In recent days the entertainment community has been shocked by the deaths of several celebrities. The passing of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Billy Mays, Karl Malden, and Steve McNair has reminded us all that no one, no matter how popular or seemingly invincible (that was the title of a Jackson album, by the way) can undo their own mortality. Some of these deaths, while sad, are not totally unexpected. McMahon and Malden were well-advanced in age, and Fawcett had been battling cancer for months. And in the case of Mays, it is not unheard of for seemingly healthy people to have heart problems. What shocks us about the deaths of Jackson and McNair are the way that hidden problems have been revealed by the stars' untimely passing.
In a way, Michael Jackson was lost years ago. I suspect that the majority of his mourners remember not the frail, facially disfigured, out-of-touch tabloid creature of recent years but rather the magnetic showman with sharp dance moves, soaring vocal ability, and a gift for catchy, feel-good dance pop. I still remember how nearly everyone at my school spent hours trying to master his signature "moonwalk" maneuver, and it was normal to desire a red leather jacket with decorative but functionally useless zippers, and the way my sister and I were scared witless by the Thriller video revelation that Jackson was both a werewolf and a zombie. With his demand for perfection in the studio and his search for innovative ways to market himself (his video for "Billie Jean" was the first by a black artist on MTV, the Thriller short film revolutionized music videos with its 14-minute length and feature-film quality sets and make-up) he spent years between the release of projects, and every release was treated as an event. Feature film directors John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers, Thriller, Black or White) and Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed, Bad) were hired to shoot his videos. Think of the influence he's had: Alfonso Ribeiro ("Silver Spoons," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air") got his start as a moonwalking kid in a Pepsi commercial which featured Jackson. Siblings Jermaine and Janet no doubt owe name recognition to his success. The CGI "morph" that is common for special effects these days was pioneered in the Black or White video. He proved that in the video age a black artist could be successful with all audiences. Ferris Bueller's Day Off lampooned the Thriller line dance (in fact, it could be argued that the modern line dance was inspired by the sequences in that and the "Beat It" video). "Weird Al" Yankovic's major breakthrough came with his inspired shot-for-shot parody "Eat It," and he later copied "Bad" with "Fat." (He even went so far as to mimic the Bad album cover with Even Worse.) Paul McCartney shared the charts with Jackson on "Say Say Say" and "The Girl is Mine," and Eddie Van Halen's most famous guitar solo may be the one he played on "Beat It." Most casual listeners associate industry producing legend Quincy Jones with the albums he produce for Jackson. It makes one want to forget how multiple surgeries and a bizarre skin condition altered his appearance, and how his charitable work with children was marred by his sleepover invitations and resulting molestation lawsuits. Even though his showbiz friends spoke highly of his character, drive, and motivation, interviews and his increasingly strange behavior made it clear that however talented he was, he clearly was out of touch with reality. It now seems that his need to fulfill the demands of being Michael Jackson and his inability to deal with the stress and attention have led to his tragic early demise.
Steve McNair seems to have succumbed to an all-too-common condition of celebrities: they won't catch me. While his time as a quarterback for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens was largely marked by amazing improvisation on the field, clutch plays, and a willingness to play through nearly any injury, McNair cultivated an off-the-field image of a family man and devoted public servant who cared for his wife and four children and ran youth football camps. In the hours following his shocking and violent death, it now seems that he was pursuing some type of relationship with a waitress sixteen years his junior. He frequently visited an apartment where she lived, and she drove a Cadillac registered in both their names. While police are still assembling the puzzle, it is clear that McNair was not living the type of life that his fans expected. I can understand that the adjustment to post-competition life is difficult for many pro athletes, and that an attractive, friendly young woman is a strong temptation for most men, even when they are devoted to their families. But it is a shame that someone who was so much a part of Nashville's rise as a major football city and who inspired so many young (and old!) fans has left us under such mystifying circumstances.
Even heroes are human.