The end of innocence?


"There always seems to be a bunch of kids over at the house

and they're always welcome."

--Michael Jackson, "Moonwalk" Of all the adjectives swirling around the allegations that pop star Michael Jackson molested a 13-year-old boy, none seems more disingenuous than "incredible."

Shocking? Certainly. Who wouldn't be shocked to learn that a man whose whole career has been built around an image of innocence and child-like delight has been accused of something as seamy as sexual abuse?

Disturbing? Absolutely. Even if Jackson is exonerated -- and so far, there is no corroborating evidence, just the word of one boy -- the glimpse this scandal has given into his personal life has been unsettling at best. After all, the image of a 34-year-old man sharing his bed with an 11-year-old house guest is an uncomfortable one, no matter how innocent the circumstances.

But incredible? Sorry. To be incredible, something must defy credulity -- it must be really hard to believe. And the sad fact is that it's very easy to believe there's something unseemly about Michael Jackson's obsession with little boys.

We've known about it for years, of course. Who doesn't remember seeing him on the 1983 Grammy Awards broadcast, with Brooke Shields on one arm and Gary Coleman on the other? Who didn't hear about his friendship with the young Sean Lennon? Or the pranks he played with Macaulay Culkin? Or the time he spent with Ryan White?

Given the golly-gee nature of his music and the benign nature of his personality, it's easy to understand why children would love being around him. But why would he be so eager to be around them -- particularly since he never seemed to seek adult companionship with the same ardor? Granted, our national preoccupation with child abuse has made it hard for most people to look at any close, non-parental relationship between kids and grown-ups with suspicion, but there was something about Jackson's single-minded pursuit of youths that made even devoted fans wonder.

So when he explained to Oprah Winfrey earlier this year that the reason he filled his Neverland Ranch with amusement park rides and Disney animatronics stemmed from the fact that fame had robbed him of his own childhood, most viewers sighed with relief. It wasn't just that Jackson's story made sense; truth is, it was far more comforting to take him at his word than to consider alternate explanations for his desire to live in a child-filled world.

The profile

Those days are gone now. And even those who feel Jackson is utterly innocent -- a view held by 63 percent of the people polled by Entertainment Weekly recently -- have to admit that Jackson does make a very likely suspect.

For one thing, as the Village Voice pointed out, his image does fit the pedophile profile, with "a high degree of identification with children; a tendency to feel more comfortable socially with children; a tendency to 'romance' children; and the arrangement of [his] professional life in such a way as to bring [him] into contact with children."

Then consider the sexual circumstances of his childhood. In his book, "Moonwalk," Jackson writes that before they were signed to Motown he and his brothers "worked in more than one club that had strippers. . . . We were exposed to a lot doing that kind of circuit." Not exactly the ideal environment for a 9- or 10-year-old. Add in the way Michael and his brothers were mobbed by female fans during the first wave of Jackson-mania, and it's easy to see how the singer could have grown up with an intense fear of adult sexuality. Obviously, those feelings are what inspired songs like "Billie Jean" and "Heartbreak Hotel"; the question is, did they inspire anything else?

Jackson's reaction hasn't been reassuring. True, the allegations were denied almost before they became public, as private investigator Anthony Pellicano told reporters that L.A. police investigations were the result of an extortion attempt.

But details of that "extortion attempt" raised more questions than they answered -- such as why, if the father of the boy in question was trying to shake Jackson down, would he have threatened to go to the police? Blackmailers may make many threats, but telling the cops likely isn't one of them.

Moreover, Jackson's sudden bout of ill health -- the dehydration that forced him to cancel a concert in Thailand, the recurrent migraines for which his doctors can find no cause -- hasn't strengthened his denials. And though celebrities from Liz Smith to Elizabeth Taylor have sprung to his defense, the singer himself has so far only spoken through channels.

Still popular

Yet no matter how credible the accusations might seem, and no matter how damning the circumstances might be, Jackson's popularity has suffered surprisingly little. Entertainment Weekly 's poll found that 79 percent of the respondents said the allegations would not make them less likely to purchase his music in the future. And his current single, "Will You Be There," has actually moved up the charts since the scandal unfolded, moving from No. 14 to No. 12 to No. 7 in the past three weeks.

Compare that with the way Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens was blackballed after being arrested at a Florida porno house, and the public's faith in Jackson seems stunning. Admittedly, there are differences between the two cases -- for one thing, the evidence against Jackson is highly circumstantial -- but what we're seeing has less to do with proof than with persona.

How so? Because at bottom, Jackson is not merely likable but pitiable. He grew up without a normal childhood, and spends his adult life inside a bubble of publicity and intrigue. His family's squabbles have made them the stuff of tabloid headlines, and his seeming lack of a love life has left him open to sniggering speculation. He seems profoundly alone in life.

End of innocence

In short, despite all the joy his music has brought to listeners around the globe, Michael Jackson seems to have had very little happiness himself. Nor does there seem much ahead for him, since no amount of exoneration will ever be able to restore the innocence of his relationship with children.

Ultimately, that may be the saddest thing about this scandal.

"I would like to think that I'm an inspiration for the children I meet," Jackson wrote in "Moonwalk." "Their approval means more to me than anyone else's."

Though he may continue to earn their approval, it's doubtful he'll ever completely have our trust.

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