Celebrity Death and Why it’s Okay for It to Matter

So, Whitney Houston has died. Yes, she’d become a train wreck and yes, maybe you saw it coming.  Maybe you were a fan, maybe not.   Either way, western society at large appears to be mourning this loss, as we have mourned the loss of actors, writers, singers, dancers, athletes, and artists before her.  And as I’m certain we will again.  At least, some of us.

Personally, since I was not born with a metal spoon shoved through my face, listening to Skinny Puppy or 7 Seconds straight out of the womb, I, like most rural/suburban children, grew up on pop music.  We didn’t have cable, so no MTV for me unless I went to stay at my dad’s, but we did have radio and American Top 40.  I didn’t check my facts on this (if only there was a tool that could allow me to quickly and conveniently obtain random facts and information by simply typing in key words and clicking some buttons…) but I want to say it was around 1986 when Whitney Houston first broke into the charts.  She was so young and vibrant and pretty and damn, did she have a voice! Wow. (If you’re under 30 and never witnessed that era of her career, check it out. It’s a far cry from who she appeared to be in that reality TV abomination).  I was twelve and I wanted to do three things in life: make maps, write books, and sing.  And she appeared and she was so very good, and I knew I wanted to do what she did.  I remained a fan for the next few years (though by 14 or 15 I was hesitant to ever admit as much to my cool new punk rock friends, some of whom -unbeknownst to me- were also still listening to Michael Jackson and Madonna behind closed doors).  As I got older and my musical tastes shifted and grew, it seemed normal to stop paying as much attention to some of the musical idols of my childhood. I never stopped liking her, I just didn’t go out of my way to listen.

So when I heard the news last night (at the goth club), did I shed a tear?  No.  But it did make me feel weird, even a little sad.  I couldn’t counter the overwhelming responses of “well, who didn’t see that coming?” except to say that it did seem like she’d pulled her shit together over the past few months, which was information that I couldn’t definitively back up, as I was only basing it on bits and pieces from news and magazines.  But still…

We may be forgiving of our celebrities, but we definitely do not forget.

Okay, so yeah…sad, weird feelings. But the point of this was not actually to eulogize Whitney Houston.  This is about the discussion that has many times been spawned by the death of a celebrity: you didn’t know this person? Why do you care?

It’s a valid question. People that I don’t know die every minute of every day and I can’t pretend I care.  In the time it took me to type that sentence, like 300,000 people may have died (I’m a slow typist) and see? I don’t care.

But why do I care when a stranger whose name I know dies?

Because they weren’t really a stranger.  Did I know her personally? Nope.  Did she know or care about me?  Nope.  But she wasn’t a stranger to me.  Just like Kurt Vonnegut Jr, or Carl Sagan, or Michael Jackson, or Etta James, or John Lennon, or Michael Hutchence, or myriad other artists and celebrities that I have felt weird or sad over, or even shed tears (see: Vonnegut. Also, I rue the day Jeremy Irons, Bob Geldof, Bill Murray, or Leonard Cohen die.  I may be inconsolable).

If one of the purposes of art is to affect your life, your views, your modes of thought, your emotions, then why wouldn’t the sudden absence of that art affect you, as well?  And no, the death of the artist doesn’t dissolve or negate the art they already created, but to separate the two, for me personally, seems unnatural.  Even if you’re a dick in real life or a drug-addict or what have you, you’re still the person who made this thing that has affected me in a profound way.  We are defined, more than anything, by our actions…by the things we do.  The rest is just noise.

So when you go away (especially young or suddenly), there is a void.  Certainly not the same void that your family and close friends would feel, but a void nonetheless.

Star Wars fans, think about this: how mad and upset and betrayed did you feel when George Lucas fucked up the original trilogy after all those years?  It was like killing a little piece of your childhood.  But really, it did not belong to us.  It’s always been his to alter, or destroy.  Or was it?

Technically, it was not ours.  But I don’t think art really works that way.  You put something into the world and if it creeps slowly or comes storming into people’s lives, then it belongs to them, too.  You can’t tell someone not to let your art affect them.  If it does, it does, and you’ll never be able to take what it means to that person away.

So when the art, or the artist, is permanently altered, or destroyed, it seems like a pretty natural reaction to mourn it.  Everything we surround ourselves with, things we covet, things we own, are symbols.  They are representations of our beliefs and emotions and experiences.  They are nostalgic and let us remember times in our lives that might otherwise fade from memory.  They give us things to wish for.  They give us reminders of what we’ve done and what we want to do.  They are icons.

These icons are different for everyone, so this isn’t a question of whether or not you were a fan of this person or that person…it’s, hopefully, one of many possible answers to the question of why it might matter to you when a famous (stranger) person dies.  Because you make your icons part of you.  And though you more than likely never knew the person, you knew what they represented to you, and that is something reasonable to miss.

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