When Celebrities Die

Dick Clark, host of American Bandstand

Dick Clark, host of American Bandstand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The recent deaths of singers, song writers Whitney Houston and Davy Jones, British actor / director Richard Carpenter (NOT the American singer / songwriter)  and now Dick Clark, are all over the media. You see their faces, and the reactions of their mourning fans from the cover of Globe to the front pages of Yahoo News, and our own personal Facebook pages.  These events, sad as they are, eclipse what is considered “harder” or more tragic news such as the Iraqi student who shot and killed his American teacher then commit suicide, or the Two U.S. military advisers who were found dead of gunshot wounds to the head on Feb. 25, or the fact that today was the one year anniversary of the Nuclear Meltdown in Japan.

Why do we make such a big deal about celebrity deaths over and above these horrific events which certainly deserve our fullest attention?  Is this just another example of our society’s frivolous obsession with entertainment and the rich and famous?

Whitney Houston -  Concert in Central Park   /...

Whitney Houston - Concert in Central Park / Good Morning America 2009 - Manhattan NYC (Photo credit: asterix611)

After giving this some thought I’ve come to a couple of conclusions, the first of these being that when celebrities die, it reminds us of our own mortality. We are able to push a button on our television remote controls and see these people how they were twenty years ago. They are young, full of life, seemingly ageless and therefore seemingly immortal.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell stated in one of his books (can’t remember which one now, and please realize that I am paraphrasing) that if we want to know what a culture without mythology looks like, we need only take a look around us at the world today. He did also say somewhere that celebrities have taken the place of the old heroes and Gods and Goddesses. We follow them, we talk about them, we tell stories about them we even worship them. The big difference here is that underneath that modern version of mythology they are not concepts but real people. When a beloved celebrity dies, it is a shock to us and reminds us that nothing is permanent.

Secondly, human beings are egocentric. Unless you have multiple personality syndrome, we pretty much live alone in our own heads.  A celebrities story, so open to the public, is part of our own personal story. How many of us remembered times we sang

along to “Day Dream Believer”, how many of us have tried so unsuccessfully, to sing along to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”?  We have memories attached to these people; this means we also have an emotional attachment. Much as we like to think of ourselves as logical beings we are as Mr. Spockwould remind us, emotional beings.  Because we are emotional, egocentric beings we take it personally when a celebrity dies. We may not have known this person in the flesh, but we FEEL like we did because they are part of our own stories. We have history with them.

British singer Davy Jones (member of The Monke...

British singer Davy Jones (member of The Monkees) performing at a free concert in Geneva, Illinois, USA (see also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oShIhql9So4 and http://flickr.com/photos/92374347@N00/261413170/) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In no way am I saying that we should not feel sympathetic or outraged about the atrocities that happen in the world on a dailybasis, or that we shouldn’t work on social reform, it’s simply one possible explanation of why we behave the way we do. It’s ok to cut ourselves some slack and allow ourselves to grieve over the evidence of the passage of time and the initiation of the present into the historical.

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