Thursday, June 25, 2009

Passings: Farrah Fawcett, actress, and Michael Jackson, pop singer

How strange and ironic that two of the pop culture firmament's most massive figures should pass away within 24 hours of one another.

Farrah Fawcett (who died at age 62 after a long battle with cancer) wasn't just a TV star: She became one of the most enduring physical archetypes of the 20th Century, her decade's equivalent of Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, or Madonna; someone whose distinctive look continues to have ripple effects on fashion and beauty perception well into the new-ish millenium. I don't think it'd be difficult to convey the impact she's had to a kid of this generation: Hell, just open up any magazine or turn on a TV set. Some variation of Farrah will surely emerge from the page/screen--that California-girl smile, that trim and tan figure, and most importantly that exquisite mass of feathered blonde hair have all found replication amongst too many of today's actresses and models.

When I was nine years old and just beginning to recognize the strange wonder that was the female of the species, Farrah Fawcett represented a stopgap between wholesome Mickey Mouse-style crushes and the earthy realities of real, grown-up desire. My triggers of feminine beauty may have changed over the years, but for me and many of the men of my generation Farrah Fawcett was Ground Zero for our sexual awakening.

She was also a better actress--and a savvier human being--than most gave her credit for. Hers was such a formidable presence that it's easy to forget she only spent one season playing private eye Jill Munroe on Charlie's Angels, and that beneath the tight sweaters and short shorts was a pretty sharp cookie. Farrah displayed range to reckon with in the Emmy-nominated telefilm The Burning Bed, and even in the failed movie projects she undertook after leaving Charlie's Angels (Somebody Killed Her Husband, anyone?), she possessed a self-aware comic touch that portended the makings of a real career. Too bad that her looks, meteoric fame and extended time in the gossip pages overshadowed her talent.

With a legacy as formidable as Farrah Fawcett's, it'd take the passing of a demi-god to overshadow her death, and in the case of Michael Jackson, that's pretty much what happened. Jackson died suddenly of apparent cardiac arrest at the age of 50, but with all the pressures of his fame and the neuroses that surely wracked him up to the end, it'd be more appropos to say that Michael Jackson died of being Michael Jackson.

Even if you weren't a rabid fan of Jackson, it's impossible to deny his massive impact on pop culture. Only Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Frank Sinatra could boast equal significance as musicians and as (hate to use the word, but it fits) icons. And in this age of file-sharing and fragmented listening audiences, Jackson will likely be the last musician in history to be able to boast selling hundreds of millions of units.

In the coming weeks, we're sure to see the inevitable cavalcade of parasites and muckrakers surface: Indeed, Jackson's personal idiosyncracies had almost completely dwarfed his musical and artistic achievements in recent years. But I'm old enough (and sufficiently immunized to the gossip press) to put Michael Jackson's musical legacy front-and-center.

I'd never considered myself a Jackson fan, but his creative impact still inspires awe. Kids today likely can't comprehend that Jackson's videos helped erase the color lines on MTV in the network's embryonic days; and that the King of Pop prefigured the rap-rock fusion of Run DMC (and, by proxy, much of modern-day hip-hop) when he hired Eddie Van Halen to contribute guitar to 'Beat It.'

In the end, the music and the performances--the stuff divorced from the wagging tongues, from the ancillary hype, from the business and career savvy or lack thereof--deserve to endure. Jackson's gravity-defying appearance on the Motown 25th Anniversary celebration 26 years ago merits inclusion with Elvis Presley's '68 Comeback Special and the Beatles' inaugural bow on the Ed Sullivan Show as one of the most important musical moments ever televised.

And seeing a prepubescent Jackson on American Bandstand, singing and dancing with the uninhibited expressiveness and skill of someone three times his age while his brothers backed him up, just hammers home what a fireball of a presence he was, right from the get-go.

Despite the intense laser-focus trained on Michael Jackson's personal life, he always seemed to be an enigma, a mythically-unhappy figure not quite of this earth. It's fitting that his performances seem to offer more of a window into his soul--and ours--than all the tabloid-fodder antics and innuendo rolled together. Rest in Peace, King of Pop: You've earned it.

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