So there it is, really. Two decades encapsulated in two indelible pieces of ephemera: the red-swimsuit Farrah Fawcett poster, a field of blast-white teeth framed by feathered blonde hair — a mainstay of the 1970s — and Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, a disc housing songs you know by heart.
With Farrah, we knew it was coming. She made her living less as an actress than a professional provocateur, first with her sole season on Charlie’s Angels, then with the poster, then with her bid for serious acting acclaim once she’d been relegated to pure cheesecake status. In the ’90s she posed nude in Playboy to show that sexiness was more than an accessory for girls under 25.
Then in recent years it was her struggle with cancer, a fact she didn’t try to hide, culminating with a candid special on NBC last month that documented her ups and downs. The public held out hope, said a prayer, kept their fingers crossed. But in the end we knew the grim reality that lay ahead. For an industry that prides itself on looking its best, Farrah Fawcett’s invitation to the world to walk that dark road with her will stand as perhaps her most provocative — and most courageous — act.
With Michael Jackson … well, nobody expected this.
Over the years his personal and professional lives had crumbled under the weight of scandal, strangeness, and the possibility he really was a criminal, smooth or otherwise. He became the picture of Dorian Gray hanging on a wall in the dilapidated receiving room of the Neverland Ranch, his home and personal playground. In the real world his achievements faded like his skin color, his moves stiffened into a frozen visage of surgical masks, glasses and disguises, and coats hastily thrown over his head. His music came sporadically and was never again as exciting as it once was.
Madonna and Prince, two surviving icons of the ’80s, found a way to adapt, grow, or at least not be completely trapped by the decade. For Jackson, however, it will always be the jacket, the moonwalk, the glove. For a moment he had transcended his previous incarnation with the Jackson 5, Motown’s megasuccessful band of brothers. It was like he had descended from space onto the stage at the Motown 25 show in 1983, taking the name of that guy that made the killer album Off the Wall (1979) and exploding into the zeitgeist as no human being possibly could.
In a way, he never could’ve broken free of that image no matter how hard he tried. With all the insanity and head-scratching disappointment and decay his latter days brought, we preferred to linger on that image, frozen in a moment when the whole world, no matter how screwed-up and scary it was, could actually agree on one thing: Thriller. In this sense, the ’80s — and all the nostalgic recycling that came with it in this decade — have finally ended.
For anyone who’s as hip deep in pop culture as those of us at Popdose, Farrah and Michael’s deaths are like having your house catch on fire and all those knickknacks of your youth, housed in mint-green plastic containers in the attic, going up in smoke. Like I said, we kind of knew with Farrah. But we never would’ve guessed with MJ. Our icons are human after all.