Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Celebrity Death Match 2009

In the past couple of weeks there appears to have been a veritable rash of celebrity deaths. It seems like commentators, athletes, actors and pop stars are dropping faster than women's unmentionables at a Tom Jones concert. Of course this type of grouping is to be expected in any random distribution of events, but that hasn’t slowed the predictable media blitz surrounding the lives and deaths of said famous folk, especially focusing around one death in particular – that of Michael Jackson. There has been nearly 24/7 coverage about the King of Pop, his life, his deeds, his sphere of influence, his eccentricity, his medical history, his shopping habits, his children, his death, etc., etc., ad infinitum. {yeeaaaawnnnn} The predictable mass memorials and spontaneous images of self flagellation and grief on the part of his “fans” have been popping up everywhere adjacent to anything remotely related to the man. This has lead me to a seemingly simple question that I’m afraid doesn’t have a simple answer: why do people care about celebrity deaths? I am certain to torque some people off as I fumble through this one, but by now I think we’re all pretty used to that. Aren’t we?

First of all let’s just stop with the nonsense that celebrity deaths occur in threes. It’s childish and silly. Of course everything occurs in threes if you can only count to three. The other part of that crappy argument is that the word “celebrity” is pretty loosely defined. At best the definition can only be relative. For example, my son has never heard of Michael Jackson so he is not a celebrity to him. What about the scraggly-bearded hammer-thrower from the Lithuanian track and field team? Is she a celebrity? How about a Bollywood film star? Do they count? You see where I’m going with this. Knock off the lame-ass attempts at numerology B.S., people. It’s frustrating and boring.

In order to tackle the meat of the question of people’s reactions over celebrity deaths I have of course turned to scholarly journal articles and books discussing the psychology and sociology of media influence, mass hysteria, and human emotions, but they all just seem to be…well, bullshit for lack of a better term. Put more politely, I am still left wanting for a solid explanation after pouring through numerous articles and books on human social behavior over several years. So, I’m going to shoot from the hip a bit on this one.

I believe that the human capacity for empathy is quite amazing and is something that we have evolved over millions of years so that we can maintain order in a complex society populated with top predators. We don’t pick the sick or the fallen to death like a gang of turkeys, and we don’t eat our young like tigers because we are able to project our emotions onto the weak and needy to some extent. We genuinely feel for others’ pain, but when that empathy turns into public displays of catharsis it is just a little too much for me to swallow. My wife says that I have no capacity for empathy at all. Maybe she’s right, because I just don’t give one rat’s ass that M.J. died no matter how fancy he danced when he was alive. I guess I should rephrase that. I truly feel for the very real grief that actual friends and family of the man are feeling in private, but his death in no way affects my life because I have no direct connection to him – real or perceived. Thousands upon thousands of non-celebs die every day. They, too, are parents and grandparents and children. They, too, are community leaders and criminals, and they, too, deserve an equal amount of empathy in my opinion. I feel that if I don’t grieve for every suburban child that drowns in a swimming pool or Chinese coal miner trapped in a collapse or inner-city heroine addict that caught a bad batch then a celebrity shouldn’t hold too much sway either. I guess I just don’t have the capacity to funnel all of my annual empathy allotment into one neat celebrity package.

In today’s society we are tuned in to the mass media almost constantly. It is nearly impossible to avoid, and we are immediately informed of any event no matter how minor or remote. People have become so plugged-in that they evidently have difficulty distinguishing what the media feeds them from reality. (The obvious paradox here is that I am technically part of the media, but we won’t get into that now. PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!) The death of a celebrity appears to be a real loss because people have been following that celeb’s very public life, often for long periods of time. They have shared truly (well, not really truly) intimate sides of themselves on the big screen or in song, and we have placed those images in our minds next to important events in our lives. “His song was on when we danced our first dance,” or “when she climbed out of that pool and took off her bikini top I nearly dehydrated myself from furious masturbation,” etc. When a celebrity dies all of their faults somehow magically fade away and what is left is their body of work and whatever influence they have had on the perceived reality of our plugged-in lives. The sad part is that people that are continually plugged-in often do not know how to unplug and focus on the actual human relationships surrounding them and engage in real human emotions on a day-to-day basis.

