A few months ago marked the 1st anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death. A death that shocked the world to a certain degree. He left a legion of fans in mournful remembrance. Jackson’s death, like his life, was shrouded in conspiracy and bizarre events. Another Icon becomes the victim of fame. We should have seen it coming. History it seems, when it comes to popular Icons, revels on repetition. Think Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee and Kurt Cobain. So many of these Icons left us in their prime. So what went wrong and why the trend?
An Icon by definition is a devotional painting or carving of Christ or another holy figure. Over the years a number of stars have risen to such heights in the mass consciousness of millions, that the term Icon has been associated with them. These pop Icons have been worshipped, praised and idolized by many cultures. They have become a religion in their own right.
In 1966 John Lennon stated the Beatles were bigger than Christ. It caused a major backlash. He was shot dead in 1980 by Mark Chapman, a fan that had become fixated with his chosen God. Chapman’s devotion had spiraled into one of demonic proportions, one which drove him to commit this heinous crime. He had been a big fan of the Beatles, especially of Lennon, but had taken great offence to the singers ‘blasphemous’ remarks made in 1966. Angry at the Beatle’s millionaire lifestyle, Chapman later stated that Lennon was transcending messages of love and life without possessions, while leading a luxurious existence himself.
Although murder and suicide have played factors in the demise of many a Pop Icon, the main cause has been excess. Excess involving drugs and/or alcohol. Close to a 100 stars left us prematurely between 1956 and 2005, a quarter of them due to overindulgence. Placed on an unbalanced pedestal, more than a few have toppled under their own weight. Many of us expect our Icons to act wild, more Jim Morrison than Jim Carrey. It’s the anti-establishment, rebellious fires of life we live through them. Rock Stars are a perfect example. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Brian Jones. They all died due to excess and all left us at the age of 27. Apparently there are close to 35 musicians who belong to the 27 Club, many becoming the victim of their own success.
Conspiracy theories involving many of these deaths are almost as legendary as the deaths themselves. Elvis Presley died in 1977, aged 42, in the bathroom of his Graceland mansion. The official cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia, but after further investigation it was concluded he died due to a cocktail of prescription drugs that no doctor should have prescribed. Sound familiar? Many fans to this day suggest it was a cover-up and that Elvis is alive today. One theory states he lives on a remote island with Buddy Holly and James Dean. The same island Michael Jackson recently moved to, according to some.
Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 has become a favorite among the fraternity of conspirators. Like Kurt Cobain’s suicide, many say both Icons were murdered. When it comes to suspicious deaths, many fans simply ignore reason and welcome doubt. It seems many fans cannot accept that their chosen heroes were flawed to such a degree.
When talent elevates a person to a god-like status, their reality must forever buzz on a higher frequency. They have ascended to the top floor of a grand hotel. Their penthouse is one where room service includes anything and everything, whenever they desire. What happens when you have it all? When no is not an option? It can be a very dangerous place for the mind to dwell. Egos inflate into Zeppelin sized monsters, expanding to volatile, unstable levels, likely to explode. A world of back slaps and back stabs, a world where your whole life is on film.
In the Madonna Documentary, Truth or Dare in 1991, Warren Beatty (who was dating Madonna at the time) made a sarcastic but relevant point. “What was the point of doing anything unless it was on film?”
Iconic stars live in a totally different universe to you and I. Many say a more a perpendicular universe then a parallel one. A reality which seems to be crazy and chaotic, one that revolves around the adoration of millions. The pressure must be immense, to be recognized wherever you go, your every move watched by fans, media and your bodyguards. Privacy becomes a sacred word. No wonder Michael Jackson looked like an alien amongst us. He was famous from the age of 5. He had a whole lifetime in that universe. It must have been a truly bi-polar existence.
This kind of pressure leads many unstable entertainers to prescription pills, alcohol and drugs. It can be the start of the road to ruin. They go too far and the news of their death splashes the front pages of the morning papers, an ink stain in our psyche ready to be tossed out, replaced by another cartridge, another story.
Many Icons demise have contributed to the elevation of their status and more importantly record sales. Money must be made in order to survive. Elvis Presley still sells millions of albums each year together with John Lennon and Bob Marley. Michael Jackson, once again, is a good example. His estate has made more than $500 million since his death last year.
Had these famous industries of power not succumbed to the temptations that seduced them, would they have waned in popularity, eventually dissolving into the depths of an ocean of new stars? Or would they have had the longevity of the Frank Sinatra’s, Madonna’s and Jay Z’s of the world, forever swimming in the seas of our minds. I think for many of our lost Icons I would agree with the latter. To have seen Jimi Hendrix play guitar as an old man or James Dean become a Robert De Niro would have been special. What about Elvis losing the weight, scarred by plastic surgery, singing his hits? Maybe not. As Kurt Cobain stated in his suicide note, “It's better to burn out than to fade away.”