Since last Christmas, there seems to have been an ever longer and depressing list of celebrities who have passed away. It started on December 28th with Lemmy of Motorhead and since then the bad news has come thick and fast; David Bowie, actor Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Keith Emerson and now Prince. Even BBC News published an article today about how many celebrity deaths there have been this year.
Their logic is that time is simply starting to run out for the Baby Boomers – those who were born after the end of the Second World War. As the risk of death starts to rise slowly after the age of 50, some of them (even in these days of better medicine) have reached their allotted span. Not a comfortable thought, but time passes for all of us, no matter how much we may try to cheat it. Celebrities are not immune, indeed some of them have lived fast and died young. An untimely death always seems doubly cruel; that individual is snatched away in the prime of life when there is so much more they could have done.
But why is there these outpouring of grief following a celebrity death? Are they the actions of sensible, rational people?
It’s been summed up beautifully by @nadiaakatherine, who wrote this:
These reactions aren’t new; they’ve been happening for nearly a century now. The first really notable outburst at a celebrity’s death was the mass hysteria following the untimely passing of actor Rudolph Valentino at the age of 31 in 1926. An estimated 80,000 people attended his funeral and a number of women committed suicide as a result of their grief.
Naive, childish overreaction?
That’s the quick, dispassionate answer, but it’s much more complicated than that. First of all we need to go back to when celebrity began and look at how media has changed the world around us.
It could be argued that the age of celebrity started much more than a hundred years ago; there were 18th century opera singers who led the life of today’s rock stars and were feted wherever they went, but they were limited by the audience they were able to reach. There was no mass media of any sort until we had movies and recordings. These innovations made celebrity a much bigger deal and meant that artists could reach an impossibly larger world with their talents. And that larger world was closer to us than ever before; it wasn’t just a matter of a once-in-a-lifetime experience seeing someone on a stage and trying to hold that in memory. Artists became stars; fans could queue to see a film again and again, and recorded music was available in bars, cafes and eventually their own homes as gramophones became more affordable.
Add TV and radio to this later in the 20th century, and celebrities were in our homes every day. Music seems to have an even greater grip on most of us than film and TV; songs worm their way into our brains and become the soundtrack of our lives. Often our earliest memories include music; listening to a car radio going to school, playing a radio or records while doing homework, dancing at the school disco, going to concerts and festivals. Music becomes part of makeups, breakups, weddings; the good times, bad times and sad times.
This soundtrack becomes ever-present; we could all write lists of songs that we associate with certain times and events. When I saw QAL twice last year, the most affecting number for me was Days Of Our Lives, as it was accompanied by a video of Queen through the years, and I’d been with them for all of that time. It was my life I was watching too, and that’s an emotional thing.
Because music gets woven into the fabric of our existence, it’s inevitable that it touches us when “our” artists die. I remember one of my schoolfriends being utterly heartbroken at the death of Marc Bolan, my own disbelief at the murder of John Lennon, and of course, the profound sadness at the tragic and very sudden death of Freddie in 1991. We become close to artists through their art and when they leave us, there is a hole in our lives where they once were. The soundtrack gets broken and someone who has been with us is torn away.
Yet, they leave their music and their talent behind and with that, they are frozen in time for us, forever perfect. We can listen to the recordings whenever we want, watch the videos – as long as we can bear the thought that they are no longer with us. They have helped us feel happy so many times, that if we let them go, that happiness will be gone forever. The grief process can be the same as losing a family member, and take years to recover from.
In the last few years, the new age of social media have changed the dynamics of grief again News is instant; on platforms such as Twitter, we are all broadcasters and our thoughts and reactions are out in the world instantly. We can see a story develop in front of us, share it and add to it. Importantly, we can join with like-minded people and know that we are not alone in feeling the way we do.
I think the important thing here is to acknowledge that grieving for something or someone that has touched our lives is not unnatural. We need these connections in our lives to help us make sense of everything, to make us fully human. The philosopher Erich Fromm said “To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.”
Therefore, as in many other parts of life, there is no gain without pain. If we reach out into the world, it is inevitable that there are things that will hurt us, even if that something is a person we have never met. We need heroes; we need role models as they give us something to aspire to. But it hurts when they die.