Modern society has provided us with such luxuriousness that people have little real strife in their lives, so they must over-amplify the seemingly remote and meaningless in order to have an occasional vent. Food, shelter, healthcare, longevity, employment and recreation are all so readily available to us that we have very little to complain or worry about…until one day the man on the screen says The King is dead. Then the fakery begins and mass hysteria abounds for weeks. I guarantee that you will not see any pictures of dusty starving citizens of the third-world with flies crawling on their eyeballs bawling over Michael Jackson’s death. They have very real problems to deal with. Yet, people in opulent countries appear to be experiencing real “grief” and “anguish” over the “loss” of someone so dear to them that they have never met, were never likely to meet, and haven’t even thought about for twenty years. I just don’t understand it. If we are to actually grieve over someone that we have never even spoken directly to, what emotion is left for people that are actually integral to our lives? When we say it is a “tragedy” that a 50 year old man dies too soon what descriptive words shall we use for, say, a children’s burn ward?

The same sort of massive public outpouring of emotion occurred for Princess Diana, John Lennon, Elvis, JFK, etc. Does the public need this hysteria every 15 years or so to cleanse its emotional baggage? I guess it’s like Clemenza says in The Godfather: “These things gotta happen every five years or so, ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood. Been ten years since the last one.” (Don’t hear too many Clemenza quotes, do you?) Is it somehow necessary to have a public display of emotion for something as seemingly banal as the death of a weird-ass suspected pedophile exhibitionist shut-in that O.D.’s on prescription medication? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

The whole public display just seems fake and forced and shameful. It smacks of glomming onto something larger than oneself in order to feel like you are somehow involved in an historical event, or a perceived historical event, or whatever the hell this circus act is. When I was in High School a close friend of mine was killed in a car accident. He fell asleep at the wheel and collided with a culvert in a ditch as he drove off the road. His death affected me at that time, but I saw a large group of people (mostly girls) that took the opportunity to grieve publicly even though they barely even knew his name. Even people that claimed they hated him when he was alive jumped in on the emotional bandwagon. To me that type of behavior is not only selfish, but it can be harmful to the people that are actually grieving for some concrete reason other than joining in on a chance to cry in public. I can give H.S. kids a pass since they are just figuring out what emotions are, so they must play with them like a kitten plays with a ball of string. Adults, however, have no excuse. I often wonder how someone that cries at a spontaneous public memorial for a celebrity that pops up on the side of the street feels when a family member dies. Do they feel silly as they look back on their reaction to the celebrity death or are they really just emotional basket-cases all of the time? Maybe I am really just a misanthropic heartless bastard, but the whole thing just seems strained, empty, degrading, and pre-packaged for television.

But that’s just my opinion, and what the hell do I know? Anyone else care to chime in?


Anonymous said...

Your an asshole!

Dan said...

I appreciate your input, but I was hoping for something a bit more well-thought-out from someone that understands the English language.

TJ said...

HAHAHAHA I love that first comment. Brilliant. "your" How wonderful and thought provoking.

It's funny too about MJ how everyone suddenly "forgot" that he was a pederast who attempted to pay off the parents of children he got friendly with so that they wouldn't besmirch his glorious name.

People are mostly sheep that follow the flock. When many people do something, they somehow feel like they should do it too. Perhaps it's inclusion, popularity, a feeling of belonging, community, I don't know. Whatever the reasons are, it has worked for religions, it has worked for world leaders and it has worked in the music industry too.

What I DO know, however, is that the teeming masses out there are not very bright and marketing people know it too. Throw in someone famous who dies suddenly and it's big news. Toss in a whiff of scandal and you've got a recipe for high ratings and a guarantee for a book deal to boot! And the people don't even know that they're being taken! Pathetic.

I'm with you, I don't give a rat's ass. Just looking at Michael Jackson made me queasy. His parasols and surgical masks and plastic surgeries and ugh *shudder*.

All the people that pine and snivel about it are likely being disingenous. They may say he led a tragic life (scoff), or they may say they're sad because he won't make anymore music (meh), but for them to be heartbroken and in true grief about it, well, I think they're lying.

For the Jacksons, if any of them were even close to MJ, which I doubt, I feel bad for them. I just lost a family member myself and that grief is no fun, but for everyone else, you're not sad, you didn't know him. Next.

Thomas Chilinski said...

The fact that everyone goes nuts over every fart a celebrity makes. Is detrimental to the mental health of the same celebrities. We are supposed to befriend people who are witty and funny, in are everyday lives. Because its a sign of social intelligence. Living though the lives of others is a sign that we don't know how to live.

Thomas Chilinski said...

The fact that everyone goes nuts over every fart a celebrity makes. Is detrimental to the mental health of the same celebrities. We are supposed to befriend people who are witty and funny, in are everyday lives. Because its a sign of social intelligence. Living though the lives of others is a sign that we don't know how to live.