In 1977, it was Elvis Presley. Thirty years later, Anna Nicole Smith. We don’t know yet if Michael Jackson had a similarly enabling cadre of hangers-on who helped hasten his death last week at age 50, but there’s a common thread regardless. From Elvis to Anna Nicole, from Britney Spears to Jon and Kate Gosselin, we’ve seen countless times the power of fame to destroy lives.
In 1977, it was Elvis Presley. Thirty years later, Anna Nicole Smith.
We don’t know yet if Michael Jackson had a similarly enabling cadre of hangers-on who helped hasten his death last week at age 50, but there’s a common thread regardless. From Elvis to Anna Nicole, from Britney Spears to Jon and Kate Gosselin, we’ve seen countless times the power of fame to destroy lives.
Even if Jackson's death turns out to be natural, his life was anything but. Though he was preparing for an amazing series of sold-out concerts in London that could have restored his show business credentials to a new generation, Michael Jackson was best known to those born after the mid-’80s for his freakish behavior and legal travails. If they knew his music at all, their introduction is as likely to have come from a “Weird Al” Yankovic song parody than from the Michael Jackson original.
Yet Jackson’s fame seemed to grow as his musical presence receded.
Unlike Elvis, whose death in August 1977 came as a sudden shock, Jackson’s bizarre decline had been painstakingly documented for years.
He was a tabloid favorite — his chimpanzee, his Peter Pan fixation, his ever-changing appearance, his marriages and child molestation charges — whose descent into weirdness came just as we received the ability to follow every step of it. Many others have followed.
From the ever-more-aggressive corps of paparazzi to Web sites like tmz.com to tabloid TV shows and instant news tools like Twitter, the new media have taken stardom to both new heights and new lows. The famous now can be more widely known than ever, enjoying more adulation than the stars of previous generations. They also can never hide, and examples of the wreckage caused by the ever-present spotlight litter the pop culture landscape.
On the reality show “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” America got to watch a marriage disintegrate as six 5-year-olds and twin 9-year-olds figured as bit players. The show scored its highest rating, drawing 10.6 million viewers, in the episode last week announcing Jon and Kate Gosselin’s separation. While damning the Gosselins for exploiting their situation for a paycheck, America couldn’t help but tune in. (Anna Nicole Smith, too, opened up the train wreck of her celebrity life on a reality series from 2002-04.)
It's hard to advocate sympathy for those whose troubles derive from the kind of riches and public adoration none of us will ever know.
It’s even harder in Jackson’s case because of the child molestation allegations that hardly faded after his acquittal in court.
But there was something genuinely sad in the contrast between clips of the ebullient little boy belting out “ABC” and those of the freakish, pale, fragile figure we saw over and over last week. We may never know if Jackson’s untimely death was the price of his fame. If so, there is one question only Michael Jackson himself could ever answer: Was it worth it?