Science

‘There are good fans and bad fans’

Michael the Messiah exposed

Ever since the documentary Leaving Neverland came out, many people have turned their backs on Michael Jackson. RUG PhD student Fardo Eringa was particularly affected; what will this mean for her research into ‘Michaeling’?
By René Hoogschagen / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

The documentary – in which two men talked about their childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson – made a big impression on Fardo Eringa. ‘It really got to me’, Eringa says. But her own feelings about the revelations aside, what did this mean for the fans of Michael Jackson who were the focus of her research?

Eringa studies Jackson’s super fans: the people who would walk through fire for the late pop star, who see his worldview as some sort of religion, and who go on pilgrimages to Neverland Ranch and other memorial spots. They see him as their messiah.

Eringa, who is in theology and religious studies, wrote her master thesis on the people who go on these pilgrimages, also known as ‘Michaeling’. From there she embarked on a PhD to research the phenomenon, and thanks to a grant from the Prince Bernhard Cultural Fund and the prestigious Fulbright scholarship, became a visiting scholar at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Pilgrimage

In Houston she is preparing for the next stage in her pilgrimage – traveling from Neverland Ranch, Jackson’s former home, to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. She’s following the route that fans took when Jackson died ten years ago.

‘I have worried that people would stop caring about him’, says Eringa. So the documentary came out just in time – even though it didn’t paint a pretty picture of Jackson. ‘But he was back in the public eye.’

It really upsets the fans; it hurts their fan identity

Jackson fans are outraged at the accusations made in the documentary. They protested at the film’s opening night, complained to broadcaster HBO, they point out errors and discrepancies, say the victims in the documentary were just in it for the money, and they make their own documentaries refuting the accusations. Some even sent death threats to the documentary’s director and the two men who had made the abuse claims.

Gigantic

Eringa says the aftermath of the documentary was ‘gigantic’. ‘This will have such an impact. Everyone is talking about it. Stores don’t play his music anymore, and statue next to the McDonald’s restaurant in Best has been removed. That really upsets the fans; it hurts their identity as fans of Michael Jackson. It’s really affected them.’

Her own conflicted feelings aside, the revelations are have been really interesting for her research. ‘I can ask people how this impacts them and their interpretation of Michael Jackson.’

She isn’t looking into how superfans feel about the accusations put forward in Leaving Neverland – the accusations are old news. There were two cases of sexual abuse back in 2005, no accusations have been proven in court. As far as fans are concerned, this is just another baseless attack on their hero.

Undermine

Eringa isn’t curious about those who are willing to abandon Jackson fandom, either. The superfans featured in her research won’t turn their backs on him that easily, she says. ‘They don’t believe the documentary is true.’ In fact, most superfans simply refused to watch it, or dismiss it altogether. There’s a reason for that: ‘If your world view is so dominated by one thing, believing that documentary would impact it severely. If you based your entire value system on that it could undermine your principles.’

It shows why they think he is so sacred

She does want to know how superfans respond to people around them, who are upset by the documentary and can’t understand how anyone could continue to idolise a criminal. ‘They feel obligated to defend Jackson’, she says. She can use this to figure why they’re so devoted to this man and his message. ‘It really shows why the fans think he is so sacred.’

Irony

‘They want to be like Jackson’, Eringa explains. ‘They don’t want to pretend to be like him’, she hastens to add, ‘they want to apply the values they feel he represents to their own lives: to love, to take care of one another, to be kind to nature, and be kind to children.’

She laughs at the irony. Not too much, though: she doesn’t want to pick sides. ‘I’m a spectator, I observe.’ And that’s hard enough, since she herself is a fan of Michael Jackson’s music.

She wasn’t looking forward to the documentary, but she had to watch it. ‘I had to face the music. I can’t be one-sided in this.’ And she was almost convinced that the men in the documentary were telling the truth. ‘It really got to me. It just really draws you in. But then I spoke to fans, watched and read some other things, and I was like, no, it’s not true.’ In the end, she is agnostic about the accusations: ‘I truly don’t know.’

Book

‘Fans hope that my research will play an important part in restoring Jackson’s image.’ But that won’t happen, she says. ‘I want to show the impact he’s had on these people. I do believe they’re good people and that they use their interpretation of Jackson’s views to do good.’

They fixated on him as a catalyst, a medium

Most of the people she talks to are women. They’re in their fifties or sixties and are looking to give meaning to this particular phase of their lives. The fact that they chose Jackson as a conduit for personal meaning is actually completely random, Eringa says: ‘They’re just trying to find a better way of life, a kind of spirituality and growth. They fixated on him as a catalyst, a medium. But in the end, it’s not actually about him.’

She’s never heard of anyone leaving the Jackson fandom, but perhaps she’ll learn more in June, when she joins the next pilgrimage. Rumours abound on these trips. ‘There are “good” fans and “bad” fans’, Eringa explains. ‘The bad ones serve as an example for how not to do it.’

Neverland

The pilgrimage starts a week before June 25, the ten-year anniversary of Jackson’s death. Starting at the gates of Neverland Ranch, the pilgrims will travel – by car – to Los Angeles to visit his grave and his star on the Walk of Fame. The pilgrimage ends with a Michael Jackson show in Las Vegas.

They will undoubtedly play his music the whole trip. Can Eringa still stomach it? ‘It’s kind of lost its appeal’, she says. ‘But I maintain that I’m not sure what to think of the whole business. He had such an impact on twentieth-century music, and he was so important to African-American musicians. He is a true icon; you can’t just erase someone like that. And in Jackson’s case, it’s easy to separate the person from the music.’

‘But’, she adds, ‘if I were to believe the documentary, I’m not sure if I’d still be able to enjoy his music.’

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