The man-child named Michael Jackson and the luminous girl known as Farrah Fawcett-Majors jumped into our consciousness at a plastic moment in American culture -- a time when the celebrity juggernaut we know today was still in diapers. When they departed Thursday, just a few hours and a few miles apart, they left an entire generation -- a very strange generation indeed -- without two of its defining figures.
"These people were on our lunchboxes," said Gary Giovannetti, 38, a manager at HBO who grew up on Long Island awash in Farrah and MJ iconography. "This," he said, "is the moment when Generation X realizes they're grown up."
It was a long time coming. Cynical, disaffected, rife with ADD, lost between Boomers and millennials and sandwiched between Vietnam and the war on terror, Gen X has always been an oddity. It was the product of a transitional age when we were still putting people on celebrity pedestals but only starting to make an industry out of dragging them down.
Its memorable moments were diffuse and confusing -- the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt, the dawn of AIDS, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. It had no protest movement, no opponent to unite it, none of the things that typically shape the ill-defined beast we call an American generation.
These were the people who sent to the top of the charts a song called "We Don't Need Another Hero," then figured out how to churn them out wholesale, launching the celebrity obsession that is now an accepted part of American cultural fabric.
Meaning they were also, presumably, the same people who sent "Holding Out for a Hero" to the exact same chart position a scant twelve months earlier. Could you just stop it? Please?
And that was personified nowhere better than in the two people who died Thursday.
Okay, one, I don't know the graphic representation for the sound you make when you stick out your lower lip and fan it rapidly with your index finger while going "bluh bluh bluh", but kindly insert that here. Two, that's it? Nowhere better than Her Generation's (not yours) Answer to Betty Grable, and The Craziest Celebrity of All Time by a Factor of Six? (And crazy sad, not crazy inventive, at that. Incidentally, since we're in for a dime already, the Bathing Beauty dates to Mack Sennett's stable of adolescents, and the Blonde bombshell to Jean Harlow. Grable was a zero, then a wartime pinup, then a zero again. She was not the genesis of anything but Betty Grable jokes.) If I'd have known this was coming I'd have urged Kurt Colbain and David Foster Wallace to try dying on the same day, just so we could have had a better class of celebrity to endure the incontinent faux-adoration of.
In keeping with our unplanned theme of the week, You write about junk culture for a living! If you'd like to ponder its Deeper Meaning you're welcome to, though personally we'd prefer you didn't. But ponder it, or don't. Pondering yourself pondering it is not the same thing. In fact it is the opposite thing.
The modern Mindless Cult of Celebrity is at least as old as Valentino, and the organized caterwauling at early death is at least as old as, well, Valentino. It may come as a shock to someone who believes the world changed, forever, when he dirtied his first diaper, but there were people even then--innocent of teevees and Twitterings, if you can imagine it--who found this sort of thing grotesque, troubling, alarming, disgusting, laughable, anything but "a shared experience you either loved or hated, but took part in". Day of the Locust? Sunset Boulevard? The Last Tycoon, The Great Man, La Dolce Vita? The Sweet Smell of Success, which points us to the power wielded by celebrity-dragger Walter Winchell, practically unimaginable in today's terms. Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, GraphiC, Confidential all made a living at "dragging down" celebs. It generally stopped at the exact point where studio hush money began, but you might want to brush up on the bios of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. Isn't a passing familiarity with this stuff some sort of minimum requirement at the AP, or is it enough to remember who or what was on your school lunch box? And how, exactly, is it that the high-viscosity sludge that passes for conventional wisdom manages to posit both the Angry, Discordant, Hippie-and-LSD-laced Sixties and a happier, simpler, eight years later when everyone gathered around the idiot box to love or hate Farrah Fawcett-Major's nip-nips? You think Aaron Spelling was something everyone took part in? Or disco? For that matter I distinctly remember my parents being somewhat less than enthusiastic Motown groove-thing shakers.
And so y'know what? If you've got to invent this Generation shit, then this one, like the previous one, has no fucking excuse for not knowing the difference. Just fucking take responsibility for this stuff, on your own. Quit trying to fob it off on your imaginary cohort, stop treating it as the inevitable result of those technological advancements that had the good taste, and good fortune, to occur while you were around to be aware of them. Crap culture has been with us at least since people left the farms, quit playing the piano in the parlor or the banjo on a stump, and started consuming ready-made pap. For just as long there have been people complaining it was all dreck. We know this because it must be. And we know you know it too, for the same reason. So, please, go have a private drink and toast the dear departed, or, more likely, toast yourself toasting them, and try being solemn about it for once.
Okay, just kiddin'. Really, though, could y'all try to bring this one in in less time than you spent on that People's Princess none of you knew a fucking thing about? Like the man said, it'd gratify some people, and astonish the rest.