Jackson, Fawcett leave a generation looking for ... something

A record-shattering vinyl album and its moonwalking maestro. A paper poster of a golden-haired beauty in a one-piece swimsuit that was gossamer and clingy in all the right places.

It all seems so quaint now, the fragmented dream memories of a fleeting micro-era that began with words like "bicentennial" and "pet rock" and ended with MTV, Atari and thin cans of super-hold mousse.

The man-child named Michael Jackson and the luminous girl known as Farrah Fawcett-Majors jumped into our consciousness at a plastic moment in American culture — a time when the celebrity juggernaut we know today was still in diapers. When they departed Thursday, just a few hours and a few miles apart, they left an entire generation — a very strange generation indeed — without two of its defining figures.

"These people were on our lunchboxes," said Gary Giovannetti, 38, a manager at HBO who grew up on Long Island awash in Farrah and MJ iconography.

"This," he said, "is the moment when Generation X realizes they're grown up."

It was a long time coming. Cynical, disaffected, rife with ADD, lost between Boomers and millennials and sandwiched between Vietnam and the war on terror, Gen X has always been an oddity. It was the product of a transitional age when we were still putting people on celebrity pedestals but only starting to make an industry out of dragging them down.

Its memorable moments were diffuse and confusing — the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt, the dawn of AIDS, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. It had no protest movement, no opponent to unite it, none of the things that typically shape the ill-defined beast we call an American generation.

These were the people who sent to the top of the charts a song called "We Don't Need Another Hero," then figured out how to churn them out wholesale, launching the celebrity obsession that is now an accepted part of American cultural fabric.

And that was personified nowhere better than in the two people who died Thursday.

She struggled for credibility after the poster and the Angels. She got it in 1984 with a dramatic turn as an abused wife in "The Burning Bed." But her last stand — a documentary about the cancer that killed her — was tainted by her run-ins with insatiable paparazzi and tabloids.

He was another thing entirely — perhaps the most recognizable face in the world, even more so than the pope or Barack Obama. His musical genius and energy seemed boundless for a time. They were rivaled only by his quirks, which consumed him.

Today, celebrities aren't merely created for our consumption. Audiences are passive no longer. We demand a part in creating our icons: Jon and Kate Gosselin and their ilk might as well be publicly held companies, and we all insist upon buying a few shares. Farrah and Michael Jackson were other — above us, maybe, or apart from us. Now, when we crown new icons, we want them to BE us.

Today, when Lindsay Lohan Twitters pictures of herself to her legions of followers, the notion that a paper poster bought in a shopping-mall Spencer Gifts could change the celebrity game seems rustic. And the vinyl version of "Thriller," redolent of raw materials and production lines, is a ghost in the virtual world of iTunes — a world that the generation after X negotiates with the fluidity of natives.

"We want everything right now, and there's a blurring of reality," said Penni Pier, an associate professor of communications at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

"When does the celebrity world stop and our world begin?"

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