Thursday, June 25, 2009

Burning Beds and Dancefloors; Remembering the lives of two generation-defining entertainers

I was amazed at how deeply struck and saddened I felt on Thursday when news of the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson hit the mass media. Here were two people that could be no different, set against opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum, who had accomplished something lasting and then faded away from the limelight either by personal choice or lack of motivation. Indeed, when it came to acknowledging their bodies of work, our minds had often been elsewhere because they seemed so far in the past. Yet in their own ways, they lived very public tragedies in recent times that warranted a deeper insight from those of us on the outside, she with her brave years-long battle with cancer and he with a decades-long decent into depression, legal troubles and mental instability.

In both cases, both were struck down long before their time should have been over. Farrah’s cancer diagnosis in 200? warranted the same instinctive reactions many of us had when news broke about Tammy Faye’s heartbreaking battle with the disease, and as time went on we found ourselves rooting for miracles, even in the 11th hour when odds were slipping beyond her favor. Recent news of her final hospitalization was coupled with an announcement that she and Ryan O’Neal would finally wed once she was well enough to say her vows, as if to remind us that we all most hold onto the positives even in the face of impending mortality.

I did not have much of an opportunity to know the work of Farrah Fawcett, but what she did was forever etched in pop culture. Her time on “Charlie’s Angels” is often cited as her defining professional achievement, a stint that that re-established gender roles, caused a fashion movement (it’s not a coincidence that a hairstyle was essentially named after her!), and gave women a sense of empowerment that had seldom been seen on television. But for me, her benchmark work came in the form of a made-for-TV movie called “The Burning Bed,” in which Ms. Fawcett played an abused wife whom, in an act of temporary insanity, took charge of her dangerous situation and put an end to something potentially life-threatening. The role silenced those critics who assumed that the actress was simply a beauty to be forever typecast in the bombshell role, and we both sympathized with the portrayal and felt a sense of awe at her ability to adapt to alternate acting methods.

Farrah’s most recent professional act may prove to be her most lasting. The recent documentary about her health struggles, in which cameras followed her around for the past several years while she fought tooth and nail to beat her deadly disease, now resonates more heavily than ever as news of her death penetrates us. Here was a woman who had passion and endurance, who looked at her disease with a certain ferocity and showed us the immense struggle she endured as she sought experimental treatment, went into remission and then saw herself weighed back down by a disease that refused to quit. Above all, she wanted desperately to live.

The emotional weight that comes from the passing of Michael Jackson is of a different kind. The self-proclaimed King of Pop weathered much in his short years, not the least of which was a private life undermined by eccentricity and moral ambiguity. Yet beyond the constant ammunition he provided for years and years to late-night comedians, the masses seem to have forgotten why he was famous in the first place. In the wake of his death, one can only hope that obituaries recall those vintage times first and foremost and simply remember the troubled times as a mere sidebar.

I was a kid of the 80s, the era in which Michael was at the height of his popularity. Not just a damned fine entertainer, Mr. Jackson was also a revolutionary, changing the way we looked at popular music by allowing it to be more than just about amazing hooks and polished production. Similar can be said of his effect on music television; with a string of highly-ambitious videos like “Thriller,” “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal” under his belt, he opened up the eyes of a generation of music aficionados to the unending possibilities that a new format like music television could provide to its growing list of participators. One might even say that his drive and ambition opened the window for popular icons like Madonna and Prince to rise above their genre’s reputation and become lasting influences on today’s musical culture.

Even in later years, when his apparent emotional instability and enigmatic lifestyle began to overrun the influence of any professional work he undertook, some of us would still grin with anticipation at what he was capable of. I recall being one of those countless closet Michael fans who jumped for joy when the fantastic “You Rock My World” debuted on radio in 2001, much to the displeasure of a horde of naysayers who would have rather seem him either fail miserably or simply cease to exist in the public consciousness ever again. Similar success could not be said of his last studio album, which failed on multitudes of levels, but what we were left with was the sense that, above all the fanfare and the debate, even a living legend was still capable of isolated moments of greatness in his later years.

What do these untimely deaths leave us with, ultimately? A painful realization, perhaps, that the good generally die younger than what they deserve. No matter the inevitability of Fawcett’s death or the shock of Jackson’s, what these events leave us with is a painful, amplified reminder that even our heroes are vulnerable to the same fates of a general populace, and often in times when we are not ready enough to deal with the realization.

- Written by David M Keyes

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