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The Guardian view on celebrity deaths: a dramatic meaning

David Bowie, who died this year. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

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The Guardian view on celebrity deaths: a dramatic meaning

Extravagant mourning for celebrity musicians is a way to confront our own mortality

The deaths of musicians and actors may not be what future generations chiefly remember about 2016 but they did have an extraordinary impact at the time. Tens of millions of people were strangely and strongly moved by the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and now George Michael and Star Wars actor Carrie Fisher. These artists were mourned all across the peaceful parts of the world by strangers who felt an intimate connection with the dead; who felt that the artist had been “singing me softly with his song”, and that his voice was truer and clearer than their own when it came to expressing dreams and hopes. Something is going on here, which can’t be dismissed as vacuous sentimentality.

There may not, in fact, have been an unusual number of celebrity deaths this year, but they seem to have been much more salient than before. Part of this must be the result of the growing reach and responsiveness of digital media. Technology makes it possible to observe and react to a distant readership almost as accurately and immediately as an actor can respond to their audience in a theatre. Sudden emotional impulses are amplified with astonishing speed across the internet just as they can be in a crowd. Each apparently solitary smartphone user is really sharing other people’s emotion as well as their own.

It’s not just emotions that are shared in this way. It’s memories as well. The generations of middle-aged people along with all their children and grandchildren have experienced a kind of collectivisation of childhood. This was a historic shift. Before the mass media, childhood memories were shared among very small groups, and anchored to particular places. But for the last 60 years, children in the west, and increasingly elsewhere, have grown up in front of televisions, and many of the most vivid characters of their childhood and adolescence were actors or singers.

The entertainment industry has largely replaced religious ritual in many lives, and has itself grown more ritualised, and even religious, in the process. The success of the Star Wars franchise shows how astonishingly profitable the development can be. It is still true today that dementia sufferers can be roused from their nightmares by carols and perhaps hymns remembered from their childhood when almost everything else has gone, but soon it will be the theme tunes of their childhood’s films that call them back to life that way.

This huge change has provoked its own backlash. Attacks on celebrity culture are now a staple of satirists, and there is a great deal to satirise and mock – but that is true of all money-making forms of religion. The relationships that people have with the celebrities who inhabit their imagination express profound longings, and help to fulfil them too. Otherwise they would not survive. Some might say that imaginary friends are cultivated at the expense of real ones, and that the contemplation of such things as George Michael’s astonishing acts of private generosity is no substitute for actually giving yourself to a food bank or visiting granny in her nursing home. But this is a counsel of perfection. We are not made to care equally for everyone – and as a matter of simple fact, we don’t.

We aren’t creatures of unlimited compassion, or of entirely rational calculation. However, the alternative to rational calculation is not sloppy emotion but imagination, which shapes emotion into drama. That is what the lives of celebrities provide, quite as much as their work, and that is part of why they are mourned. They collaborate with their audience to make engrossing worlds that neither party quite comprehends, but both know they need. Although this may be one of the things replacing traditional religion, it only works because it does not seem “religious”, moralistic, or cut off from the world around it. It sanctifies, or makes vivid and valuable, the ordinary things of life.

If that were all celebrity culture does, it would be far less powerful. Consolation and even joy can come from many places in life. What has made these deaths so important to so many people is that they provide an occasion for grief as well. The performance in which the musician and their fans are caught up is ultimately one of tragedy. There is loss and grief in every life, and the death of a beloved singer provides a chance to express this sorrow in gestures more powerful than words could be. In the end, they give us their deaths quite as much as their works, and that is why they are so passionately mourned.

source: The Guardian

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