A record-shattering vinyl album and its moonwalking maestro. A paper poster of a golden-haired beauty in a one-piece swimsuit that was gossamer and clingy in all the right places.
It all seems so quaint now, the fragmented dream memories of a fleeting micro-era that began with words like “bicentennial” and “pet rock” and ended with MTV, Atari and absurdly thin cans of super-hold mousse.
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.
And that was personified nowhere better than in the two people who died Thursday.
She was, perhaps, the last in a line that began with Betty Grable in World War II — the bathing beauty who seemed kissed by the sun and exuded a potent combination of innocence and sexuality. But her “Charlie’s Angels” jiggle-show image presaged another world entirely. It was the one that would come to be dominated first by Brooke and her Calvins and ultimately, as the hunger grew tawdrier, by American Apparel ads and the celebrity sex videos of Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton.
She struggled for credibility after the poster and the Angels. She got it in 1984 with a dramatic turn as an abused wife in “The Burning Bed.” But her last stand — a documentary about the cancer that killed her — was tainted by her run-ins with insatiable paparazzi and tabloids.
He was another thing entirely — perhaps the most recognizable face in the world, even more so than the pope or Barack Obama. His musical genius and energy seemed boundless for a time. They were rivaled only by his quirks, which consumed him.
He had a bumpy, extraordinarily public childhood. Then he spent an off-the-wall lifetime trying to get it back, erecting a ranch named after the fantasy land of Peter Pan and inviting children to share his life and his bed — with results that some said drifted into the criminal.
He caught fire in a Pepsi commercial. He shrouded his children in full-body coverings and dangled one over a balcony to show his fans below. His fabled multiple plastic surgeries turned him into someone almost unrecognizable. Nose sunk into face, cheekbones became caricature, ebony drifted into ivory.
Yet through it all, even when the years of his quirks outstripped the years of his glory, he remained one of the planet’s most popular figures, selling out shows wherever he went. “Icon,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said, was “only a fraction of what he was.” But icon was, of course, what he always acted as if he wanted to be.
Today, celebrities aren’t merely created for our consumption. Audiences are passive no longer. We demand a part in creating our icons: Jon and Kate Gosselin and their ilk might as well be publicly held companies, and we all insist upon buying a few shares. Farrah and Michael Jackson were other — above us, maybe, or apart from us. Now, when we crown new icons, we want them to BE us.
“We want everything right now, and there’s a blurring of reality. When does the celebrity world stop and our world begin?” said Penni Pier, an associate professor of communications at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
When Farrah gazed at us in her swimsuit and, a single moment in history later, MJ dared us to moonwalk, they commanded giant audiences. The world had not yet become fragmented into the microcommunities that exist today. We liked them or we hated them, but we shared the experience just as Walter Cronkite told us each night that “that’s the way it is.”
Today, when Lindsay Lohan Twitters pictures of herself to her legions of followers, the notion that a paper poster bought in a shopping-mall Spencer Gifts could change the celebrity game seems rustic. And the vinyl version of “Thriller,” redolent of raw materials and production lines, is a ghost in the virtual world of iTunes — a world that the generation after X negotiates with the fluidity of natives.
In the 1990s, members of Generation X would often laugh in bars about how the time of the Boomers was passing — about how the quaintness and naivete that made up the 1960s was, finally, a grave being danced on by Kurt Cobain. Today, members of that same generation sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings of pop.
A sexy poster upon a boy’s wall in which a young woman grins wholesomely. A record album called “Thriller” and its attendant music videos, built upon the notion that sexiness came in the frisson of hints and suggestions rather than in cutting directly to the big reveal.
In the end, finally, they stand as the relics of a generation — one that struggled to find its place and now, suddenly, while still young, one that must wonder if it is as passe as the paper and vinyl that its icons’ most memorable moments were etched upon.