It seems that every generation has a popular cultural figure that dies a young and tragic death. Just off the top of my head names like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, John Lennon, and now, of course, Michael Jackson come to mind. Going back in history there are plenty of others, including Rudolph Valentino, George Gershwin, and even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (“Young” is a relative term, of course. Michael Jackson was 50, making him three years older than Barack Obama, but when you are older than both of them, that’s young.) And the response to such passings is usually the same: they had so much more to do and imagine what they would have done had they lived a full life span.
The reaction is invariably the same; shock, tears, and an outpouring of sentiment that rises to the level of a national disaster; wall-to-wall tabloid coverage — in the case of Michael Jackson, the complete preemption of regular programming on CNN and MSNBC and completely devoid of real news — and instant analysis of what impact the news will have on all of our lives. I’m not going to indulge in pop psychology and parse out the meaning of the reaction by fans to the news of the death of someone like Elvis or Michael Jackson, but it does reveal a side of our human nature that we have elevated entertainers to the point that their lives and deaths are historical events.
That’s not a criticism; it’s human nature to have idols and icons to look to for enjoyment and admiration, and when we lose them we are, for the moment, lost. We go through the grieving process for someone who never knew us as if they were a close friend. To some, it’s a substitution for something missing in their own lives; to others it’s the human quality of empathy and connectedness with others. Whatever the reason, every generation has them. I wouldn’t presume to make a value judgment on who the generation chooses as their icon; for everyone who sees Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley as a demigod, there were those who saw them as degenerates undeserving of any attention. But I sometimes wonder about the perspective. A lot of other people died on June 25, including Farrah Fawcett, and there are those who say she was just as much a cultural icon as Michael Jackson, not to mention that her battle with cancer taught us about courage. (Timing is everything; Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis also shuffled off this mortal coil on November 22, 1963; the same day as John F. Kennedy.)
I think that says a lot more about the people who are affected than it does about the person who actually died.