Dateline: America, July 4, 1826. Exactly 50 years have passed since the day in 1776 set aside to celebrate the birth of the greatest experiment in the history of politics. Two of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence die within hours of each other. Two Presidents of the United States. Two legends. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. July 4, 1826 sets the stage for days to come in which two celebrities of greater than usual fame both expire on the same day. But even when it comes to legendary status, there are levels of celebrities. How sad it must be for an extremely well-known celebrity to die on the same day as an even more well-known celebrity.
Dateline: America, June 25, 2009. If you turned on CNN, MSNBC or, heaven forfend, Fox News sometime before the afternoon of this date, you probably managed to find out that Farrah Fawcett had died earlier in the day. On the other hand, if you only tuned into the news after the sun has rise to its highest position in the sky and then one degree lower, you may not even have become aware of this fact until days later. After all, June 25, 2009 is also the day that Michael Jackson died.
The coincident deaths of two of the biggest American pop culture icons of the last quarter half of the 20th century may well bring to mind to those who were around the announcements of two deaths that occurred the week when Elvis Presley died. On August 16, 1977 the King passed away. Three days later Groucho Marx died. Amidst all the hoopla of the untimely and unexpected death of Elvis Presley, the death of Groucho Marx at nearly 90 years old was easily lost in the shuffle. Of course, no one would dare try to argue that Groucho Marx even at his peak was as popular as Elvis still was in 1977 when he was two decades removed from his prime. And yet, Groucho Marx was without question one of the most important figures in American pop culture history. He was certainly on a far greater par than Farrah Fawcett if we argue that Michael Jackson was equitable with Elvis Presley. Of course, he wasn’t; at least not at the time of this death. Elvis may not have been Elvis in 1977, but he was far closer to his prime than the Michael Jackson of 2009 was to the Michael Jackson of 1982.
The point is that it becomes quite interesting to note how the media has developed a hierarchy when it comes to the death of celebrities. When Natasha Richardson quite tragically died from that skiing accident she was nearly front of the hour news for a week. Clearly, had she died the same week as Farrah Fawcett, we might not even have learned of the danger of head trauma. Had she died the day after Michael Jackson, well, few people today would even know who Natasha Richardson was.
It is difficult to imagine another celebrity death having the power to knock the 24/7 coverage given to the death of Michael Jackson in the days following his death. Clearly, there is only one person whose death who could have taken the spotlight away from Elvis Presley on August 16, 1977 and even that is arguable: Pres. Jimmy Carter. If Barack Obama had died–not even as the the result of an assassination, but just from an aneurysm–I imagine that would have relegated Michael Jackson to the bottom of the news hour. On the other hand, there is certainly no American who must have been happier to hear the breaking news of Michael Jackson’s death back in 2009 than a politician named Mark Sanford. Hard as it is remember now, Mark Sanford’s strange, twisted adulterous trip out the country was still topping even news of Farrah Fawcett’s passing and would likely have continued to do so for days had it not been for Michael Jackson’s unexpected and untimely demise.
As for another celebrity knocking off Jackson? Can’t even imagine. Which is really weird, because only a fool would suggest that Michael Jackson is still the biggest celebrity in the world. Sure, from 1982 to 1987 it often seemed as if escaping from the specter of Michael Jackson was impossible. Not so in 2009. And yet the media delivered the ultimate verdict on this strange, strange man. Despite the molestation allegations and despite the genuinely scary changes he made to his appearance and despite the fact that musically he was no more important than your average American Idol winner on June 24 th 2009, Michael Jackson’s legacy is right up there with Elvis. He even surpassed Frank Sinatra, who received not nearly the attention after his death that Jackson received. Admittedly, Sinatra was old and frail and death was not a surprise and there is much to suggest that if Jackson were to have died of a heart attack in another twenty-five years he would not be getting around the clock attention on the 24 hour cable channels.
But what of poor Farrah Fawcett? Farrah had her troubles to be sure, but not nearly to the extent of Michael Jackson. And lest we forget, in the mid 1970s Farrah Fawcett was nearly as popular as Jackson was circa 1982-1983. Few would argue that Farrah Fawcett was as good an actress as Jackson was a singer or dancer, but we’re talking popularity here. If Angelina Jolie and Emma Thompson were both to die on the same day, do you really think that Thompson, by far the much better actress, would receive the same media attention as Jolie, the overrated beauty and actress and general weirdo? The lesson to be learned from that wild and woolly day when two of the biggest pop culture icons in American history died is that if you are a celebrity, you are part of a media hierarchy and you’d better make sure you manage to hold out for about a week after a celebrity ahead of you passes on.