Friday, June 26, 2009

The Soundtrack of my Youth

This week saw the death of several pop culture icons. It was sad to hear of Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett's deaths, but those were not entirely unexpected. Ed has been old and ill for a while, and Farrah has bravely battled cancer for several years. Those losses were sad, but it was Michael Jackson's death that seemed to collectively rattle us all.

I've been thinking about why.

It's easy to say Michael's death isn't any bigger than anyone else's, and the media is fueling any angst that may exist. Maybe, but I don't think that explanation tells the whole story. Certainly the media jumped all over the story, and every channel and tv show pulled MJ clips out of their magic hats, but it was the conversation by ordinary people on the social networking sites I frequent that made me stop and think. People were stunned and almost universally sad in spite of the negative press Michael received in his later years.

All of us are personally affected by death at some point in our lives. When someone we love dies, it shakes our world to the foundations. My Mom has been gone for six years, and in many ways, I'm still trying to come to terms with it. We have to relearn how to live our daily lives when we lose someone whose life was so intertwined with our own. When an acquaintance dies, we are sad. We reach out to the family and do what we can to help them through it. Our lives are momentarily disrupted and made poorer by the loss. In both cases, we sit in the funeral home or at the grave site and think about what we've lost and our own mortality.

No one in the conversations I followed last night or earlier today knew Michael Jackson personally. He was neither a loved one nor an acquaintance. Many people spoke of actively disliking who he had become in recent years. So why was everyone talking about him?

This is my theory. I think there are certain people who are so culturally influential they become larger than life. Michael was one of those people. His music transcended race, genre, and nationality. He was a global icon. He put the music video and MTV on the map. I remember being in high school and hearing my friends talking about the Billie Jean video. I was wildly jealous because we lived in the boonies and didn't get cable. I heard a commentator say she could mark time in her life by Michael's songs, and I agree. Maybe you have to be part of a certain generation, but I can hear a MJ song and tell you what was happening in my life when it first hit the airwaves. He was that pervasive. Even Michael's problems were epic. His self-image problems and lack of a childhood played out tragically for the whole world to see so that he finally became a caricature of himself.

When someone is larger than life in our imaginations, I think we are surprised to discover they are not larger than life in reality. Michael was human. He was indicative of the best human characteristics and the worst. And like all humans, he was mortal. And there's the rub...if a pop culture icon can suddenly drop dead of a heart attack, then so can we.

The media coverage has been somewhat respectful so far, but as time passes and they have more time to fill, and people speculate as to why he really did drop dead of a heart attack, it will get ugly. I don't care about all of that. I'm mourning that wildly creative young man who provided the soundtrack for my youth. That young man has been gone a while I guess, but now the hope of his return is gone forever.

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