In the early 1980s, after a string of hits as the lead singer for the Jackson 5, the adult Jackson accomplished the unprecedented: transforming himself from child star into an international superstar of historic proportions--the most successful solo artist in music history.
But to focus on Jackson's extraordinary success is to ignore what made so many of us take him seriously in the first place: his musical genius. Like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson was the rare artistic innovator who managed to reap the full rewards of his innovation. Blending the showmanship of his superstar idols (Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Smokey Robinson) with the rhythmic inventions of the architects of disco, Michael Jackson made himself into an exquisite musical artist. By luck and design, the majority of Michael Jackson's most accomplished art--"I Want You Back," side one of Off the Wall, the twin peaks of Thriller: "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," the most astounding one-two punch in pop music history--connected with an unprecedented mass audience. Just as Elvis sold more than Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley combined, Michael Jackson outsold his influences. And like Elvis, Michael Jackson was destined to be a Superstar For Life.
Then things started to get weird. Time and again, Jackson would do something impressively odd--take a monkey to the Grammys, appear in public wearing a surgical mask, marry Lisa Marie Presley--which his fans, myself among them, would rationalize away. We comforted ourselves with, "It can't get any weirder than this!" But without fail, it always did. It helped that Jackson still delivered the goods: I couldn't be bothered with it at the time of its release, but I've since come to love 1991's Dangerous, which boasts the highest percentage of good-to-great songs of any Jackson album.
But soon Jackson's oddness eclipsed his art. The vitiligo. The morphing face. The '93 molestation allegations and subsequent $20 million settlement. The surrogate mothers, mysterious offspring, and dangled infants. By now, the weirdness was coming faster than most fans could follow, much less rationalize.
Then came the bombshell--Living with Michael Jackson, Martin Bashir's 2003 TV documentary chronicling eight months in the life of the family Jackson, including footage destined to become evidence: 44-year-old Jackson cuddling on the couch with a 13-year-old male friend. Before Bashir's camera, Jackson spoke warmly of their relationship: "The most loving thing you can do is share your bed," said Jackson, holding the hand of his young friend, whose head rested on Jackson's shoulder. Within weeks, Jackson would find himself at the center of his second criminal investigation for alleged child molestation, with criminal charges filed by the end of the year.
As a connoisseur of pop culture, celebrity justice, and horribly fascinating scandal, I couldn't be more riveted by the questions raised by the new Jackson trial. Does excessive success lead to criminal insanity? Can a person embody both great humanitarian love and criminal sexual urges? Do a great artist's crimes invalidate his art? Will Michael fucking Jackson actually go to jail? These questions could be answered by following the trial in the media. But my most nagging question could only be answered through active investigation: Despite all the allegations, settlements, and creepy documentary footage, is it possible that Michael Jackson is actually innocent?
Even though I'm a fan of Jackson's music, I find it hard to believe the 46-year-old Jackson isn't guilty of something. For better or worse, I live in a world where the idea of a physically abused, sexually confused child-star-turned-international-superstar who's drawn sexually to adolescent boys makes some sort of sense. Add the particulars of Jackson's life--the unprecedented success that allowed him to sustain an arrested-adolescent world all his own; his family faith as Jehovah's Witnesses, for whom out-of-the-closet adult homosexuality is out of the question--and the dots only seem to connect faster.
However, not everyone agrees with me. There's a core group of Jackson fans that see no evidence of wrongdoing, just a deep diabolical plot against an individual so extraordinary the world is driven to destroy him. Many believe Jackson's philanthropic love of children has made him a repeat target of extortion by money-grubbing devils. Others see Jackson as the victim of a government conspiracy, fueled by embedded racism and executed by a vindictive district attorney. Others cast Michael as the new Jesus, a man whose transcendent love and goodness prove so shocking to the world of corruption around him, all society can do is try to tear him down.
These die-hard fans--true believers, I call them--have been around for years, congregating outside Jackson's court appearances. Regarding the charges of child molestation, the party line among true believers is simple: I know in my heart he could never do such a thing. Not only is Jackson innocent; in the minds of many supporters, he's constitutionally incapable of committing the crime he's charged with. "He would never hurt a child," goes the refrain. Did the true believers know something us fair-weather fans didn't? Or were they just adamantly delusional freaks? I needed to find out.
My plan was simple: I would go to California for the beginning of the trial and mix with the true believers in their natural habitat--support rallies, courthouse vigils--in hopes of acquiring, or at least better understanding, their unshakable faith in Jackson. However, to true believers, there is no enemy more insidious than the Media. To "pass" as a true believer, I needed a strategy: Walk softly and wear an expressive T-shirt. A local custom-made T-shirt shop put together a collection of pro-Michael T-shirts for me. "Innocence Is Beautiful" read one, the letters framing an airbrushed image of Michael surrounded by the Children of the World. "Tom Sneddon Is a Cold Man" read another shirt, its anti-prosecution slogan rendered in an icy wintery blast. Finally, my most confrontational shirt, which dissed Jackson's accuser with the creepy nickname allegedly given to the boy by Jackson himself: "BLOWHOLE IS A LIAR."
