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Taking a Piece of Our Youth With Them

The news of the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson on Thursday was shocking and millions were saddened that two people who made such lasting imprints on popular culture were suddenly gone on the same day.

If you grew up in the 1970s or '80s, it was a little hard to wrap your head around, for a couple of reasons.

One is obvious: They're famous.

But after a while, another reaction crept in: What the hell happened to our youth?

It may seem shallow, frivolous, even, to use pop-culture figures as bookmarks for the important episodes in our lives. It probably is. But, whether thanks to good fortune, a savvy publicist or actual talent — sometimes a combination of all three — some figures make such a big impression on their time that they're forever linked to it and to our impressions of it.

Fawcett and Jackson were two of them. Fawcett started "Charlie's Angels" and posed for her famous poster in 1976 (big year for her). She worked steadily for more than 30 years afterwards, even pulling off a difficult feat — raising her stature as an actress. Yet when she died, what two things were mentioned first and most often? "Charlie's Angels" and the poster, of course.

Why? Because those, and not something like "Chasing Farrah," her 2005 reality show, take us back to when we first fell under her spell, when she was young and fresh — and so were we.

Fawcett was famous. Jackson was bigger by an order of magnitude. It's difficult to imagine the death of a pop-culture icon causing more of a global reaction (with the exception of Paul McCartney or maybe Mick Jagger or Madonna).

If you turned on a radio in 1982 and left it on for a year, you'd eventually hear every song on "Thriller," and you could catch videos for most of them on MTV. There were a few signs of some weirdness, yes, but this was a time before Jackson's life was a staple for late-night TV hosts — and later, cable news network marathons. His innocence was part of his appeal.

Weren't we more innocent then, too? Maybe.

Naturally, when word of their passing spread, people's minds drifted back to earlier days. It's tempting to say to happier days, to simpler days, but that's just memory playing tricks on us. All of our lives are filled with good and bad. But popular-culture icons serve as an easy reference point. Maybe you heard "Thriller" during the summer you worked at the lake. Maybe your friend hid his Farrah poster on the inside of his closet door, so his mom wouldn't find it.

There's a poignancy to all this, and an undercurrent of our own mortality. That's the bottom line, isn't it? Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, two people who defined aspects of a generation — for millions, our generation — are dead. It's just another reminder that nothing lasts forever.

That's how powerful the hold popular culture has on us can be. It's transportive.

A tour around the Twitterverse and Facebook after Jackson's death found what you would expect — people sharing their shock and sadness — but something more, as well. Some people were put off, even offended, by the amount of coverage the media was devoting to Jackson's death. (There was less complaint about coverage of Fawcett's death, doubtless because Jackson's death would quickly overshadow it and because she didn't suffer the same legal troubles.) The difficulties in his personal life played into this, of course, even as they helped drive the coverage. But there was also a sentiment that the media ignore more important stories at the expense of covering celebrity "news."

Guilty as charged. It's particularly galling when there is blanket coverage of whether Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie might adopt another child.

But Thursday was different.

To explain: Coincidence played a role, with two stars dying the same day. But for good or bad (or both), they weren't just stars. For millions, they were part of our youth. Now they're gone, and they've taken a couple of pieces of that youth with them.

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