Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How to mourn a celebrity death correctly

If you've been a resident of the internet for any amount of time, you know the standard social media routine for a celebrity death:
  1. The news breaks.
  2. Commenters express shock and hold out hope that it's a hoax
  3. The news is confirmed
  4. Commenters begin expressing grief and sharing memories
  5. Second wave of commenters begins scolding the first wave for mourning incorrectly
What interests me most is step number five. Try as I might, I can't understand the mindset of someone who feels a need to chasten others for the way they're affected by a death. I figure it might help me sort it out if I address the most common complaints I see pop up on comment boards and Twitter feeds.

You didn't know the deceased personally, so it's stupid to be sad about it.

Whenever I see this line of argument, I pity the person making it. How sad it must be to go through life with so little connection to art that the deaths of the artists* who make it don't feel like a personal blow. I don't think anyone would make the case that the death of a favorite actor or songwriter evokes exactly the same sense of loss that the death of a friend or loved one does, but it's still a genuinely painful experience. How can you not be shaken when a font of art that has nourished you for years suddenly goes dry? Maybe I'm just more fragile about my creative icons than most, but it still makes my heart ache when I think I'll never hear another new Warren Zevon album, and Warren's been dead for more than a decade. Which brings me to the next complaint...

You're making this death all about yourself.

Well, yeah. That's how art works. It's a subjective experience that affects each of its patrons differently. That's a beautiful thing. When an artist dies, it's only natural that people who loved his or her art will want to share what it meant to them. This is in no way a dishonor to the deceased. On the contrary, it's exactly what any artist would want. What greater honor could a creative person hope for than to have a chorus of strangers give testimony about how his or her creations made an impact on their lives? Heck, I've had musician friends geek out because I included their songs on a party mix. How much cooler to have a stranger from Australia telling the world that your song was the soundtrack to her first kiss?

And really, if each of us is to some degree the sum of his or her greatest influences, then the death of one of those influences is about us. I may not have figured in the narrative of Lou Reed's life, but he sure as hell figured in the narrative of mine. Understanding and articulating my relationship to the art that's molded me is a huge element of my own artistic purview. For me not to have eulogized Lou as visibly as possible would have been a betrayal of both my art and my identity. His story is part of my story and I see no point in pretending otherwise.

What makes this famous person more worthy of mourning than the homeless guy who just froze to death in my neighborhood or a kid killed in a drone strike in Pakistan?

Nothing, obviously. If anything, those deaths are far worthier of media coverage than that of even the world's greatest novelist or director. But it's also an apples and oranges situation. While I don't have the sociopolitical expertise to lay out the particulars, I think it's plain that the death of a public figure with a familiar body of work has a fundamentally different impact on the public than the death of a person who, however unfairly, is most recognizable as a symbol of systemic failure.

I'll admit I'm a bit conflicted on this point. There's no question that the media have always ignored matters of dire import in favor of celebrity-gawking. There are certainly some misplaced priorities here, but it's also silly to claim that the horrors of daily existence should preclude us from commemorating people who helped to shape the culture we all share. Celebrity culture is bloated and gross, but at its heart it's largely rooted in a celebration of the arts, and that's something to cherish.

I didn't think the deceased's work was all that great and I'm annoyed that other people are making a big deal about it.

Hey, good for you, sunshine. Now shut up and sit this one out. Let other people grieve how they grieve and we'll do the same for you when someone you do like dies.

* Someone pointed out that celebrity extends beyond art, which is true, obviously. I travel mostly in artistic circles, so that's where my head tends to go, but I think the same points hold true for the deaths of politicians, athletes, business leaders, etc.