Column
January 11, 2017

Distant mourning

Celebrity death: Is it stupid to care?
The age-old question struck me again at the end of 2016, as George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds all shuffled off this mortal coil in quick succession. All year long, our popular culture had inhabited a heightened state of bereavement, perhaps on account of a few uncommonly significant deaths (arguably, 2015 didn’t yield one death in the world of music or sport to match the high profile of any of the 2016 losses of David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, and Leonard Cohen), and Americans’ sense of having seen their entertainment landscape unduly battered since last January intensified, oddly, after the presidential election, as the celebrity deaths entwined themselves with the broader meme-campaign to declare 2016 the worst year in recent memory, or ever.
The earthly departure of, say, Gene Wilder now served to bolster a narrative set into motion by Donald Trump’s victory, becoming part of an overarching liberal sadness that, by New Year’s Eve, verged on exasperation: 2017 couldn’t come soon enough, we all exclaimed—except that, in 2017, Trump would actually be inaugurated as president, and celebrities would presumably keep dying. It may be true that an unusual number of stars passed away in 2016, but even if so, we’d be better off getting used to it than expecting a regression to the mean. The Baby Boomers almost certainly produced more celebrities than every previous generation combined, and the eldest segment of their cohort is just now over 70. You do the math.
This is why we must, once and for all, answer the question that began this column. With every big-name death, we see the Facebook and Twitter posts professing deep sorrow and distress: these fans can’t believe that so-and-so is gone, they can’t take it, they’ll be crying for the rest of the month. And then, in smaller numbers, come the dissenters: first the mild, confused sort, people who perhaps have suffered actual misfortunes in their lives and can’t help but wonder, with some bafflement, at the emotional perspective that allows one to become incapacitated by grief with the passing of somebody whom one has never actually met; and then, of course, the crueler variety of doubters, who publicly proclaim their disdain for all the performative mourning on social media and even find a certain emotional hypocrisy within the broken hearts of the internet pallbearers, pointing out that thousands of people die in abject misery every day and no one seems to care even though these unknown lives were just as valuable as any in the spotlight.
This second group of dissenters is the same group of Facebookers who, when a major tragedy in the United States or Western Europe occurs, confront the collective horror with an accusatory glare that may conceal a small smirk, as they ask why you melodramatic frauds didn’t express similar panic and woe when a similar atrocity happened, recently, in some third-world country. What is your sadness really all about?
Whatever performative element may exist in standard-issue social-media mourning (in which some newsworthy misfortune is inevitably used as a launching pad for a large-scale public “event” of dubious meaning), there is no internet behavior more performative in its righteousness than the abovementioned response to the fashionable bereavement that follows a deadly terrorist attack in Paris or a notable drug overdose in Hollywood; it does no honor to the overlooked, unnamed dead to invoke them solely as a tactic to shame those weeping at a more popular virtual gravesite. The piously universal empathy displayed here is, transparently, a non-empathy, based at least in part on the incoherent notion that we should all be so constantly attuned to the mass suffering of humanity at large that it should be impossible to care about one particular death in Los Angeles or New York City—this logic could equally extend to the death of your mother, for instance, who in reality constitutes just one more casualty in a world of pain and bloodshed, but it seems to apply most of all to the overhyped fatalities of singers and actors who, after all, didn’t even play an actual role in your life.
Well, that’s not true, though: of course celebrities play actual roles in the lives of people who have never met them. On screen, we’ve observed them more intimately than we have half the people we know, and that intimacy means something, no matter if it’s staged. When we reject the significance of a celebrity death, this intimacy may be what we’re rejecting: in other words, the sadness of knowing that some of the most memorable moments of our lives took place inside movies and television shows instead of the real world, and some of our most important relationships involved famous musicians who never knew our names. It feels like a modern malady, born of easy technological access to various quick-fix solutions to the eternal problem of human loneliness, and thus a kind of disgrace. If we’re sad when a star dies, it shows how much we (pathetically) depended on him.
Our mourning rituals predate the cultural changes wrought by TV and the internet. Invoking them to address the world of Hollywood entertainment (the same world that is, after all, partly responsible for all those Americans who don’t notice or care when their real-life neighbors die) can feel like a travesty, but it’s an understandable attempt to clothe today’s delocalized universe of “disposable” content in some of the humanistic traditions of old. If we spend so much time in front of our screens, don’t we owe some tribute to the people who occupy them? It’s up to you to decide what, in 2017, is more absurd: acting as though Carrie Fisher was your neighbor, or acting as though she wasn’t.

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