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Friday, June 26, 2009

Death of Childhood Pop Culture: Looking Back at Michael Jackson, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and more

This saddened installment marks my 200th post.

I was just getting ready to settle in for a couple hours of DVR space reclamation when I saw a status update on Facebook saying that “Michael Jackson was in cardiac arrest. Will probably die this evening.” I immediately stopped watching recorded television and went straight to live television. Thankfully my daughter was napping at the time or I would have been stuck watching Sprout instead of CNN, ABC, and other news outlets. Before the television could update his condition, Facebook had already declared him dead via TMZ. While everyone else had him hospitalized or in a coma, more status updates came out saying he was dead via other news sources. The news, while rather shocking, only served to bring to an end a fantastic life of a pop icon who first came to prominence during my early childhood years. Oh, and yeah, Farrah Fawcett died, too.

Well, that’s what it felt like yesterday. There was this switch in reporting, like a shift change at a factory or plant. Farrah had died in the morning and all the reporting was about her, then Michael died and it switched like a light. Soon the media machine went nuts and everything came to a screeching halt around the world with the death of an icon.

If ever there was a case of best evidence for “Death Comes in Threes,” this week was it. First Ed McMahon died, then Farrah Fawcett and MJ on the same day. Three of the biggest names from my childhood pop culture upbringing gone, all prominent spokespeople for products, all having a tumultuous era of their lives displayed in the media. Ed McMahon had lived a full life, dying at the age of 86, MJ and Farrah both died relatively young. Still, Hollywood deaths no matter how expected are still jarring to our senses.

The deaths of this Madison Avenue Three are not a summary of my childhood, but more of a coda, or perhaps a bridge in my life stretching between the first half of my life and heading into the second or middle portion of my life. Throughout the years there has been a systematic disintegration of pop culture land marks along the road of my life. Looking back makes you laugh, cry, and wonder, “Too soon or too late” for some.

For my parents, Elvis was probably the last celebrity death that marked their youth. I say that, not from the standpoint that nobody else died after 1977 but that everyone associated with their childhood during the baby boom generation was heading into their later years and death was an expectance, not a shock. They had already experienced the death of JFK, Marilyn Monroe, and Martin Luther King more than 10 years before that. Now into their 30s, my parents had probably pared away the last few layers of their childhood when Elvis died at 42. Also, consider that prominent icons from the media or pop culture that had existed in the mainstream at this time also carried into mine and my siblings’ lives. For example, George Burns, was a very prominent fixture in my parents’ lives as a radio and vaudeville star, but in my life he played God and was a comedian I’d see on television chomping a cigar and peering out of huge glasses. When he died in 1996 a very big piece of my childhood died.

Two years prior to Burns death at 100, the first huge gap formed in my childhood memory, John Candy. Now, one could argue that River Phoenix was the first, but spanning the entire three decades I can relate to these kinds of events, River had a brief run. He never really got a chance to expand into his full potential, much like James Dean, in my parents’ generation. No, for me, River Phoenix was a tremendous actor and person but his impact was not realized yet, so I have to go with John Candy. From an overall Pop Culture perspective, I think the Challenger Disaster ranks number one in my life, but from a pure Hollywood Entertainment standpoint, it’s Candy.

Growing up, I loved him in SCTV and films like The Blues Brothers, Vacation, and Stripes as well as Uncle Buck, The Great Outdoors, Home Alone, and Planes, Trains & Automobiles. I could go on and on about his career but it’s just a rehash of what has already been said about his enormous comedic presence. Another big media presence surrounding a celebrity’s death came in 1997. I was spending the day at a local amusement park just before the Labor Day holiday when I returned home to see my parents’ television fixated on CNN. There had been a car wreck in a Parisian tunnel which claimed the life of Princess Diana. A media frenzy surrounding the event and most likely helped to cause the accident was sprawled across television stations up and down the dial. I think this was the first huge impact the media had on a person’s death either in attributing to or reporting on it. Her marriage had become an iconic moment in television pop culture and so would her death.

Soon the flood gates opened and a slew of iconic actors, comedians, and other entertainers from my childhood followed suit. There was Alec Guinness, Charles Schultz, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Ray Walston, Frank Sinatra, Jason Robards, and many more. These deaths bridged the gap between my parents’ generation and my own. A true testament to their impact was this transition from one to the other.

That’s kind of how Michael Jackson’s legacy will be viewed, in some sense, a legacy of change. In his youth, he was an amazing talent and performer, even topping Diana Ross in her own show. As a young adult, he blazed a pop music trail selling more copies of a single album than anyone else in the world. On my birthday, this year, Thriller was certified 28x platinum by the RIAA. In the U.S. the Eagles still hold the distinction of having the Best Selling Album at 29 million copies sold of Their Greatest Hits album, but expect that to be shattered with the news of MJ’s death.

