Some thoughts on the deaths of pop stars

I was never a fan of Farrah Fawcett, but I admired the way she handled the ugly disease that ultimately killed her.  She took it out of the hands of the paparazzi and the tabloids and told us her story, her way.  It was refreshing, even if tragic and hard to watch. 

The night before she died, I startled awake at around 3:00 a.m. and started crying for Farrah.  I still don’t know why.  I do these things now and then; the last time was a few years back when I had a vivid dream that a friend of the family committed suicide by shooting himself  in the head.  The next morning I drove by his house and actually found police cars all around and his body being carried out.  He did not kill himself, but he had in fact died of a stroke after not taking his heart medication for a few weeks.  I was haunted by this for months.

And so I was in a bit of a fog about Farrah on Thursday last when someone at work came up to me and said that Michael Jackson was dead.  At first, I thought it was a joke — ah-HA! Michael, who was more a victim of the tabloids than Farrah, didn’t want to be upstaged and so let out this rumor about his own demise.  But after hearing it several more times I realized it must be true.  And Farrah, and Ed McMahon a few days before, were both virtually forgotten in all the hubbub about Michael.  In death, unfortunately, it seems that Michael will continue to be as circus-like as he was in life.  Right now, for instance, no one has any idea why he died, and that’s unlikely to change for several weeks.  During that time, I expect the circus to do great business.

I have no particular thoughts about any of last week’s dead, except that I feel for all of their families and children.  It’s just that Michael’s death in particular — or rather, the inflated eulogies that followed from around the world — brought to mind other sudden deaths of the past that many may consider to be similar.  But they aren’t.

I can vividly remember several: John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King.  Those were the ones we should truly never forget; each had made a difference in our lives, if only psychologically.

Then came the pop superstars: Elvis, John Lennon, Princess Diana.  (These are people who were stars in the U.S.; I know that other areas of the world have suffered sudden losses that were equally as shocking — Ayrton Senna and Steve Irwin come to mind here.)

A week ago, if you had asked me if Michael Jackson were in the same category as these folks, I would have scoffed for much the same reason that I would never place Fawcett in that category: both were moments in time, and that time had passed.  But now I don’t dare. 

You have to look at it objectively, though: Michael’s career, like Farrah’s, had predictably faded after his moment passed.  But unlike her (an aging beauty is still, even in this day and age, never anything but past-it tabloid fodder), he had the opportunity to maintain respect, and blew it.  The U.S. finally turned its back on Michael after the allegations of pedophilia.  It was just too much after all the other weirdness that had surrounded him for years.  The rest of the world, probably just to prove we were bad people, embraced him with ferocity even if a lot of them couldn’t explain why, and eventually some of them came to wonder if we may have been right about Michael.

But now, all of a sudden, the entire world is reeling and even the U.S. is awash in life-long diehard Michael fans.  Right.  Sure. 

He was great once.  And so were the rest I mentioned, but with a difference: they had all come to represent something much greater than who they actually were.  And at the time of their deaths, most of them had faded just like Jackson.  But two didn’t need comebacks (Elvis and Princess Diana), as their places in history were assured: by the time he died, Elvis was no longer so much a human being as an era; Diana was a world-famous princess and humanitarian, as well as an eternal cover girl and real-life romance novel heroine.  (Moreover, she was the one who cut the British royal family down to size.)

The other two were planning comebacks: Lennon, whose behavior had been almost as bizarre as Jackson’s, and Jackson himself.  But Lennon had the Beatle monument — however much he hated it — to shield him, and when he was murdered it came soon enough on the heels of the Fab Four’s breakup (about 11 years) that millions were struck by the poignancy of the first death among the four famous young Beatles who had forever altered the music world, and much of the rest of the world, in the 1960’s.  Jackson, on the other hand, had nothing to fall back on (not even the Jackson 5, as some have erroneously tried to hint in the last few days).  He had a brief period of solo superstardom in the 1980’s, much as Fawcett had her year in the sun in 1977 or so.  That was it.  And it wasn’t enough.  He should have been working his way toward being the Grand Old Man of song and dance, but instead he drifted off and became a circus act. 

Which is to say that I don’t understand what the overwhelming public outpouring of grief is about.  It’s so incredible that even that ubiquitous grandstander Jesse Jackson instantly saw a photo opportunity here.  When he gets involved, you know it’s become a circus with loads of photographers and press around.  Why?

What is really important in this death are the children Michael left behind, and the parents who now have to deal with the pain of outliving a child, and the brothers and sisters who now have one less among them.  To the rest of us, his death is either merely a marker in time, or not.  I’ll probably never forget being at work, ruminating about Farrah Fawcett when I heard about it.

But is my life forever altered?  No.  And yours probably isn’t, either.

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