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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  1. I always thought Jacyln Smith was prettier too, and uh, I was a boy of a certain age. πŸ˜‰ As for Michael Jackson, even though like much of the rest of the world, except for members of NAMBLA, I was "skeeved" by him personally, his mark on pop culture is, as you put it, "indelible" and undeniable. Who can forget that moment when he first did the Moonwalk? For many of our generation, it was the equivalent of Neil Armstrong's immortal walk.

  2. Jaclyn Smith is timeless. She is still beautiful today and that amazes me. She either has really good genes are or fantastic plastic surgeon.

    When I think of Farrah, I flash back to that shampoo ad where they told two friends, and so on and so on. LOL.

  3. Bryan – You were a boy of a certain age who had better taste than many of your peers, then :-). And I really hadn't thought of it that way before, but I guess Neil Armstrong really should get credit for "originating" the Moonwalk; MJ brought it to earth.

    Ti – Me too – shampoo and toothpaste commercials were both just right for Farrah :-). And yes, Jaclyn Smith still looks amazing.

  4. I always thought Bosley was the prettiest on that show. πŸ™‚

    I never had the poster, I was just a tad too young, and remembered her more for being married to The Six Million Dollar Man. That probably sounds bad, but that's just the way it was for me.

    And yes, Michael Jackson became a freak show. And I was glad when people stopped talking about "MJ" being dead on Twitter. For us in Chicago MJ is Michael Jordan. Now that I'd be sad about.

  5. What a well written tribute post. It was a memorable day and it feels right to mark such amazing contributions with a post. Now I wish the press would stop speculating about how he died. Obviously something wasn't kosher, he was so disturbed, but who cares already???

  6. Mike – At that age, The Six Million Dollar Man probably made much more of an impression on you :-).

    The Michael Jackson Circus is probably far from over, I'm afraid. But I think Michael Jordan still has a lot of good years left, doing whatever it is he does these days.

    Vanessa (Chefdruck) – Thanks! I think all of the speculation is just part of the above-mentioned Michael Jackson Circus. I'm just glad it's not the only news story in town any more.

  7. I was a big fan of the Charlie's Angels back in the day. Kate Jackson was my favorite. She wasn't the prettiest, but she was one of the smarter ones, and that was the quality I admired most even back then.

    I admit to wondering about all the attention Farrah's received over Charlie's Angels too–but I guess it was her breakout role, so to speak. I think what has always stood out in my mind though is her work with battered women.

    Michael Jackson was my first real taste of rock music. I was a die hard country fan up until he came into my life. Even so, I felt guilty for liking him even a little. πŸ™‚ I've never been a huge fan of his. I like some of his songs, but not all. He certainly did have a big influence on the music world though.

  8. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I think you're right about the emphasis on Charlie's Angels being because that's where she really made her first big impression on the world.

    I love some of the early Jackson 5 stuff, and a few of Michael's solo songs, but I'm not a huge fan either. And there are a couple of his songs where I sing along using "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody lyrics instead of the real ones. It's become a reflex – and I should be more embarrassed about the fact I like "Weird Al," but I'm not :-).