What is it that touches us so deeply when we lose our pop culture icons?
Certainly, when celebrities pass away, we grieve the loss of talent. And we grieve for people we grew up wanting to emulate – watching, hearing, and admiring during impressionable years. We are also fascinated by celebrity, with those who lead sensational lives (with or without talent or accomplishment), compared to our own.
Both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson were larger than life, and in the public eye over the course of years. Their legacies are dramatically different, as are the circumstances of their deaths, and processing the loss of both of these personalities in a single day is unexpected.
But for some of us, our grieving is less about them than it is about ourselves. It’s a sorrowful twofer, the death of an icon, and a reminder that our youth is passing.
In the 1980s I was in my twenties. Single. As the saying goes, I worked hard and played hard. When I think of Michael Jackson, I can hear “Thriller” in my head, feel its beat in my body, the sensation of dancing for hours. I can recall the scent of my perfume – Halston – a fragrance that blended well with hot skin and long nights spent working up a sweat on the dance floor.
Farrah is another story. In the late 1970s, like so many other young girls, I wanted her hair, her smile, and her body. I wanted to master her every maneuver, and get the boy next to me in Calculus to ask me out. I wanted to be like her; my older brother wanted to sleep with her.
I also had to process (and reconcile) the uneasy contradictions of flirtatious sexuality and the ideals of feminism; I was both appalled by and drawn to the jiggle antics of Charlie’s Angels. I was more at ease with Fawcett in later years, when, as a maturing woman, she sought to move past her youthful reputation and take on serious acting challenges. I admired her for achieving critical acclaim in her 40s, and baring herself for Playboy – audaciously – at 50.
In both cases, Fawcett and Jackson have played roles in the personal lives and memories of millions of people – those who saw them perform, who watched them on television or video, who listened to them. Both seemed too young to go, but they are gone.
Celebrities in our lives
The question remains: since few of us actually knew them, what are we really grieving? The only answer I can come up with is that we are grieving our own youth. If they are gone, our own mortality cannot be far off.
If we graciously accept our aging (I admit, not easily done), we should also be able to smile at recollections of earlier days – moments of teenage indulgence, romance, adventure, and yearning. Moments of innocence. Moments of breaking the rules and getting away with it. Moments of vitality.
Circling the half century mark, I’m grateful to be here, reasonably active, still learning, visualizing goals, achieving, laughing, and still part of my children’s lives. I don’t frequent clubs (or dance on tables) as I did in the 1980s. Nor do I perceive feathery locks and a megawatt smile as the requisite tools of seduction. And it’s a good thing: I’m a maturing woman fighting an onslaught of gray. And I’m busy enough holding on to what seems important – my job as a parent, my progress as a writer, my continued growth as a human being. One who wishes to speak my mind, and live with integrity, openness, and admittedly – as much mischief as I can still muster.