Sunday, February 21, 2010

Death Does Not Take Holidays

Anyone who read this blog lately will have noticed that nearly every post was a eulogy of some sort. Indeed, since January the majority of posts have been eulogies for those with some impact on pop culture who have died. New York Magazine proclaimed the summer of 2009 "the Summer of Death," and I in turn proclaimed last year to be "the Year of Death," but now I fear I was wrong. Of the 37 posts I have written this year, 26 have been dedicated to individuals who have recently died. At  the rate things are going, I suspect more pop culture icons will died in 2010 than 2009.

Indeed, in writing this blog I concluded long ago that the idea that celebrities die in threes was erroneous. Sometimes only one celebrity will die, other times only two. This year it seems as if they are dying in droves. A Shroud of Thoughts seems to be proof of that, as it seems as if lately I cannot go without writing at least two, usually more, eulogies a week. And this is even considering I have ground rules as to whom I eulogise. First, they must have had some significant impact on pop culture (I exclude sports figures for the reason that I do not view sports as part of pop culture). Second, their sole claim to fame must not be that they were a political or religious figure. While certain political and religious figures do have an impact on pop culture, the fact that they tend to be controversial is the reason for their exclusion from this blog. Indeed, I will even avoid eulogising pop culture icons if they tend to be overly controversial (this is why I never eulogised Michael Jackson). Third, since this is my blog, they must have had a significant impact on myself. This is why I have never eulogised country music singers or many artists. They had no real impact on me. Of course, even given these criteria, it seems as if I have written many, many eulogies of late.

Of course, the question remains as to why I should eulogise pop culture icons at all. To answer this, I think we must look at the position pop culture icons occupy in our lives. I do disagree with those pop culture theorists who believe that celebrities are the gods of our day. With the exception of a few distraught individuals, I don't think any of us actually worship celebrities in the full sense of the term. Housewives do not offer sacrifices to George Clooney and rock fans do not pray to Pete Townshend. That having been said, I do think that our society's regard for celebrities is in some way analogous to ancient and not so ancient religions. Quite simply, while pop culture icons may not be the Óðinn or Zeus of our day, they may be the Sigurðr or Herakles of our day. That is, we tend to view them as heroes, individuals touched by the gods, God, destiny, or what have you with talents beyond that of the average man. While modern day pop culture icons do not save the world or battle the forces of evil, they do have a large impact on the average person in the same way the heroes in the old stories did. They take our minds off the daily stress of our lives, cheer us up when we are sad, and in some instances may even influence an individual's choice in careers (an enormous number of NASA scientists became such because they read Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon as kids). When a pop culture icon dies, it is then much like losing a hero, an individual who has had an enormous impact on our lives.

While I do think we today tend to regard pop culture icons as people once did the heroes of old, I also think there is another dynamic at work that causes us to mourn celebrities when they died. This dynamic is a product of mass media, that of the illusion of familiarity. Mass media emerged with the invention of the printing press. The printing press allowed for the mass production of books, and in turn led to the development of the magazine and newspaper. Not only did this result in ideas and philosophies spreading much more swiftly than before, but it also created the cult of celebrity in its earliest form. Now individuals could read about their favourite writers, poets, musicians, artists, and so on, to the point that they almost felt as if they knew them. The development of new mass media, such as motion pictures, radio, and television would only increase this illusion of familiarity. The simple fact is that pop culture icons play such a large role in our everyday lives that we come to think that we know them, even when we do not. Indeed, the average person might never think of referring to his or her pastor as Parson Brown or his or her physician as Dr. Robert, but may well be inclined to refer to his or her favourite celebrities by their first name (just look at The Beatles, they are always John, Paul, George, and Ringo). When a beloved celebrity dies, then, it often feels as if one has lost a close friend, even though he or she might never have met that celebrity in his or her life.

The combination of these two dynamics, the hero worship bestowed on pop culture icons and the illusion of familiarity created by mass media, are the reasons we tend to mourn celebrities so. Using myself as an example, I must say that the past week was a very depressing one for me. It is not that my life itself was so bad, but simply that four of my favourite pop culture icons died within days of each other (Doug Fieger, Dale Hawkins, Kathryn Grayson, and Lionel Jeffries). I did not know any of these individuals personally, yet I mourned them as if I did. At the same time, it felt as if someone significant in my life had passed. Quite simply, my grief was brought on by a combination of hero worship and the illusion of familiarity.

My own personal hope for 2010 is that the number of celebrities dying does slow down. It is true that I do not know such individuals personally. And it is true that they do not exist on any higher plane than any of the rest of us. Regardless, like everyone else I will mourn their deaths and miss them terrible. Like everyone else in modern society, I do not want to see any more of my favourite celebrities die.


Raquel Stecher said...

This is by far the best post you've ever written Terry.

This really got me thinking. You are right, we don't idolize so much as incorporate these pop culture icons as part of our own personal circle of friends (familiarity) and put them on pedestals (hero worship). And because there are so many, with many many more becoming famous every day, the deaths are staggering. Maybe 20 years from now, it will be 3 a day rather than 3 at a time (although I agree that's not always the case).

I think 2003 for me was the worst year. People say 2009 was bad but it doesn't compare with 2003. Hepburn, Bob Hope, Hume Cronyn, etc. If you look at the list, it's horrible. I cried so much that year. THe TCM Remembers from 2003 is the saddest memorial I have ever seen. I burst out into sobs within seconds of it starting.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I think you have a point that many more people are becoming famous these days, but I think another dynamic may be at work too. The way I see it, the Golden Age of Anglo-American Pop Culture was roughly from 1920 to 1970. The people who made that period such a Golden Age (the actors, directors, writers, artists, and so on) are now very old. And as they get older, they start dying off in greater numbers. We are lucky to still have the de Havilland sisters, Kirk Douglas, and the few others that are still around!

Yes, 2003 was a very bad year. For myself I think the worst period was from November 2001 to June 2002. George Harrison and John Entwistle both died then. It's the one of the few times I cried for days, the only other time being December 1980 when John Lennon was assassinated.