer alternative remembrances. So, Robson’s and Safechuck’s testimonies were given credibility by the TV documentary and considered an overdue exposé. Your songs were banned from several radio stations around the world in the days and weeks following the broadcast.
No famous person has ever been annihilated posthumously — at least not as you have. John F. Kennedy’s peccadilloes have been unearthed and tut-tutted over, but without sullying his character. Marilyn Monroe’s misdeeds have also been highlighted, in her case enhancing her postmortem charisma. The British TV personality Jimmy Savile was excoriated in the media after his death in 2011, though he was not well-known outside the UK.
In your case, you are known probably by everyone on earth. Will they ever think of you differently? The likelihood of new evidence or substantial recantation is slight, and only time might rinse the necro-stigma from your spiritual corpse. It’s paradoxical that you’ll be immortalized in disgrace after a life filled with adulation, applause and rhapsodic approval.