Ed, Farrah, and Jacko meet up with Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates . . .
I can’t help it: the clumped deaths of three such A-mur-i-can pop culture icons of the twentieth century is a great set-up for a joke (if only I could write jokes).
Is it true that a country gets the pop culture it deserves? Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson were each part of the very fabric of pop culture over the last 40 years, but it was not a piece of the fabric that I myself paid much attention to.
Farrah Fawcett was the first one I knew, as a girl in the seventies. I didn’t watch Charlie’s Angels, but that hair. It wasn’t just on the poster---it was everywhere. In every magazine. Feathering. I wanted my hair to feather. I had it cut to feather. But it did not feather like hers. I don’t think it was a crushing body image moment, but there was a genuine, deep longing for that hair. I look at the poster now, and the smile seems oddly skeletal—-her jaw is squared and harsh, not all that pretty. She is the first famous person I remember who hyphenated her last name when that started happening in the seventies, Farrah Fawcett-Majors. I thought it was the most fabulous name.
I just read that the iconic poster was first seen in 1976 in Life magazine. Who even remembers that Life magazine was still around in 1976?
Next came Michael, obliquely for me. I didn’t buy "Thriller," but somehow I had a 45 of "Rockin’ Robin" in grade school, I don’t know why. Completely by chance I caught the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever on TV on May 16, 1983, and even without a prior connection to MJ, it was a thrilling performance.
Ed McMahon was the last I noticed, when I started watching Johnny Carson around 1987. I didn’t watch Star Search, I vaguely remembered seeing Ed on the Jerry Lewis MD Telethon. The idea of a couch sycophant wasn’t very appealing, and his forced guffaw laugh was creepy.
Taken together, the culture was enriched by an old school emcee, a talented musician before Neverland, and sweet cheesecake.
Of the three, Jacko was given the 3-column banner in the NY Times online when the news broke. It started with this exuberant image from the Dangerous era, perhaps the last time Michael looked healthy. I don’t know what power Michael Jackson had as a live performer, but his truly global fame meant that he spoke across cultures and generations. There are shades of Sammy Davis in his dancing, a comparison that would have been anathema to him as he grew more and more horrified in his own skin. He went from a precociously talented boy soprano, to a sexy young man, into a dark, tortured limbo of dementia.
Andrew Sullivan has an excellent appraisal of the pain behind Jacko:
"Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.
But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell."
What strikes me about these three is their obvious desire for fame, which wasn’t the case when, say, Paul Newman died. Farrah had it early based solely on her looks, and she struggled to parlay that into a more satisfying and sustaining career. Ed McMahon was a last bit of Old B-list Hollywood. He had a niche, and he didn’t try to better himself beyond it. But he had a sense of entitlement to being “famous.” Michael of course is in the league of Marilyn, and Elvis, and James Dean. Fame came to him, and then devoured him. Are we collectively to blame for that? Is our culture that dangerous to its stars?
Let’s not forget that amidst this pop cultural swirl is the 12-day courageous strivings of the Iranian people in the midst of a cultural revolution who want to be freer to create their own broad cultural icons. And that makes me appreciate mine—-even though I didn’t love them-—all the more.
(Ed McMahon photo: AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac/file 1992)