Michael Jackson, 50, and Farrah Fawcett, 62

The greatest recording artist of all time and the dominant fantasy woman of two decades of American life died today.

Michael Jackson Farrah Fawcett

The greatest recording artist of all time and the dominant fantasy woman of two decades of American life died today, Thursday, June 25, 2009. On the way to their rest, they followed not too far behind the hero of Kung Fu, a man who himself had become enough of a mystery that a great film was built around metacasting him.

Carradine CroppedI would wish none of their three deaths on my worst enemy. These were not people who died “ripe” in the way of pre-Shakespearean Lear, surrounded by family and friends and comforted that their lives were taken neither cruelly nor too soon. For their reasons, these were ugly deaths. I will not go into further detail on them, but it bears note, because in our day of media saturation, this is a big part of their stories and what these lives, looking back, mean to all of us.

When Bea Arthur passed, I felt I lost someone I knew. As a performer, she connected with people on the level of a cogent internal and external identity. She crafted human characters in a way that reinforced our mutual humility and dignity. Performers often comfort us by shedding light on the mysteries of identity and stitching together the broken parts of our common experience. Watching Bea Arthur act, and hearing she died, made it easy to be human.

Losing Michael Jackson like this, Farrah Fawcett like this, and David Carradine like this does no such thing.

Farrah Fawcett croppedEvery person has high points and low points in life — reasons to be proud and reasons to be ashamed — reasons to feel rewarded, lucky or blessed, and reasons to feel cursed or alone in the universe. To ground and justify our pride, we often look to idols — fantasies that define our values and lend us the vocabulary with which to affirm and congratulate ourselves in our achievements and merits, and to use as bludgeons to bash ourselves for our unfulfilled aspirations.

We go to bat for our idols, our fantasy folks — we defend them from their detractors, we fill in the gaps in our understanding of them (after all, we rarely know them personally, and even when we do, we cannot know the lives of their minds) with our own conjecture.

At times, maybe we fantasize that by upholding them or praising them, we benefit ourselves, like when we cheer at sporting events. At times, we pretend to ourselves that we know them or are friends with them when we do not and are not. And yet that bond still has social force — it is still real despite its limitations or thin justification.  (For example, I don’t agree that Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obey Giant is an empty signifier that satirizes a form. Andre the Giant does, in fact, have a posse. There are no doubt members of it among this site’s readership.)

When our idols fall, it is painful. It feels as a personal loss.

When our idols do things we are ashamed of, it can hurt us.

But when our idols’ lives so depart from our notions of what they represent and narrativize (and I mean this both in what they do and what they endure, what they choose and what they suffer) that cogency is lost — that our imaginations of them tear away, that the chaos and multideterminism of human nature are laid bare without even as much cogency as I have just lent them.

That’s when things get crazy.

Or should I say, that is when the angst between fantasy and reality becomes poignant, sumblime—almost unbearable.

Jackson bad 2Even if we are the more successful at our passion and craft than any human being who has ever lived or ever will live (which is true and likely true of Michael Jackson, respectively), this does not trade in the same currency as the other things we may do or say in life. Our lives have such a great capacity for disjuncture that the fundamental, just judgements of the way we live can suffer irreconcilable internal conflicts. Reflecting on this is jarring — it is less difficult existentially to face a harsh verdict on our existence than for it to yield to no verdict at all.

I will not go through and catalogue the personal merits and challenges of Mr. Carradine and Ms. Fawcett — their great dignities followed by their great final indignities. But the central theme remains — we come to rely on people as fantasies, and while it is one thing for a fantasy to collapse and fail, it is another for it to shatter so painfully and suddenly as to call into question the very cogency we lent it in the first place.

This is not on them. This is on us. These pictures are not of the people as they lived. They are of the people as we imagined them.

I wish I had it in me to write a proper eulogy for any of these three people, but the discontinuities are too great — narrativizing it feels false. And I feel I have little insight into their souls.

The best manner of Overthinking I can offer them as we reflect on their passing is how much deeper and more mysterious — or perhaps more primordially void — that chasm was between who we thought they were and who they really were turned out to be.

Jackson smiling

9 Comments on “Michael Jackson, 50, and Farrah Fawcett, 62”

  1. Wade #

    Eloquently put, sir.

    Now I have to ask: What in God’s name is that thing standing next to Michael Jackson?


  2. TL #

    Great post, fenzel.

    Classless comment, nick.


