28 June 2009
The only thing I could think about when I heard the news was everything save its import as news per se. What I thought about was the prior death of Ed McMahon; the nearly simultaneous passing of Farrah Fawcett; and last month’s sign off by Dom DeLuise.
I returned to a far earlier time. These were icons of so many adolescences, including my own. The world that raised me would forever be turned upside-down. It was preparing to one day be forgotten.
I was reminded of May 16, 1990, the day both Sammy Davis Jr and Jim Henson died.
That day, at age fifteen, it seemed as if the entire cosmology of people who were famous to me as a 10 year old might die simultaneously. With last week’s news, it’s as if Cannonball Run were a snuff film; as if the cast — and a constellation of “could be” cameo stars — were being targeted for elimination, one-by-one.
The idea I’d like to play with here is The Problem With Nostalgia, one of the many being the sad truth of it’s ephemeral nature. To explore this, let’s try on for size a pair MJ pictures that have been replicated less frequently in recent days.
(Prior two images via The Floacist)
In the first, MJ is pictured with another all around entertainer, Frank Sinatra (1915-1998). I’m guessing most readers of this BLOG (generally speaking, you are within fifteen years of my age) will recognize him.
I’m just as certain a large number of people will not recognize the man whom MJ is pictured with in the second photograph. He is not pictured in his prime. And he’s been gone for almost generation. (Hell even Jackson, pictured with naturalistic afro, may be unrecognizable.) Anyway, that man is Fred Astaire (1899-1987), the most famous song and dance man from vaudeville and early film, and a major stated influence on Jackson. Viz MJ’s video tribute to Astaire as muse…
…versus this mash up, which sets Astaire against MJ’s music:
Having slipped into retirement for the first time in 1947, Astaire is emblematic of what happens to the wide renown of The Most Famous People In The World if their fame derives from popular culture.
I’ve heard it said that the only person who cried real tears for Michael Jackson was Madonna. She’s the only one who gets it, the only one who understands.
The picture at the top of this post gives a hint of how so many of the newscast memorials to MJ have been cast. He is pale and ghostly, like a phantom rider. (This one or that one? You decide.) He is too aware that his time of passing is imminent, too knowledgeable that he has maximized his use value in this world. Even his blackness — which once served as a culture warping contrast to the skin of Sinatra and Astaire — had been bleached away. In that picture at the top of this post, MJ is not so much here as in stasis, trapped in an extended goodbye.
I prefer to remember MJ as the creator behind one of my earliest cassettes, a man who — because of an equally early acquisition of Van Halen’s 1984 — ended up on a shelf where it literally seemed as if he was being looked after by an angel:
Of course, MJ’s presence was more complex than that of a simple blessed being. As the maker of Thriller, he designed a perfect introduction to horror for pre-adolescents; yet more curious is the fact that when he then had his hair set on fire by Pepsi Cola itself, the reaction wasn’t horror, but humor. That incident introduced a generation to notions of sarcasm and ironic hilarity. It gave us our Icarus-like understanding of fame. Those who fly to close to the sun must get burned. MJ would become a Ghost Rider, indeed.
But I’ll be frank. The recollection I am going to cultivate, the nostalgia that will become my truth, is that MJ was someone not-quite-real — porcelain-perfect, he’ll have the skin he always wanted, and he will be surrounded by friends, and he’ll be in a happier place, glimmering gold.
A picture of what I mean by this after the jump…
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Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis