The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Farewell to Our Freaks

Fawcett and Jackson Were Phenomenon That Also Embodied the Grotesque

The deaths last week of Farrah Fawcett from cancer and Michael Jackson from an apparent overdose of painkillers has left many pundits to ruminate over their lives, legacies, and influence on popular culture. For myself, I think their passing is significant because, if for no other reason, it forces so many of us to say farewell to two of the great freaks of our generation.

I use the term “freak” intending no disrespect for either individual. Most people would probably apply the categorization more easily to Jackson but I view it as appropriate for both of them.

The dictionary defines a freak as “any abnormal or unusual phenomenon.” An alternate definition speaks of “a person or animal on exhibition as an example of a strange deviation from nature; a monstrosity.” A monstrosity is anything “deviating grotesquely from the normal form.” And while it is not strictly a definition, a characteristic of the grotesque is to mix normality with abnormality “in bizarre or fanciful combinations.”

These are the two key terms for identifying Fawcett and Jackson as freaks – “phenomenon” and “grotesquery.”

First, phenomenon –

Who can forget the talented and seemingly joyous little African-American boy twirling and dancing on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s? Although the youngest member in a group of musical brothers, Jackson was already clearly their leader, in terms of both talent and charisma. Hit record after hit record followed. It seemed impossible that so big a singing voice and so much dancing ability resided in so small a body.

Likewise, who can forget Fawcett’s explosion onto the scene with the debut of Charlie’s Angels in the 1970s. Added to this was a pinup poster that made her both virtually and literally a pop culture icon. She permanently replaced the zaftig voluptuousness of an earlier generation’s sex symbols, such as Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield, in favor of a curvaceous but healthy physique. The only thing full-bodied about Fawcett was her mane of blonde hair, styled in a feathered cut emulated by seemingly every other young woman on the planet.

Their popularity was unquestioned, their fans antic in their devotion. They became ubiquitous parts of our daily lives. Yet the very popularity that vaulted them high upon pedestals in our midst, eventually became prisons from which Fawcett and Jackson could never fully escape, although both certainly tried to do so.

Jackson sought to constantly innovate and re-invent himself musically. He released a series of solo albums over the decades, including Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory, that sold in the millions and simultaneously earned him critical acclaim. He starred in the movie version of The Wiz with Diana Ross and almost single-handedly made music videos into an acceptable form of artistic expression.

Fawcett attempted to move beyond the bubblegum frivolity of Angels and establish herself as a serious actress. She began with the off-Broadway play Extremities and moved on to the made-for-TV movie the Burning Bed. Both roles featured feminist heroines who fought back against male sexual attackers. She went on to play more complex, controversial, and sometimes even unsympathetic characters, such as Poor Little Rich Girl and Small Scarifies.

Their efforts were recognized and rewarded. Jackson won over a dozen Grammies and earned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fawcett received numerous Emmy and Golden Globe Award nominations.

Second, grotesquery –

Paradoxically, the greater their success, the more easy it grew to make fun of them. They increasingly became parodies of their own celebrity. Each made some disastrous personal choices further that hurt their reputations.

For Fawcett, the most infamous example was an addled, rambling interview on the Late Show with David Letterman. She also frequently made the news for her high profile and sometimes-abusive relationships with Lee Majors and Ryan O’Neal.

In Jackson’s case, of course, the examples of self-destructive behaviors were legion. There were his lavish and sometimes outright weird purchases; his ever-lighter skin tone and morphing facial features; his “fondness” for young children that twice brought him to court on charges of pedophilia; his phobias, reclusiveness, and emotional immaturity.

In fairness, both Fawcett and Jackson suffered at various times from very real and debilitating illnesses. And, of course, both died relatively quite young, completing the experience of triumph mixed with tragedy that marked much of their respective lives.

They epitomized the way each of us is responsible for our own happiness, yet how circumstances, even ones of amazing attainment and enviable in their extravagance, can limit possibilities for happiness. Given every opportunity, Fawcett and Jackson seemed to find themselves without any real chances.

Love them or hate them, blame them or mourn them – we can never really know Fawcett or Jackson and that is in the nature of what they were. Immanuel Kant defined phenomenon as “a thing as it appears to and is constructed by the mind, as distinguished from the true thing-in-itself.” With Fawcett and Jackson, we, the public, delighted in building them up and, from time to time, we took equal delight in tearing them back down.

Fawcett and Jackson were complicated human beings in their own right. For the rest of us, they were our freaks. Now we must say farewell to them.

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