Celebrity Death Is The Death Of Us All

A friend of mine wrote a witty Facebook status update that referenced the passing of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson on the same day.  

"First the 70s died. Then the 80s. Better watch your back, Spice Girls."

I chuckled at the same time that I realized that in a matter of seconds, dozens of my "friends" were posting about the simultaneous loss of Farrah and Michael. ("We never did see them in the same room together, did we?  Hmmm.")

But what I was mostly struck by was not people's clever remarks, but their immediate jump to connect the celebrities to their own lives, particularly childhood memories.

If karaoke had gone mainstream by the time I was in the 6th grade, "Ben" would have been my song.

We danced to Thriller at Tracy's house and also the Lionel Richie VHS!

My brothers had that famous swimsuit poster on their wall forever.

My youth is flashing before my eyes!  Damn!

Samantha B. remembers debating the best songs from "Thriller" over hot lunch (mashed potatoes via ice cream scoop!) at Evans Elementary.

I remember watching the Jackson Five and Little Michael as a kid -- he was only 3 years older than me.

My daughter did not know who Farrah Fawcett was when she heard the news today.

As for me? I'm a bit too young for Farrah memories myself, but I'm sure I got wasted in some college apartment that had her iconic nipple poster ironically tacked to the wall next to the likeness of Jimmie J.J. Walker. It was most likely in those same apartments that I tipped back wine out of a box and took my shoes off to groove to Off the Wall. 

Of course my first MJ memory being around seven years old and watching my parents open their newly purchased Thriller album, then marveling at the shot of Michael and the baby tiger on the album's centerfold.  ("That's weird," I remember thinking to myself - certainly not the first time I would think such a thing of The King of Pop.)

If I could wax philosophical for a second, I have to say that it seems that the death of celebrity is the death of an empty vessel. When I say "Farrah Fawcett" or "Michael Jackson" to someone of a certain age, he or she will inject into those names whatever memories he or she has associated with them. Funny and warm, depressing and poignant, ridiculous and hilarious. When a celebrity dies -- particularly a celebrity we associate with our youth -- I don't think it's too cheesy to say it's like a little piece of us dies, too.

Of course, Michael and Farrah weren't empty vessels to the people who really knew them.  But to us, the unwashed masses, they served a purpose that was partly entertainment and partly a mirror for our own lives.

A dear friend, when learning of Farrah's death, wrote on a message board: "I can't believe how sad I am about this. I watched her on TV all the time. I remember watching the pilot episode of Charlie's Angels when it came on and just being blown away by her beauty. And that hair! If anything defined my generation and my personal pain in high school it was feathered hair, and my inability to attain it."

For him, Farrah was about not fitting in during high school. For me, Michael Jackson will forever be drunk college nights and getting scared of the Vincent Price talking part during "Thriller."  For you, Farrah and Michael could be anything.  

As much as we bitch and moan about the celebrity pop culture constantly invading our souls, I say I don't think there's anything weird or wrong about feeling a little sad when a celebrity you've never even seen in person passes over to the other side. It is our mix of memories that makes their losses ultimately personal and universal at the same time.

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Jennifer Mathieu
Contact: Jennifer Mathieu