The brightest stars burn out first.
The ancient Greeks called the sun, the star closest to the Earth, Helios. They thought the sun was a god. There was a time when we called the biggest of our celebrities stars, and thought of them as gods. The sun-as-god, celebrity-as-god parallel is closer than you think. Let’s explore it.
Let’s start with the first of two stars to burn out yesterday. Farah Fawcett was the smaller of the two that we lost but that’s only a comparative statistic. Farah Fawcett was, at the height of her stardom, huge.
A show of hands from the middle-aged guys out there. How many of you had the poster? Yep, I did too. My mother wasn’t thrilled about the nipples pressing through the fabric of her swimsuit but the poster was on my wall, as it was on the walls of all they guys I knew.
No one had ever heard of Farah Fawcett prior to her one season on the hit show “Charlie’s Angels.” But the franchise owes its very existence to her. The flowing mane, the dazzling white smile and the lithe, athletic figure put the show on the map — and in the process saved the ABC Television Network.
Prior to “Charlie’s Angels,” ABC was a very distant third in a three-network prime time television race. But when Farah Fawcett and the other two Angels appeared, CBS affiliates in markets all across the country, accustomed to an easy prime time win, could only look upon the surge of ABC with impotent envy.
I was working at WFAA in Dallas at the time and I saw it happen. The sudden success in prime time emboldened the management to make investments in the ten o’clock news product that might otherwise not have been made. From that prime time success, Channel 8 news in Dallas went on to over two decades of dominance in the Dallas-Ft. Worth media race.
Most of Farah Fawcett’s work after her one season on “Charlie’s Angels” was forgettable. But for that brief moment, she was an authentic star that burned bright and hot and she had an impact on the national conversation.
Then later yesterday afternoon, one of the brightest, hottest stars in all of history burned out.
Michael Jackson stands unequaled in the history of recorded music. No one, not Elvis, not Sinatra, not the Beatles – no one – ever came close to selling the number of units that Michael Jackson sold. I firmly believe that no recording artist will ever sell 25 million copies of a recording ever again. Babe Ruth’s home run record was eventually eclipsed. Michael Jackson’s sales record will stand for all time.
Of course, stars are not gods. Astronomical stars are balls of hot gas that do what they do by consuming themselves. And in that way, the parallel between celestial stars and human stars is almost exact. For it seems that the brighter the human star, the more it must consume itself in order to exist. It seems that our biggest stars come to the worst ends. Michael Jackson’s inevitable early death reminds us of the bad endings that came to the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis.
I have lived long enough to not be over-awed by stars. I see them for what they are. And what I see is a shrinking galaxy. Today’s stars are not stars at all. They’re mere celebrities who try to imitate the white-hot heat of stars by figuratively setting themselves on fire in public.
Forty or fifty years from now, will we spend this much time talking about the passing of Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson? Somehow, I doubt it.
I, for one, miss true stars. For all of their manifest failings, they gave us all a common cultural touch point. They brought us together. Even if you never watched the Angels, you knew who Farah was. Even if you never liked Michael Jackson, you knew that the album “Thriller” was something extraordinary.
In the final analysis, I think Michael Jackson was creepy. I didn’t like him and I will never be fully convinced that he wasn’t a pedophile. But we have long tolerated sociopathic behavior from the most talented among us. It’s the price we have been willing to pay to enjoy the work of true artists. Michelangelo was insufferable, Beethoven was an irascible tyrant. Frank Sinatra was a jerk. I detest nearly everything that comes out of Barbra Steisand’s mouth — right up until she begins to sing.
So with respect to Michael Jackson, I will unashamedly admire his brilliant work. And I now mourn the fact that his star burned so brightly that it is now fully consumed and burned out, with no new stars rising above the horizon.