On Sunday afternoon, the day before the trial, I headed out to meet the true believers. The MJJForum was hosting a "Support Vigil of Faith" in Lompoc, California's Ryon Park. Fans had been encouraged to bring "posters, banners, and candles to support the King of Pop," but scanning the park from my car all I saw were people pushing strollers, kicking soccer balls, and playing on blankets with babies. The only Jackson image to be seen was on my chest, a hand-drawn illustration of Michael as a child, drawn by Jackson himself, who also adds a line of text: "Before you judge me, try hard to love me. Have you seen my childhood?" After stalking the park for two hours, scanning each new arrival for signs of pro-Michael sympathies, I returned to my car. In the parking lot, a woman drove slowly by in her Mazda. With her frizzy hair and ample size, she fit my stereotype of a true believer to a tee--a crude assumption confirmed by the glossy poster of Michael in her back seat. As she drove past, I ducked my head, suddenly shy. Hanging out with a group of true believers was one thing, going one-on-one with a single fan was something else. So I fled, hoping for better luck at the second fan event, a supporters' conference scheduled that evening in the nearby town of Solvang.
I got my wish. Upon my arrival at Solvang's Viking Lodge, I was met by a pair of fans, a 30-something couple who'd journeyed from Holland to attend the trial. After clearing up my confusion about the vacant vigil in Lompoc (moved at the last minute to the Santa Maria courthouse), the pair began hyping the wealth of pro-Michael merchandise they had in tow: "Towels, pillows, sheets, everything." Before long, we're joined by another fan--June, a heavyset 40-something woman from Georgia, who also happens to be the woman I'd seen earlier in the Mazda.
The four of us take seats around the conference room table, and June turns immediately serious, "The first thing you need to know is that when you talk about Michael Jackson, you should assume that you are under surveillance, because you are." The Dutch couple nods gravely. "I've been speaking the truth about Michael for five years," June continues. "I've been videotaped in my bedroom, in the shower…" At this point, June jerks her head toward the ceiling: "We know you're there!" she bellows at the hidden camera she imagines in the corner. Wow, I thought, she's crazier than I ever dreamed! Then I realized she was telling the truth, even if she didn't know it: She was under surveillance. But it was the man in the Michael Jackson T-shirt sitting across the table from her, and not some hidden camera, that was doing the surveying.
The Dutch couple and June buzzed off each other, basking in mutual love for Michael. Within minutes, they're discussing exactly how much of Michael is angel, and how much is human. For the Dutch couple, Jackson is pure spirit--"the Earth Angel Michael," they say, holding forth on the savior beyond race and gender sent to save the world from darkness. And while June views Michael as merely a blessed human-- "a most Godly man"--all three agree on Michael's power to heal, swapping anecdotes of cancers cured by the hand of Jackson.
The next morning, I see all three of them again, wandering among the hundreds of sign-waving supporters crowded outside the Santa Maria courthouse. As the crowd awaits Jackson's arrival, the Dutch couple distributes their pro-Michael newssheet, a screed that does little to clarify the case of the true believers. ("Thing to Think About #4: The mother [of the accuser] recently got remarried to an ex-Marine, coincidentally also named Jackson. Would you like to be named after someone who supposedly molested your son?") Clad in my "Wanna Be Startin' Justice!" T-shirt, I strolled among the supporters, noting the signs of internationality: a crew of adorable young women from Japan dressed in identical white snowsuits bearing Michael Jackson buttons, a glittery Jackson look-alike informing a reporter how he'd traveled all the way from Australia to be here, a Union Jack adorned with "The UK Supports Michael!" "He's good and special," I overheard a 20-something girl tell a newswoman. "People can't handle that--it's like Jesus, people can't handle perfection."
At 9:55 a.m., Jackson Christ arrives, stepping from a black SUV with a quick smile and wave before disappearing under an umbrella and into the courthouse. The crowd is beside itself--screaming, cheering, tears flowing. Once Jackson is inside, the crowd seems to glow with post-orgasmic bliss, swapping stories ("He saw me!") and luxuriating in the communal positivity. From a nearby boom box comes the opening melody of "Man in the Mirror," eliciting cries of joy from the crowd. For a moment, I feel the pull of the true believer's emotional conviction: How can someone whose mere presence makes so many people so happy be guilty of such a horrible crime?
Trial day two draws about a quarter of the first day's crowd, a fact not lost on reporters, one of whom I heard attempting to interview a true believer. "So," the female reporter began, "there's a lighter turnout this morning…"
"Stop right there," snapped the interviewee, an African-American woman in her late 20s. "You're already focusing on a negative. Look at the people who are here. These folks quit their jobs and traveled from all over the world to support Michael Jackson during his darkest hour. If even one person comes to support Michael, that's a wonderful thing. This interview is over."
With that, the fans closed ranks, banishing the reporter to her cold world of corruption and negativity, while they basked in the warmth of their shared positivity.
As for my question: I found my answer. Yes, most of Jackson's true believers are adamantly delusional freaks--but their delusion is so intricate it almost constitutes a worldview. To believe in Michael Jackson's innocence is to believe in a world of extraordinary purity and simplicity, a world with clear boundaries between good and evil. The darkest element of this world of light and goodness is its assumptions about Jackson's young accuser. For true beievers, the notion of a grasping adolescent concocting bogus sexual allegations against a rich superstar is far easier to swallow than a beloved child-loving humanitarian harboring criminal sexual urges. "I could never harm a child," swears the man who survived a childhood of violent physical abuse by his father. But couldn't Jackson's experience of abuse have skewed his ideas of what it means to "harm" a child, with "abuse" meaning punches and kicks, not wine and kisses?
Such speculation is categorically rejected by the true believers, who are hooked on their feelings. "Think the prosecution ever gets to feel such love?" wrote one trial attendee, recounting her experience in the Positive Voices for Michael J. Jackson webring. "We know the difference between good and evil, wrong and right."