Monday, June 29, 2009

The highly anticipated and long delayed Dead Celeb post

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All right, we were just as stunned by the rapid-fire falling of pop-cult Icons in the last week and a half as anyone else. Ed McMahon, the top rated "best sidekick ever" for his decades with Johnny Carson, was an expected loss because the man had been sick for a while. And Farrah Fawcett, since she had decided to film her last days for a TV documentary, was an expected loss too. Because each one was killed by the malevolent and sadistic plague called cancer, we were sad for both of them; instant, quiet, easy death is always preferable for people as likable as Farrah and Ed.

But then instant death came for Michael Jackson, which was totally unexpected, and then quiet death came for Billy Mays, of all people. Smiling, lovable BILLY MAYS THE SHOUTING PITCHMAN with the magnificent beard. And both of these guys were only 50. Members of the WB staff are 50. We were freaking out a little bit — okay, a lot — and being very careful about pretty much anything we were doing. And we hoped that, when we go, our families won't instantly break out the Twitter phones like Billy Mays's did to announce his demise to the world. Some things just shouldn't be tweeted.

Questions began coming our way after the Double Death Day that claimed Michael and Farrah: Where is the WB tribute post? Where is the Michael Jackson retrospective? Where's the post about Charlie's Sweetest Angel? And the short answer is, the post couldn't be written yet, because we were too busy being fascinated by the ultrahype machine that was kicking into supersonic speed.

Michael Jackson died around 5:00 pm New York time. Just four hours later, NBC had a two-hour tribute ready to air, one hour for Michael and the other for Farrah. The host of the schlockfest, the Today show's Anne Curry, put her anchorwoman voice through all kinds of Full Emo contortions while whispering and sighing some words, moaning and even sing-songing others.

See, we're sliding into anti-hype eye-rolling already. So before we fall completely into that mode: It is somehow wonderful and fitting that Farrah Fawcett, the best-selling pinup model of all time with over 12 million posters sold, died on the same day as Michael Jackson, the best-selling music performer of all time with over 100 million copies of his Thriller album sold. And both were trailblazers: Farrah brought erect nipples into the mainstream, and Michael brought videos of African American musicians into rotation on MTV.

Before Farrah, suggestions of female nipples were tolerated (men's, of course, could be displayed full frontal on church bulletins), but because the former beauty queen and star of TV commercials was blessed with such a... er, prominent set of them, and because anyone accused of admiring her for that particular body feature could always claim to adore her perfectly straight and brilliantly white teeth instead, there they suddenly were. Her show, Charlie's Angels, helped to usher in the era of "jiggle shows" where smart female characters were screenwritten into fewer and fewer clothes with less and less fabric, and dumb ones were put into towels.

Michael Jackson was the Jackie Robinson of MTV. Music Television, which really did start out playing music videos, was enforcing a pop-music apartheid where songs/videos by black performers just didn't get played. Then Thriller exploded, and MTV wanted to cash in on the phenomenon, and Michael said fine, but you racist bastards are gonna play my 14-minute video for the title song in its entirety. MTV caved, the video went into the heaviest of heavy rotations, and the rest is history: six years after Michael kicked down the door, MTV coughed up Yo! MTV Raps! and today we have Li'l Wayne, Li'l Jon, and Li'l Kim.

Okay. But now, let's think about these "accomplishments" — perky pokies and a long-form dance video to herald the arrival of hip hop's unbroken 20-year domination of the music industry. And then let's define "artist" status for each of the Double Death Day Deceased. Michael went on to officially insist that MTV refer to him as the "King of Pop" whenever it mentioned his name. He took little boys to music awards ceremonies, and then to bed. He had his face sawn apart nearly 40 times, to the point where his ear was being cannibalized to rebuild his nose. His relevance and importance decreased with each new album release, his money bled out steadily, and he lost his playground house. He had become, at the time he died, a circus freak show. A novelty act; a curiosity; a Trivial Pursuit answer. And of course, he had also become a white woman.

"Poor man-boy," the eulogizers eulogized, "his father Joe was a prick son of a bitch who called young sensitive Michael 'Big Nose' and scarred him for life. All of his surgeries and nose rebuilds were because of Joe."

But as a WB associate suggested over the weekend: "There are other ways to deal with your dad calling you Big Nose. For starters, you can call him an asshole."

While Michael Jackson was riding the fame roller coaster up over the 8-minute mark, Farrah Fawcett was doing the exact opposite. Michael went from respected, formidable performer to joke bubblebrain, and Farrah went from joke bubblebrain to respected, formidable performer. Tossed all kinds of fluff movie scripts, she learned to be patient and wait for the good ones; then she learned to insist on them. Extremities, The Burning Bed, Small Sacrifices, and The Apostle resulted.

But what about the dying-in-a-TV-documentary decision, that the eulogizers have called brave and selfless and noble? It's hard to suggest that another possibility might be a fading celebrity who didn't want the world to forget her. Michael Jackson hated the publicity he received; Farrah created hers. But, putting her accomplishments on the scale of importance and service to others, the end-stage documentary definitely wins over the early-stage pinup poster. If we were her, we'd have gone the documentary route, too.

With these two giants grabbing most of the Dead Celebrity news attention, the sad end for Ed "Hiyo!" McMahon, bankrupt and terminally ill, and the shocking end for Billy Mays, healthy and apparently done in by a tragic accidental bump to the head a la Natasha Richardson earlier this year, are bookends to a bizarre period of pop culture history. The past several days have made us question the ways we lionize celebrities and their accomplishments, and the methods we use to determine whose death gets 24-hour news coverage (Michael Jackson) and whose (Ed McMahon) gets a brief scrawl at the bottom of the TV screen once per hour. That's why we held off on the eulogies and starry-eyed funeral orations. Sometimes, mountains just implode rather than fall, and it takes a little time to figure out the difference.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Billy Mays is no Michael Jackson.