The day the icons died (June 25, 2009)

We’ve all heard that old saying about deaths coming in threes, but rarely do two of the three happen on the same day.

One of the world’s best-known sidekicks (and sweepstakes spokesmen), Ed McMahon, passed away at the beginning of last week. On Thursday, former poster girl Farrah Fawcett died of cancer after weeks of deathbed vigil by her long-time partner, Ryan O’Neal. And only a few hours after word got out about Farrah, the world was stunned to hear of the sudden death of Michael Jackson, known to millions as the “King of Pop.” I was never a huge fan of either of them, but they were both pop icons, and I feel an need to acknowledge that.

It’s always befuddled me how, more than thirty years later, Farrah‘s best remembered as one of Charlie’s original Angels, considering that she left the show after only one season. To be honest, she was never my favorite Angel either; I always thought Jaclyn Smith was prettier. I didn’t really get Farrah’s appeal, but then again, I was a girl in middle school in 1976, not a teenage boy (or boy of any age, really) – and they certainly got it. That poster sold zillions of copies (and it’s been posted everywhere else already, which is why you’re not seeing it here).

However, while she might have been at the peak of her pop-culture impact  during the late ’70’s, she did go on to have a pretty decent acting career, including several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her work in TV movies. When she first came to public attention, she was Farrah Fawcett-Majors, wife of TV’s Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors, and rather progressive with that hyphenated name. But after their divorce in 1982, she became part of one of Hollywood’s longest-running unmarried “marriages” with Ryan O’Neal, with whom she had her only child, Redmond. She was more than just a pretty face surrounded by famously fabulous hair – no one had seen a style like that before Farrah wore it, but for years afterward, women were trying to achieve some version of it.

Speaking of pretty faces…Michael started out with one. When he first appeared in the early ’70’s, singing with his brothers in the Jackson 5, he was a cute kid with vocal talent and dancing skills well beyond his years, and through his teens, he was growing into quite a handsome and gifted young man. Then something changed. And it changed some more, and some more…and after awhile it was hard to say exactly who (or what) he looked like. Over time, it seemed like a lot of things changed about Michael, and they mostly changed for the strange. If millions knew him as the King of Pop, plenty of them also knew him as “Wacko Jacko.” I know it’s not considered right to speak badly of the dead, but really…in recent years, his bizarre personal life got more attention than his music. And now, his death is getting more attention than any entertainer’s I can think of since Elvis, and that’s probably just about right. They had a comparable impact on society in general, and popular music in particular. (They also had a family connection, since Michael was married to Lisa Marie Presley for a few years.)

File:Off the wall.jpgNow the music is what will be left, and for most of a decade, almost no one’s music was more popular worldwide. It reached across ages, cultural backgrounds, and genre preferences. It really didn’t matter if you were black or white (or any other color, for that matter). But it wasn’t just the music itself, although much of it would crawl into your brain and stick there, whether you wanted it to or not. Michael’s biggest stardom coincided with the rise of music video, and he was one of the biggest contributors to the rise of music video. There was never anything like “Thriller” before he made it, and there’s been nothing quite like it since (although there have been plenty of attempts). He originated the Moonwalk, and no one else ever looked quite right trying to do it. He’s influenced a generation of musicians, and a few of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s best parodies.

Michael’s 1982 album Thriller was the biggest seller of all time, and many of the songs on it still hold up well and don’t sound the least bit dated. But I like his prior album, Off the Wall, a little better, and I’ll admit that part of the reason for that is because he still looked like himself at that time. As it turns out, “off the wall” was a good indication of where Michael Jackson was headed – off the wall, and off the charts.

On one day in June, the world lost two people who made indelible marks on the culture of their time.

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