In 1993, GARY STEEL was the editor of teen pop magazine RTR Countdown, which dared to suggest that Michael Jackson was guilty of deviant sexual behaviour just months before the first scandal broke.
When rumours started to fly around in the early ‘90s about Michael Jackson’s supposed sexual interest in children I was the editor of New Zealand pop magazine, RTR Countdown, a publication pitched at teens and a phenomenon in its own right. Our marketing department claimed that the magazine had 40 per cent penetration of the teenage market. We fell about laughing at that statement, not because it was wrong, but at the connotation of, you know, penetrating teens.
Michael Jackson had by then already become “Wacko Jacko”, tabloid fodder because of his waywardly eccentric behaviour: the frequent cosmetic surgeries that transformed him from an attractive young African-American into a plastic-faced freak, the monkey, the “elephant man” bones, and on, and on.
We had, of course, followed MJ’s career as a matter of duty to our readers. I’d flown off to New York to catch him at Madison Square Garden in February 1988, and only missed meeting him in person by getting social anxiety at a special before-show party and fleeing the scene. The concert was spectacular, but to be honest, the highlight of my New York trip was attending a performance by avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith at a tiny venue called the Knitting Factory (and later, interviewing him in his tiny apartment). Oh, and catching my personal musical hero, Frank Zappa, on the last tour he ever did.
If Jackson had been a tad eccentric in ’88, by 1993 he was a laughing stock to the general populace, while his legions of fans clung to their loyalty for the self-styled “King Of Pop” with ever-increasing desperation. My features editor at the time (now an adored and admired author and columnist) wrote a piece under the pseudonym of Karla St. Eve that dared to suggest that – in addition to all the general weirdness around MJ – there was something sexually perverted about him. “She reckons he’s up to no good,” read the intro.
The story, which appeared in the May 1993 edition of RTR Countdown, was really the magazine’s death knell. Reaction from the record industry was swift. The then-managing director of Jackson’s record company in New Zealand phoned all the other major record companies urging them to withdraw their advertising support for the magazine.
It wouldn’t have put a dent on our advertising revenue, which mainly came from tampon and fizzy drink corporates, but without co-operation from the record companies, we would have hoed a rough road editorially.
Sensing RTR Countdown’s impending demise, I went into damage control and like a weak bastard visited the head of Sony to assure him the magazine would never publish another scurrilous story like it. He wrote to me shortly thereafter: “I just wanted to let you know that I have today communicated with all the other Managing Directors, and look forward to a far better future together.” Yeah, right. Our features editor left under a cloud shortly thereafter, but when the first lot of allegations broke in September, his alter-ego, Karla St. Eve, faxed me:
So I was right all along! My article about Michael Jackson may have outraged your readers, and led you to give me the sack, but I think Jackson’s child abuse scandal shows that I was on the right track… he KNEW the shit was going to hit the fan this year, so he made a big song and dance before the scandal happened, so that nobody would believe he was capable of being a cretin with the kiddies he slept with on that heart-shaped bed of his!”
The fax from “Karla” was clearly in jest, as I hadn’t actually sacked my features editor. He’d gone onto bigger and better things where he could write about, you know, real life and all that.
When my publisher killed off RTR Countdown in December of the same year and marched us unceremoniously off the premises (stealing my personal collection of music photographs and a bunch of my records in the process) I wasn’t naïve enough to assume that Karla St. Eve’s MJ story was behind the decision, but I’m sure it played a part. The truth is that RTR Countdown had always been editorially edgy, and funny, and never shied away from controversial topics. I’d hired writers some of the sharpest writers around to give it a lift that readers wouldn’t expect from a teen mag, and columnists like Robert Rakete and Timothy Giles wrote about subjects that were back then considered untouchable, including overt sex advice and open discussions about teen suicide. The official line at the time was that to mention teen suicide was an encouragement to kill yourself.
No, it would have been a cumulative impact with our conservative publisher, Michael Horton, who can’t have enjoyed reading in the Timaru Herald that “disgusted dairy owner bans teen mag” because of its “stories on teenage prostitutes and a sex quiz.”
And then there was Metro magazine’s scurrilous gossip column, which claimed that RTR Countdown’s Model Awards “was a paedophile’s well-dressed wet dream,” and that the barely-dressed 12-year-old models were involved in rather shonky goings-on with guests after the show finished. It was all completely fabricated. The same column also claimed that one of the magazine’s employees had been given the boot for running up a four-figure bar tab. Again, the claim was bollocks, and I later got a personal apology from the writer, but the damage was done.
Then, as now, MJ’s fans had come to his defence with vigour. RTR Countdown had been buried in letters protesting his innocence. And then, as now, most of the arguments are spurious and overly emotive. The disturbing thing about the difference in the public’s attitude between ’93 and 2019 is that in the age of social media, courts of justice are seen to be irrelevant as the people can make up their own minds on someone’s guilt or otherwise.