  3. Trevor Seigler #

    As I said to a friend of mine when discussing the news about MJ, he was a freak but he was OUR freak. I’m much more taken aback by his passing than I would’ve thought, mostly because it was more comfortable to dismiss my fandom of his Eighties work as mere child’s play. But there’s no doubt that he was huge when I was growing up, and the first sex scandal in ’93 forever altered my blind worship of celebs (or at least started me on the process of no longer seeing them as always good or always perfect).


  4. Gab #

    Ed McMahon died a few days ago, too. What you describe about Bea in terms of losing someone you know, I felt.

    I saw a headline with “cancer” and “dies” earlier today and actually thought it was Patrick Swayze (until I clicked and realized the truth, of course), since he has started saying goodbye to people.

    I say this with utmost sincerity and don’t intend to be funny: Michael Jackson was the first person, not even celebrity, I ever saw and thought genuinely, “This person has a mental illness.” I believed for ages that he really needed help, and felt sorry for him in many ways and for many things others did to him and thing he himself did. My enjoyment of his music took on a different tone after that- it was always backdropped with a little sadness and even a vague sense of loss.

    As for Farrah, I find it highly unfortunate that her son was still in jail at the time of her death. Unless there is a scandal you know about that I don’t, her son is the only ignominious aspect of her life I can think of. Losing her “like this” isn’t new to me, at least. It’s a punch in theg gut, but different from the kind I got at hearing about Michael Jackson.

    David Carradine’s death is still under investigation, but the bizarre things surfacing so far are making it hard to sink in as of yet.


  5. Tom #

    Has any cultural icon ever had the fall from grace Michael Jackson did? He went from being widely considered the coolest man on the planet to being a national joke in the span of a few years.

    And yet, he leaves a legacy of three classic albums and a catalog with the Jackson 5, that always felt untouched to me. No matter how weird MJ got, that opening bass riff in Wanna Be Starting Something, or the strings starting Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, or the door creak in Thriller, always transported me.

    That 12-year-old kid who burst onto Motown with his older brothers became probably the last universally loved pop star. I’m choosing to remember that.

    The King of Pop is dead. Long live the King of Pop.


  6. fenzel #


    With Farrah, I didn’t want to go into too much detail, but the cancer she died from was really, really nasty. Not that there’s a good kind of cancer, but she went out _hard_.

    Also, there was the matter of people starting to think she was crazy and being in all the tabloids after her Letterman appearance.

    But mostly, it was dying the same day as MJ, which is, at least for me, always going to put her life in a very specific perspective that is really weird and unsettling.

    Like, no matter what you do in life, if you die the same day as MJ, you’ll be remembered for it.


  7. John Perich #

    Excellent article, Pete, though I object to your characterization of David Carradine’s death as “ugly”; “a death you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy”, etc.

    If you mean, because it was accidentally self-inflicted, then I agree with you to a very small extent. In my middle school, a popular kid in the 7th-grade class died from bumping his shoulder while crawling under a dining room table to get something. The resulting blood clot traveled to his heart and killed him in a few hours. That’s the kind of death that’s tragic for its unplanned randomness and its apparent preventability.

    But if you mean, because of the apparent kinkiness involved, then I have to object pretty seriously. One, as open-minded people, we should be okay with the notion that other people get off on weird things. So long as nobody gets hurt (at least not without a safeword), there’s nothing inherently immoral about it. Now clearly, if autoerotic asphyxiation is your thing, you’re already courting a very dangerous end. But I imagine that’s part of the appeal.

    Two, sure, David Carradine was probably found in a very embarrassing condition. But so are most people who die. The Nora Ephron movie trope of a wise old person in their golden years, dying in a hospital bed, surrounded by family smiling through tears, is a fate reserved for people with good health care. Most of humanity will be found already dead. Decay will have been at them. They may be found face down in a plate of mashed potatoes, or sitting on the toilet, or in bed alone with their hungry cats, or dead from a bungled robbery.

    Sorry to go into grisly detail, but I think psyching oneself up for an “ideal death” is like psyching oneself up for a “perfect wedding.” It’s only going to end in tears and disappointment. And I think David Carradine’s death was unfortunate – as is the unplanned death of every human being who ever walked – but not “ugly.”

    (But, seriously, that one line aside, this is a really good article)


  8. Rosalie Aguila 13 yrs #

    Hi everyone, Michael Jackson is my idol,
    and Wade, the thing is a cartoon western actor,
    watch the movie ‘moonwalker’ to find out more :)
    rest in peace michael, i love you with all my heart!,

    Rosy, 1996//x


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