Celebrity deaths are strange events. Some people act like someone close them has died, they go into mourning or participate in massive displays of love for the dead celebrity. This makes so little sense to me that I cannot even begin to fathom why they should particularly care.
If I actually knew the person who died, then it was my friend who died and that’s a good reason to feel bad and mourn.
But if I didn’t know the person who died, then the best I can do is summon empathy. People died earlier this week in the metro train crash in D.C. I can summon up empathy for that easily enough. I have friends, people I care about, who ride those trains every day. It takes little imagination to understand how their families would feel, how I would feel, if they had been one of the victims. That makes it easy for me to empathize with the families of the actual victims, who are people I do not know.
But let’s be honest here. There’s a limit to how far that empathy is going to go. I’m not walking around gloomy and depressed at the deaths of some people I actually did not know; it’s not weighing hugely on my mind. That’s about how I feel about celebrity deaths. Michael Jackson had a heart attack and died today. He was 50 years old. That’s scary because a fifty-year-old man should not be having a fatal cardiac arrest. I’m nearly 40 — seeing someone only eleven years older than me bite it from his heart giving out is a sobering, scary thought.
The fact that he was Michael Jackson, however, neither enhances nor diminishes the effect of the revelation that a 50-year-old’s heart can in fact just plain stop beating in his chest. Whether this particular 50-year-old man was in good health or not is something I’m sure we’ll be hearing a-a-a-a-all about over the next seventeen weeks or so.
Frankly, today’s celebrity death that made me wince and say “Aww!” was Farrah Fawcett. Like a lot of boys, gawking at the famous poster of her in the red swimsuit represented one of my earliest stirrings of sexuality. In that sense, she touched me in a much deeper and more personal way than Michael Jackson ever did. (For which I’m glad, had being touched by Michael Jackson been of of my earliest stirrings of sexuality, I’d probably be spending a fortune on therapy right now and you would probably know me by way of the unflattering alias “the unidentified victim.” I joke, but I suppose making Michael-Jackson-molesting-little-boys jokes on the day the man dies is probably joking in poor taste.)
What’s more, Fawcett really did prove herself to be someone weightier than a hot blonde pinup girl with that “Burning Bed” TV movie — that’s something that touched a serious nerve in our collective social consciousness, which people are still talking about today, which still motivates law enforcement and public policy today. There wasn’t a lot of discussion of spousal abuse before that; today, understanding it and dealing with it is an integral part of what courts and cops do, in no small part because people saw Farrah Fawcett playing a woman who got beat up by her abusive husband on a TV movie back in the early 1980’s. That’s a big deal, and she was the mastermind and primary motive force behind it. She could have been, and should have been, proud to have really shifted the public consciousness on that issue.
Michael Jackson? Not so much. Child molestation was bad before we found out that Michael Jackson had been accused of it. Exploitation of child performers was bad before we got a good insight into how that happened with the Jackson 5. And as an adult, he was a case study of how a warped childhood produces a warped adult. This was a guy who seemed to go out of his way, all his life, to behave and act in some of the most bizarre ways possible.
I think he came to hate his own existence so very much that he felt the need to completely change who and what he was for his entire life I think he became so afraid of the world, that he had to distort and change it. He had the money to do it and the enablers surrounding him who were all only too happy to take the money and make it happen. I think that in that sense, death is probably something of a release for him.
But it will be Michael Jackson, not Farrah Fawcett, who will be mourned by millions, for whom there will be candelight vigils and massive displays of emotion. And almost none of it will be because of the loss of an actual relationship. Being as charitable as possible to the late “King of Pop,” he was a guy who had remarkably few personal friends, whose relationship with his own children was off-kilter at best, and who seemed to prefer the anonymous, distant love of strangers and music fans to the genuine thing from people close to him. The genuine love of someone close to you carries risk, and sometimes pain, because people let you down and make mistakes sometimes. (Just ask Jenny Sanford!) Learning to love those around you in spite of that risk is what it’s really all about, a big part of the key to a happy, fulfilling life.
I question whether Michael Jackson ever really knew that despite his marriages and friendships. That’s the part that makes me really sad. That’s the part that is really worrisome and scary about his death. Which is why I’m going to spend some quality time with good friends and then some quality time with my wife tonight. You only get one shot at this life, so you should make it as good as you can.