I don’t know quite when this shift happened, but it’s dangerous (to use the title of one of MJ’s lesser albums), and deeply worrying that a generation (or two) seem to think that it’s okay to try and convict someone in the court of social media based on whatever they’ve heard or read.
Our system of justice is flawed, and there are innocent people languishing in jail just as there are guilty people still walking free. Sometimes, the system gets it wrong, but what’s the alternative? The fact is that in a court trial there’s a process that – if not quite scientific – is based on detailed testimony and evidence, not just “he said, she said.” The way the media reports trials is necessarily oriented towards sound bytes, and therefore, seldom gets down to those often integral – if boring – details.
We all know that social media is full of links to all sorts of spurious junk, but for some reason, we seem to have reached consensus that we can, in fact, decide on someone’s guilt or innocence based on how we interpret a documentary or on a balance of probabilities based on the reading of a few newspaper stories. And it’s terribly wrong thinking.
Personally, I don’t give a rat’s ass (Ben, or otherwise) whether Michael Jackson is guilty of the accusations against him. We’ve known about allegations of paedophilia since 1993, and the only thing that’s changed, it seems, is that a single documentary and the “testimony” of two men can convince the world of MJ’s guilt, despite several intensively detailed court cases that came up with the “Not guilty” verdict. Could the courts have got it so wrong? Of course. But is it our place to come to conclusions based on one documentary with an agenda? Of course not.
What we should be talking about isn’t the guilt or otherwise of MJ – or any of the other industry bigwigs or stars currently under the spotlight for alleged sexual abuse – but a system that has let powerful men avoid scrutiny. The Catholic Church allowed paedophiles in its ranks to hide in plain sight and continue abusing children, and similar protection mechanisms exist for the famous and powerful in the entertainment industry. To be blunt about it, the music industry has too often acted as an enabler of criminal behaviour.
The #Me-Too movement has thrived on the kind of hysterical commotion that the media loves, because it drives up their page impressions, but ultimately, at some point, the public outing of the next alleged abuser is going to be too “last week’s news” for media to bother with, and the movement will lose momentum. I admire what the #Me-Too movement could be: an organised and systematic drive to remove the corporate protection mechanisms behind powerful abusers, and to make it much, much easier for victims’ voices to be heard (and less harrowing) through the courts. Instead, there’s an unsaid tacit understanding that any innocent alleged offender caught in the spotlight is simply collateral damage… a few innocent men caught in the dragnet are worth sacrificing for the greater good.
Is there any smoke without fire? In my experience, often. I’ve seen first-hand in the workplace people accused by envious colleagues of doing things that they were completely innocent of. And no, I’m not talking about anything on the scale of sexual abuse, but this is an avaricious world: people seeking money or vengeance or both can smell the current hunger for justice for those abused by the privileged.
So, should radio be banning Michael Jackson’s music? Was it right to destroy those Rolf Harris paintings? Should Kevin Spacey have been digitally erased from that film? Of course not. And should we be listening to their music, or watching their movies? Of course, if we can stand to.
Perhaps I’m weird, but I don’t connect someone’s art to the person that made it, because I love the art, and don’t know the person. It’s human nature to be compartmentalised. In wartime, through history troops have raped and pillaged and murdered children and then returned the loving father to their nice wee families. I always remember the interview I saw with African dictator Idi Amin’s wife, who said what a loving family man he was. He also happened to be a sadistic, torturing, murderous bastard who liked the taste of human flesh. So when I listen to a Michael Jackson record I’m assuming that I’m hearing that part of the human being that was compassionate and honest and whatever, not the sick fuck who (allegedly) did all these unforgivable things to young boys.
In the coming decades there’s going to be an avalanche of exposés about the deviant behaviour of 1960s and 1970s rock stars, and my guess is that it’ll be hard to find anything of that genre to listen to if we ban every single artist or band that did something considered morally repugnant or downright criminal, or both. When we get to the hip-hop era of the ‘80s and on, we can expect things to get even more troublesome.
Art has always been divorced from the people who made it. That’s the beauty of the best art: that it tells us something beyond the foibles of its creators. My favourite ‘pop’ song of all time is Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan And Isolde, and a fine interpretation of it never fails to move me to tears or a quivering wreck. And yet, Wagner was a terrible anti-Semite, and he was reputedly Hitler’s favourite composer. Does that mean his music should be banned for all time, obliterated because the composer – apart from being an innovator and a genius – was horribly prejudiced? The answer is ‘no’, and we should move on from there.
And people, hold your opinions over Jackson’s (or anyone else’s) guilt. That’s what the justice system is for. We don’t need a band of people with flaming torches or any spontaneous lynchings, please.