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Buzz, Pop Culture, TV and Movies, music

June 29, 2009

What Celebrity Deaths Mean To Us

Tags: billy mays, ed mcmahon, farrah fawcett, michael jac,

It hasn’t been a good week for the entertainment industry.  Four icons of pop culture, TV and music passed away from very different circumstances.

Ed McMahon – The former “Tonight Show” sidekick died at age 86 after battling several illnesses for many years.  He was one of the most beloved members of his generation of TV stars, an affable, hearty man that America invited into their lives every weeknight for three decades.  Perhaps his legacy is being carried on by Andy Richter, who Conan O’Brien invited into that sidekick role when he took over the show last month.

Farrah Fawcett – One of the first TV vixens, Fawcett, even at 62, was a woman the men wanted and the women wanted to be.  Her battle with cancer was waged publicly and she gave it a good run, according to reports.  Like McMahon, her prime was well before my time, but there is enough cultural memory of her to understand her impact during the 1970s.

Michael Jackson – “Thriller” was released on November 30, 1982, when I was less than 7 months old.  So I guess you could say Jackson and his music have been a major part of my entire life.  When I was old enough to purchase my own music, “Thriller” was the first album I bought.  Jackson’s life was as close to “The Truman Show” as anyone had seen before.  A child grew into a man on stage with the world watching.  Unfortunately, it seemed the man had difficulty growing up, most likely because of his public childhood.  If you had to make a mix CD (or an iPod playlist) of songs from the greatest artists of all time, a good chunk of it would feature the King of Pop.  There are only four artists with the global impact that MJ had: himself, Madonna, Elvis Presley and The Beatles.  That’s it.  Nobody else comes close.  Details are still murky, but he collapsed and died last Thursday at age 50, apparently from sudden heart stoppage.

Billy Mays – My dad sent me an e-mail saying that the mute button on his remote control would be used less now that the brash, high-volume pitchman was gone.  Saturday night, he hit his head while his airplane had a rough landing.  He went to bed that night and never woke up.  Also 50, Mays became a pop culture icon shilling products like Oxy-Clean and other households items that seemed like they could work, but you weren’t entirely sure about dropping the money on them.

Four very different celebrities, passing in unique ways.

Why do they impact us so much?  Collectively, why do we cry when a singer we like has a heart attack, or sit in disbelief when the infomercial star dies from an apparent concussion, or  mourn the passing of a retired TV second-fiddle, or anguish as we watch an “Angel” lose her fight with cancer?

I think it has to do with sharing.

Every person absorbs pop culture in their own unique way.  No two people are impacted by a song identically.  No two people relate to a late-night joke just like the other does.  However, we SHARE that experiece.  We listen together, we watch together and we discuss together.  We figure out how we relate to other people in the world based on what we share with them.

Pop culture is the ongoing conversation in the world.  It is an ever-churning axle, increasing in speed, but growing in depth.

When four people who have managed to remain relevant, despite the age of the sound byte and on-demand media, leave us, it is a loss for all of pop culture.

It is a reminder that the people that we know, but don’t know, are still people, just like us.  We want Ed McMahon to ring doorbells forever.  We want MJ to make his big comeback and reign over pop music for infinity.  We want Farrah Fawcett posters on every wall in our bedroom.  We want Billy Mays to introduce us to the latest, greatest, but-wait-there’s-more product with a one-time special introductory offer, so act-now, operators are standing by, batteries not included.

In a strange way, we feel closer to them when they pass, because we definitely know that they, in the most circle-of-live ways, are just like us.

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