While working as a freelance music critic during in the mid-2000s, I recall reading Pete Doherty’s fully quoted and illustrated obituary, waiting in the files of a major music magazine. A decade on, he still walks among us, but I imagine that interns continue to busy themselves with regularly updating the text and photos.
It is fact perhaps not widely known that major newspapers and magazines write the eulogies of celebrities well in advance of their deaths. How else would the recent glowing tributes to the likes of Lemmy, Bowie, Rickman and Wogan have appeared so soon?
The reason for this somewhat macabre pre-planning is of course quite practical – famous people have a habit of dying, just like we do. They die young and they die old, of untimely accidents and of terminal illnesses and not an insignificant number die as a result of the excesses that fame has afforded them.
On top of the journalistic response, rolling news coverage (primarily of the reaction of other, less dead, famous people) has added to the noisy death of a star. People fall over themselves to show their sympathy while Facebook and Twitter erupt into RIPs, Youtube videos of the recently deceased in their prime and twee anecdotes of how someone you never knew changed your life.
A celebrity death has become a strange event; nothing but great reverence will suffice, and outpourings of public emotion have become commonplace. Much like any death, it is not the right moment to be picking over the individual’s flaws and mistakes in life. How strange then, that such respect is not always shown when the deceased is not a recognisable face, but instead a mass of faceless, ‘normal’ people.
Witness: The Paris Attacks of 13 November 2015. Facebook was quickly awash in a corporate-sanctioned Tricolore of solidarity and grief. The questions asked in the aftermath (mainly, why no such tribute for Beirut/Kenya/Palestine/Ankara/etc?) were reasonable. To suggest that those adding three colours to their Facebook profile pictures are somehow jumping on the grief bandwagon to which they do not belong however, is not. There is a time and place for pointing out the media and public’s bias to a western-centric agenda. That time is not when the bodies of innocent victims are being still being sent to the morgue.
The acidic backlash to Facebook’s French tribute was, in its best form, an attempt to raise awareness. But it also gave many a chance to point a smug and self-righteous finger at a hypocrisy which is very real, while solving no problems and doing nothing to help the victims of any atrocity, anywhere. No lives were saved and beyond the faintest tinge of collective empathy, any positive intention was lost in a tide of negativity. Question Facebook’s motives if you will, but both sides of the debate created a lot of noise for little benefit. If we are judging each other by our pointless gestures, we can at least call this one a draw.
No such vitriol has countered the outpouring of grief for any of the celebrity deaths 2016 has served up so far. Instead, we ask; why have so many beloved household names departed in such a short space of time? There is an answer, and it combines the concept of easy and widespread fame in the modern era, timing and the rather inconvenient fact that the grim reaper does not check your Wikipedia page when it comes to performing his role. Alas there is little time for such analytical thinking when you are contemplating whether the video of Rebel Rebel or Heroes should accompany your RIP notice.
And as more and more people achieve their 15 minutes of fame, it is hard to see how this phenomena will abate any time soon. Personally, the death of Bowie served to highlight the very mournful upcoming years fans of (good) music will have. Neil Young (70), Mick Jagger (72), Paul McCartney & Brian Wilson (73) and Bob Dylan (74) remain and have all outlived the Thin White Duke, but time is nothing if not consistent in its eventual outcome.
You can bet that, waiting in the files of newspapers and magazines across the world, are gloriously written tributes to these icons, ready to publish as soon as the ink on the death certificate is dry. Our collective joint obsession with fame and death has brought on a culture of not just mourning our idols, but being seen to mourn them. And we are all complicit.
Bowie and John Lennon have a joint writing credit on this song. Four miles and 36 years separated their respective deaths, but the shock, grief and sense of loss that saw many candles lit and flowers laid were alike. Whereas the concept of fame and celebrity has been greatly cheapened in that time, death still affects us in a way that an inevitable event should not.
But just as ‘people in non-western countries die too’, the rich and famous suffer the same fate as the rest of us. Maybe it is time for us to stop acting like it is such a surprise.