As Jackson rocketed further into stardom, his life became a media circus. The chimp, the bones, the catching on fire, the chamber, the ranch, and into the 90s came the allegations of him molesting a child at his home. Soon, the talent became overshadowed by the tarnish. Overseas, MJ was still a sensation, but in America, people began to get a sense of discomfort. Domestically, record sales suffered. His appearance changed much over his 50 years and that lead to even more head scratching. “How could someone so talented do all that to himself?” Allegations of abuse by his father, Joe, gave little explanation to his behavior and a disclosure of suffering from a disease called vitiligo and also lupus was documented as the cause of his lightened appearance. Still all this seemed a departure from the MJ from the last two decades.

Failed marriages, artificially inseminated children, dangling babies, and a new investigation following a documentary done by Martin Bashir plague the pop star’s career as he now heads to court over the allegations. Impromptu roof top dance numbers in cars, halting traffic, pajamas in the courtroom, and a not guilty verdict all bring the icon’s growing weirdness into the end of the new millennium’s first decade. Reports of financial troubles, lawsuits, and a new concert tour mark the last years of the star’s life as he is rushed to the hospital suffering a cardiac arrest at age 50 on June 25th, 2009.

That’s a very modest and condensed list of events in the life of Michael Jackson. As always, I never claim to be an expert on anything but I do offer a theory as to why MJ was the way he was. Total arrested development. I think that the impact of his father and fame on him led to Jackson displaying a psychological neoteny. The allegations of abuse during an interview with Oprah and on other biographical depictions of his family life on television suggest that maybe he just never grew up because something in him never evolved socially. He was a child star and that led to him staying that way, socially. Perhaps abuse from his father led to a child like state, fearing adult hood or fearing adults for that matter, reverting him to only trust and want to interact with children.

There is an old saying that Mother is the word for God on the lips of children. Even fathers are viewed as Godlike in the eyes of a child. Maybe this destruction of that notion of “Parents as God” prompted him to adopt the ideology that he sees the face of God in children. Further theorizing may suggest that perhaps the supposed abuse by his father led to his changes in appearance more so than any disease could. Rumors that Joe would constantly hold Michael’s nose closed to change the flattened appearance. Others speculate that plastic surgery was to erase the image of Joe Jackson in his son’s looks. Whatever the case, I believe his behavior can be attributed to his growing up in the spotlight and in that house. As far as the trigger for this transition. Maybe it was that first initial surgery to fix a broken nose at 19. Maybe it was the proliferation of his image everywhere that haunted MJ. Everywhere he looked he saw this face, his father’s face, and it made him feel ugly. With surgery and coloring he could attain or retain a childlike appearance different from his family and in a sense, timeless, like a doll’s face.

I also believe that he was mismanaged in a financial and PR sense on top of having a childlike disposition. Let’s put it this way, my two year old daughter will carry around a baby doll. She will dote on it and nurture it with a bottle. She will lay it down on the couch and cover it with a blanket. Then she’ll grab it by the arm and run down the hall, banging the doll’s head into walls, doors, and other objects. Is she a bad person? No, she doesn’t understand certain concepts and behaviors associated with parenting. I think MJ did not develop and understand these concepts fully, leading to the bizarre dangling of his child over a balcony and the even more bizarre relationships he had with children at his home, prompting the allegations of molestation. I don’t think MJ had an evil bone in his body or malicious intentions towards children. In fact, while it clinically could be called molestation, if there was any inappropriate contact with these children, I don’t he understood or conducted himself in such a way. He simply acted as a child would with other children. The fact that he was 45 at the time didn’t help his case.

Also, look at his behavior with financial matters. Go watch Tom Hanks in Big. Specifically look at the behavior of his character when he starts getting paid at his job. He goes out and buys a lot of toys, and novelty items like a Soda Vending Machine, to decorate his apartment. He even has a set of bunk beds. Now, take MJ and give someone with the personality and thought process of a child. I’d buy an amusement park, too. Go interview any child and ask them what they would do with a million dollars. The imagination is limitless and I think the understanding of how much a million dollars really is escaped MJ. His finances were such a complex layered system that I don’t think he knew how much he really had or at least understood it. He had too many ‘yes’ men around and not enough concern over his personal being. They may have guarded his celebrity, and their source of income, but I don’t think their intentions were to help Michael manage his life.

Now of course, this is all speculation on my part and like I said, I don’t claim any expertise but go back and look at his life and his work. It’s almost as if he off stage persona was the puppet and his on stage one was the master. Iit was a very polished and ferocious one. MJ as a performer and artist was light years more developed than his role as a human being off stage. Perhaps this is where he felt most comfortable and the switch went on in his brain that brought out the adult.

His life has been and will be looked at under a microscope for a long time. Regardless of what new information may come out in the wake of his death, you cannot argue that as a recording artist and performer, he was a talented individual and hopefully that image will stay with people instead of the ones we are all familiar with now. Yes, the jokes will come about the manner of death, “How can you perform CPR on a person with no nose?” It’s inevitable and also sickening in a sense. 23 years ago, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after takeoff there was a slew of jokes done in poor taste over the disaster and teacher / astronaut, Christa Maculiffe.

Michael Jackson is the Elvis of our generation and while people see a dead fat white guy on a toilet, many more people see an icon that defines a portion of their childhood. Hopefully, that will be enough to thrill us for years to come.

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