Una Mullally: 2016 and the cult of celebrity death
Events feed confessionalism as we express our sadness as a way of talking about ourselves
George Michael, who died this week. We manufacture emotional connections with famous people, and when those people die, their impact on our lives, and our memories and emotions associated with them create a helpless feeling of bereavement. Photograph: David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns/Getty
‘2016” has become both a shorthand and a representation of bad things generally. Trump, Brexit, terrorist attacks, the endless stream of celebrity deaths, the dark side of the internet, and other bad news that happened over the last 12 months have been filed under The Worst Year Ever in the typical exaggerated rhetoric of our time. We are looking for sense in the senseless, so a set timeframe feels like a handy thing to fall back on. When there are no answers, blame 2016.
The constant celebrity deaths do feel especially unusual, but are they? Or are a few things conspiring to make us feel so? The BBC used 30 per cent more pre-prepared obituaries than last year, certainly indicating some sort of a spike. There’s also the fact that a generation of celebrities who became famous as celebrity culture really kicked off in the 1960s are reaching their expiry dates. Then there is how we find out about celebrity deaths, as the news generally breaks on social media first. Are there really more beloved icons dying, or do we just amplify the news of their deaths? The sadness of such deaths can feel especially grim in the context of a world that is certainly darker in December than it was last January.
What is certain, is that we manufacture emotional connections with famous people, and when those people die, their impact on our lives, and our memories and emotions associated with them create a helpless feeling of bereavement. It is a type of sadness that does not just remind us of our own mortality, but it feels as if the parts of our lives where we engaged with the celebrity’s art or activity has left us too. We inhabit worlds we have populated with our own interests and loves so much so that we perceive the easiest way to find things in common with others is through shared cultural interests, from music genres to sport, hobbies to beloved TV references. In the filing system of our childhoods and formative years, culture looms large. A certain song will evoke the feeling of your bedroom carpet as you sat on it to tape the tune off the radio. A film will bring back the bus journey with friends to the cinema. A clip of a sportsperson will remind you of the feeling of awe as you watched them win beautifully. Parasocial relationships – a one-sided relationship where one party invests emotion and interest while the other party remains unaware of the first party’s existence – allow us to project our own dreams and desires. Being drawn to a celebrity is not just about admiring them, it can often be about wanting to be them, mimicking their style or adopting what we perceive to be a similar persona, as well as gaining huge joy from what they create. We become invested in people, attaching meaning to them that they couldn’t possibly realise. These cultural triggers that set off various shots throughout our lives can be of huge significance, shaping both the people we become and the people we gravitate towards.
Previously, our outpouring of grief was done at memorials or in conversations with each other. The time spent having these conversations and the scale of memorials were indicators of how emotionally connected to the person the public was. The expanse of flowers left for Princess Diana which was broadcast on television screens is an obvious touchstone. Yet Diana died nearly 20 years ago, long before our use of media became so social and pivoted towards the broadcasting of the self, rather than merely the consumption of information about others.
Despite rarely talking candidly about death itself, news of death is something humans share to a great degree. Celebrity deaths are ready-made for social media commentary. Death is not nuanced. And one doesn’t need an opinion on it, just a comment. Subconsciously or consciously, people with social media accounts can often view themselves as micro-news agencies, having to react to or have an opinion on every major world event or local catastrophe or storm in a teacup. People feel the need to respond. The almost prepackaged memes of candid photographs or quotes from the recently deceased celebrity become viral moments. Emotion is powerful currency on social media, rage being a huge driver. But also fuelling the social media engine is confessionalism and exposing the rawness of one’s emotions. Celebrity deaths correlate with this culture of “opening up”, as we can express our feelings of being “devastated” or “so sad” and talk about how much someone meant to us as a way of talking about ourselves. Much of this is “from the heart”, but becomes harder to distinguish between a genuine moment of emotional honesty, and a manufactured or copied one.
Next to this free-flowing constant conversation stream, traditional media, or the very framework of articles or news reports, can feel stilted and constrained by their structures and “rules”. A news anchor can’t start swearing or crying or shouting or laughing hysterically, yet that’s how many people act in their online responses. What the reactions to celebrity deaths also show is that traditional media, having to uphold other standards social media isn’t as concerned with, is losing an emotional battle to social media. It is in turn following this trend by amplifying emotional news, such as celebrity deaths, and no front page picture can be too large, no tribute pull-out section too overblown.
This sharing of feelings also correlates with a culture that spreads “touching” viral moments, things that pull at heartstrings or evoke a type of humanity that we want to be reminded of in a world of depleting empathy. The mourn porn of personal tragedies is now front and centre of many news sites, and celebrity deaths become an ancillary representation of such grief. It is convenient to blame “2016” on the shortcomings of humanity across politics and violence, and the senseless of death. In an increasingly uncertain world, death is something that is certain, something that we can gravitate towards and in a morbid way hold on to. Perhaps another reason that celebrity deaths feel so commonplace this year is that a legend passing away is cut and dry, there is a simplicity to it that does not need to be unravelled or analysed. Instead, we comment, pay tribute, and expose the meaning of this person to us, a meaning to explain at a time where plenty of other events feel unexplainable.