When The Gods Die: Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett Take the ’70s With Them

The ’70s died for me on Thursday, June 25, 2009. Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, both icons, died on the same day. Entertainment folklore has it that stars die in threes; so adding in Ed McMahon’s death earlier this week truly means the ’70s are dead and gone. When icons die, questions arise about mortality—theirs, and ours. We don’t expect our worldly Tabloid Gods to die, ever. When they do, it is a 24/7 orgy of recrimination, speculation, and sadness, all with a creepy suspicion that we could be next. Their iconic bodies, stopped finally, speak to us in ways that call us to look upon their visages, and their lives.

Farrah Fawcett’s death, while not unexpected, is still sad. Wanting to be known for more than just a beautiful body and thick, luscious hair, Fawcett transcended her looks and became a wonderfully underrated actress. Her depiction of a Pentecostal pastor’s wife in The Apostle was so spot on, I wondered whether she’d sat through services right beside Robert Duvall. Perhaps her greatest work, however, was allowing herself to be filmed during her cancer struggle. Facing death in a youth-obsessed America is no easy feat, especially on television. Fans don’t believe that icons can die; until they do. Perhaps those around her were not as dignified as she was in her fight for life, but I believe her persistence in fighting mirrored her own tenacity in the roles she chose, and the life she lived.

Michael Jackson’s death, on the other hand, is one more chapter in what has proved to be an epic. Larger than life, the self-proclaimed “King of Pop” lived an “off the wall” existence from a very early age. With his singing and dancing talent, Jackson became a god, moonwalking above the crowds into his own world.

His idealized world at Neverland Ranch, and the songs he co-wrote and sang like “We are the World” (co-written with Lionel Ritchie), “Man in the Mirror” (video, left), and “Another Part of Me” focused on a quasi-religious, humanistic vision of all peoples loving each other, even as his own life descended into divisiveness. Lawsuits, allegations of pedophilia, addictions, and the dubious distinction of having his penis photographed (to check against a description given by an alleged victim of pedophilia), turned the transcendent icon into a tragic, tabloid staple, sure to sell magazines and push television specials.

We loved the music, but the trash sold much more. Yet, for all of the crass tabloid fodder, Michael was his best when singing these hopeful songs that called listeners to become better human beings. He most certainly reached more people than the average religious figure, and his songs had an effect on an entire generation weaned on MTV. His own religious journey, from his childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness, to a foray into the Nation of Islam, to finally professing Shahada to become a Muslim shows an interior struggle, despite all of the fame, to find the peace he so often sang about. In all of the accolades and obituaries to come, Jackson will never be called a theologian, though he was one. A Pop theologian, to be sure, but a theologian nonetheless. Struggling with his humanity, half man, half child, he danced as much to entertain I suspect, as to take away his pain. In the dance, he became transcendent, divine. And in the end, it was the very body that he used to beguile millions that failed him.

As I finish writing this, Jackson’s body was loaded into a helicopter, flown from UCLA to USC, and placed quickly into a van for transport to the county coroner’s office in Los Angeles. The van passed close to one of Jackson’s greatest triumph concerts, a show in the Los Angeles Sports Arena back in 1989. It was the last time I had a chance to see him in concert, and he was phenomenal.

The memory that will stay with me, however, was of the first time I saw the Jackson Five. Here was a kid who looked like my friends down the block that I played with everyday—but he was really, really special. As he grew older, and looked less and less like me, I wondered at times who he had become. Yet in death, all I can remember is the soft-spoken voice, the wistful smile, and the greatness of his talents being overshadowed by his many issues. May Michael and Farrah rest, with family and fans left to grieve; their iconic statuses preserved in an array of media forms, which never die.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.