How ironic. Between the economy and the weather — seemingly endless rain that has robbed us of half our summer — many of us New Yorkers have wanted to spend the last few weeks tucked safe in bed with the covers pulled over our heads. But not today.
Just as Annie promised all of us in her Broadway song, finally, the sun came out. So it seems like a cruel joke that on such a beautiful day we were greeted by such ugly news. First the passing of Farrah Fawcett, an American icon, which while tragic, was expected. Then came the passing of Michael Jackson, another American icon, which was also tragic but completely unexpected.
Just as millions of men had the famous poster of a smiling, vivacious Fawcett on their walls, I was one of the millions of young girls who had a poster of Michael Jackson, (circa “Bad”) on mine. His death is tragic and unexpected but not nearly as tragic and unexpected as his last few years.
While other acts came and went, often copying the winning formula that first made the Jackson Five and later Jackson as a solo star, a success, Jackson long defied many of the odds facing former child stars. Frankie Lymon, the baby faced lead singer of “The Teenagers” (a predecessor of the Jackson Five best known for their hit, “Why do Fools Fall in Love” when Lymon was just fourteen), was dead of a heroin overdose by 25. The list of child stars who flounder in adulthood, with often tragic consequences, goes on. For every Jodie Foster there are dozens of Gary Colemans, but Michael seemed like he just might defy the odds.
There was “Off the Wall”, one of my favorite albums and songs, and then there was “Thriller,” which not only transformed Jackson from mere star to superstar, but transformed American music forever. Not only did it go on to become the highest selling album of all time, but it broke another barrier when Jackson’s now legendary videos from “Thriller” became the first by a black artist to be aired on MTV.
And then there was “Bad,” which was anything but. I saw the tour live as a child and later discovered as an adult that I had gotten a two-for-one deal. A then unknown Sheryl Crow served as one of Jackson’s backup singers, often dueting with him on his hit “I just Can’t Stop Loving You.”
There was “Black or White” and one of my all time favorite videos, “Remember the Time.” Yet again, Jackson broke a major pop culture barrier. The video was one of the first depictions of Egypt in American popular culture that actually featured black people, including Eddie Murphy, Iman, and Magic Johnson. I had classmates who never noticed that Egypt was on the African continent before then.
But then something began to go awry. There had been some hints along the way (remember Bubbles the chimp?), and then Jackson’s seemingly endless legal woes. It was almost as though somewhere in the last decade and a half a flip was switched and all of Michael’s childhood baggage began to finally weigh him down. Some have compared his later years to a train-wreck. I actually think it’s been much more painful to watch. It’s been slower, like watching someone disappear into quicksand as you can only standby helplessly, too far to throw a life preserver.
He didn’t have much of a childhood but he certainly made a lot of ours better.
Perhaps his life, but more importantly his death, will serve as a cautionary tale for other children born and raised in the spotlight: Britney, Lindsay, even those poor Jon & Kate kids whom I had never heard of until a couple of weeks ago.
In the meantime, I’m going to climb back into bed and pull the covers over my head and hope that tomorrow when I wake up the “Bad” dream will be over and there will be sun, or at least some better news.