With Obligatory Farrah Fawcett Mention
I found out that Michael Jackson had died when I showed up at Joe's Pub to see the latest Loser's Lounge event: Neil Young vs. The Eagles. The people at the box office, preoccupied by rumor-hunting on their computer, had just found some reliable news reports. Inside Joe's Pub, I met up with my friend Mary, a big Michael Jackson fan, and started breaking the news to her...but it turned out she'd already gotten word, too.
As the event got underway, I wondered whether the Loser's Lounge crew would somehow find a way to acknowledge Jackson's death. Loser's Lounge had, after all, done a Jacksons tribute in 2007. But no mention was made as the evening wore on—until Tammy Faye Starlite stepped up to perform "Already Gone." With her usual giddy and electrifying coarseness, she noted the death of Jackson and referred to South Carolina governor Mark Sanford as a Gary Condit, as Jackson's death seemed likely to push Sanford's romantic peccadilloes out of the headlines.
Afterwards, Mary and I spent some time wandering the sidewalks of Manhattan, strolling through Union Square to see if any vigils were underway. We didn't see any, but from time to time we heard strains of Michael Jackson music. A vigil, I later learned, was at the Apollo Theater and other places far and wide.
My own feelings about Michael Jackson are extremely mixed. I admire his singing and dancing as a child star with the Jackson Five and, like Daniel Radosh, I still remember his stunning 1983 moonwalk to "Billy Jean" on the 25th Anniversary of Motown special. That was an exciting reinvention of himself, but there were many others—such as the plastic surgeries—that strike me as signs of how desperately Jackson wanted to break free of an abused childhood that, I fear, did not prevent him from himself being a child abuser, even if in his own mind he might have thought he was simply being friendly and kind and gentle toward the boys in his bed.
Sorting through my thoughts and the media flood that has followed Jackson's death, I realize that he, like the late Farrah Fawcett, were poster children for their times in almost every respect. Their best-selling poster images were icons displayed in countless bedrooms around the globe, creating an extreme yet false sense of familiarity for much the masses, most of whom would only know them in two dimensions. People wanted to admire what they saw in these two celebrities, but aspects of what made those two people admirable were not admirable at all.
Jackson's fame sprang out of his great childhood talent for singing and dancing, which tended to eclipse concerns about any negative effects that his handlers and the media boom of the past 50 years might have had on him. The flashiness of his public performances was so brilliant—and the mass desire to fixate on it so intense—that it remains very hard to see beyond the glitter and discern more than a vague outline of the disturbing, "non-iconic" realities that Jackson, his family, and his entourage actively often worked to suppress or rationalize. Yet child abuse and child exploitation and shameful cover-ups were components of this particular formula for success.
Fawcett's fame was appearance-based—classic fodder for feminist analysis of Seventies values. Did she ever throw off the yoke of her image-based celebrity? As Alessandra Stanley has put it, "She really tried." The social crosscurrents of the 1970s led to the creation of Bea Arthur's feminist character Maude at the same time that they produced the jiggle TV of Three's Company. Fawcett's Charlie's Angels actually had progressive potential from the start—but producers made sure it would languish in the jiggle zone. (One of these days I'd like to see a version of Charlie's Angels that doesn't giggle away the premise that three highly skilled women investigators can solve or prevent crimes.) Fawcett did go on to play more serious roles, but her career offers yet another cautionary tale about the pitfalls of being exploited as a sex symbol.
I think my mourning for Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett started long before their deaths. Both "icons" struggled to break away from the powerful negative influences that had built them up as celebrities, but in both cases I suspect that those negative influences, including the two-dimensional public images adopted and then imposed by invasive media and unrealistic mass desires, proved to be too much for them to manage. It was difficult to witness those struggles.