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 “killing 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.
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.
I wrote about 2016’s surplus of celebrity deaths (which have always fascinated me anyhow…) in May.
BONUS: After Joe Strummer died around Christmas 2002, Rick McGinnis wrote one of the best personal Clash remembrances I’ve read.