Archive for June 28th, 2009

Pop Culture Icons

On Thursday both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died.   Each were major figures in the pop culture scene, though Jackson clearly played a more profound role.   The reaction of the public to Jackson’s death was reminsicient of when another major pop icon, Elvis Presley.   Like Jackson, Presley had not handled the fame and wealth well, delved into drugs and general weirdness.  Presley didn’t fall as far from grace as Jackson did, but in each case we’re left with a sour taste in our mouths.   These greats who did so much to shape a generation of music could not shoulder the pressure of fame.

But first, the one being forgotten in much of the coverage: Farrah Fawcett.   She came to prominence in 1976 with both the TV show “Charlie’s Angels” and a poster that came in Life magazine that is still the best selling pin-up in history.   She became synonomous with glamor and sex appeal for the late seventies, a beautiful smile, slender, with long curly blonde hair.   Later she starred in a movie based on a true story, The Burning Bed about spousal abuse.  Finally, after years of refusing to be photographed or act in the nude, she appeared in Playboy when she was near 50, still in demand.   She married the “$6 million man” Lee Majors, though they were together only six years (known during that time as Farrah Fawcett Majors), and for the last 27 years was in a relationship with actor Ryan O’Neill.

I was 16 when Charlie’s Angels started, and I actively disliked Farrah Fawcett.  I did not consider her attractive.  Kate Jackson was my favorite “Angel,” and I found myself disliking the way in which Fawcett became the symbol of beauty in the late seventies (rivaled by Bo Derek when the movie “10” came out in 1979).   Yet for a few years, she was the one.   This was the era when cable was relatively new, and had not yet spawned MTV, CNN, or massive television offerings.   You had ABC, CBS and NBC, and this was ABC’s big hit.  So nearly everyone watched it at least sometimes, and the show became a very integral part of the pop culture life of late seventies America.

At the same time, Michael Jackson had already been on the scene for years.   When I was nine years old I started buying 45s and listening to music.   That was the same year 11 year old Michael Jackson started recording with the already touring family quintet, the Jackson 5.  His style, voice, dance and ability to connect with the audience soon made him the star, as their first singles, “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “I’ll Be There” were major hits.  Despite more hits like “Ben” (about a rat), the Jackson 5 never regained that level of success.  Renamed “the Jacksons” they continued without much fanfare.

Then Jackson emerged with the right stuff at the right time.   After writing a grammy winning song for the film “ET,” he put together his second solo album, Thriller just as MTV was taking off.  MTV had started in 1980, and had become a pop culture phenomenon as music started to appear in video as well as audio form.   This quickly became a new art form, as bands and directors tried to figure out the best way to wed sound and image.  It spawned quick new stars — David Lee Roth’s humor, Steve Perry’s beautiful hair, and Madonna’s sassy rebellion.

Of all of them, only Madonna rivals Jackson in early influence.  Jackson’s thriller became an event.  MTV hyped it, more money and time was spent constructing the sets, choreographing the dances, and fine tuning the production.  Jackson’s dance skills had set him apart when he was a boy, he now was taking dance in new directions, and merging the fading disco genre with a new sophisticated eighties style.  Yet music was still pop, there was still only minimal fragmentation into multiple genres and types (pop, country, easy listening, and R&B/Soul).   Record albums still ruled (though CDs were now available), and it took a lot of money to produce and market an album.   Jackson was still in an era where if something hit big, it had universal rather than niche success.   If he had been born five years later or earlier, he would not have been able to hit the pop culture scene with this kind of impact.

For the rest of the eighties Jackson (along with Madonna and Prince) were the unrivaled pop trend setters.   There were other big acts, but Jackson was the undisputed King of Pop, a role rivaling the Beatles in the 60s and Elvis in the 50s.  Seven hits from Thriller made Billboard’s Hot 100, and success continued.  Though by the 90s as music fragmented, eighties pop faded, and Jackson seemed to engage in ever more bizarre behavior, the child star became a caricature.  Still admired and loved by millions, but for a variety of reasons, seen by others as strange and even perverted.

Those of us who do not dwell on Jackson’s scandals and remember his contribution to pop aren’t really remembering Jackson the man, just as Elvis fans aren’t thinking of a pill popping banana peanut butter fatty when they mourn the (alleged) death of Elvis.   It is less  the person than the moment when each were in the right place at the right time.  Elvis, the Beatles and Jackson would all have been non-descript acts if they had come a bit later or sooner; they came right when the pop world was ready for something new.   There are many talented and even brilliant artists, but success requires more than that — it requires timing and opportunity.

We remember the early eighties, the reaction to Thriller, and the take off of MTV.  We recall an earlier time when MTV was the music scene, and pop dominated.  This was before grunge, before fragmentation, before downloads and MP3.  You still took the album art seriously and debated the song order on the album (and what was on side 1 vs side 2).  It was a different world, and Jackson epitomized an era within it.

Farrah Fawcett’s standard of beauty in the late seventies, and Jackson’s standard of pop music and MTV style in the early eighties, helped define an era.  Those of us who were young during that era cannot help but feel some sense of loss when these aging icons pass away.

Alas, like Elvis, Jackson couldn’t process what his cultural status meant for his personal life.   It was worse for Jackson; he had never had a normal life, he had always been a star, always in a kind of fantasy life.  As such, he drifted further from reality.   He seemed to lose himself in all of that, honored as an artist, pitied and even reviled as a person.   Yet I refuse to judge him; the challenge of early wealth and fame is perhaps a greater personal burden than the challenge of poverty and prejudice.  He never had to develop personal traits of honor and courage, his “advantages” left him ill prepared for life.