By Guy Somerset
There is no greater excuse in the West to come together than a national tragedy. They are particularly suited to Western egocentric and economic sensibilities. While its people claim to abhor such occasions, by their behavior you know them, and at times such as these individuals love nothing more than to preen for the cameras while lighting tapers and singing famous tunes. Below are the four stages of Western Celebrity Grief Syndrome and how to discern participants from poseurs.
Incredulity - Typically lasting the earliest several hours after report of luminary demise is made public.
The first reaction to any death for many is disbelief. That in itself is not unusual though normally initial incredulity quickly fades. In the case of celebrities however, stubborn refusal to accept mortality lasts somewhat longer. This is especially true in America with its perennial fixation on youth and preservation. (Evidence the grotesque phenomenon of "duck lips" and assorted other absurdities.)
Those scant notables recognized as having "made it" in the West are supposed to be North Stars to our collective consciousness; ever bright and unfailing. They are never supposed to become ill, age or especially die. When these do expire there is profound incomprehension; they are supposed to be different from us. When confirmed to be humans after all utter confusion reigns.
Devotionals - Feverish expressions lasting the original few days, though these can endure exponentially.
Next, "spontaneous" outbursts usually begin late in the day of the death announcement. Frequently this takes place at home of the deceased or location he died. For example, with Prince the demonstration of fan fidelity is outside the gates to Paisley Park in Minnesota, United States. However in the case of Princess Diana it occurred at the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris, France. (Months afterward people still left flowers; to the point someone also left a note explaining the actual meaning of its monument.)
While the foremost acolytes are universally quite sincere and loyal supporters, unfortunately by end of the second day anyone within a 100 mile radius has arrived for what has essentially morphed from an outpouring of grief to an excuse to see and be seen. These late arrivals will commonly bring a stuffed teddy bear to leave as a token of penitence amidst a myriad of lit candles.
One of the more amusing aspects is watching live news feeds from local television stations. Only the other day two young female "fans" stood outside the home of Prince with a slightly older reporter. It was dubious whether any had actually listened to the artist's music so I decided to pause a moment.
In the seconds leading up to New York going to Minnesota the reporter and the girls did not realize they were on-air visually if not with sound. For a full twenty seconds audiences saw the trio laugh it up with nary a tear in sight...until apparently producers shouted to the fool to demonstrate some dignity. He put his hand to his ear, blanched, and whispered to the girls whereupon all three became somber mourners.
This is the quality of "grieving" which takes place at such times. Only the earliest arrivals attend out of respect; everyone else is hoping to be discovered and themselves become a star. In the old days there was at least integrity to the genuflections; girls committed suicide when Valentino passed away.
Exaggeration - Beginning the second day after death, lasting approximately until the following weekend.
Alas, the most disquieting feature is yet to commence. Here the tall tales, apocryphal stories, complete fabrications and outright hoaxes start. Suddenly the person who has died is no mere entertainer; he is a demi-god of men. Support for canonization in the annals of mankind is voiced throughout the land.
Thus regarding the film Purple Rain it was reported incorrectly by several news sources Prince was the Writer who based it on his own life story. He was also variously claimed to be Director and Producer. However Prince was neither the Writer nor the Director nor even a Producer on the project. Some confusion may arise due the fact Prince was Director and Producer of other, less successful, films. Still this is illustrative of the extreme sycophantic embellishment engaged in once a celebrity dies.
Most appallingly, whenever a personality passes one can literally count down the seconds until someone equates the entertainer as a genius. Of course, by definition, no mere performer can be a genius.
A man who invents a system to deliver electric current to millions who would otherwise not have it, then goes on to invent the dynamos which power this delivery system, and then progresses to invent a means by which to wirelessly transmit audio by electricity - that man is a genius; someone who fundamentally alters human existence as we experience it. A versatile actor or musician may be brilliant in their chosen field, but they are not a genius. Take no offense thereby, for almost no one is a genius.
That such a sacred word is so abused in the West is good measure of how far expectations have fallen.
Capitalization - Commencing roughly from burial and lasting until there is not one last dime to be squeezed from the personage of the deceased.
Around the third day is when we see national newsreaders not so much hop on the bandwagon but forcefully commandeer it. Have you never wondered at the obvious incongruity of geriatric anchors on the nightly news nearly breaking in down in somber reflection for the "passing of a legend?" Has it never seemed curious to you that bleach blonde on-airheads who routinely talk utter nonsense suddenly wax poetic on the significance of the aforementioned legend? Haven't you ever questioned why people who beforehand never discussed the fallen idol are suddenly experts on that innovator's body of work?
Well, wonder no more. It is a simple equation calculated in newsrooms across America. It goes: Dead Star + Teenage Angst / Middle-Aged Nostalgia + 18-45 Target Audience = Wall to Wall Television Coverage. In the United States the most coveted advertising rates are charged to those programs with the highest number of viewers in the 18-45 category. This demographic is largely unconcerned with International Affairs, Esoteric Bureaucratic Workings, Intricacies of High Finance or basically anything that does not involve sports, emotion or sex. They simply tune out after ten minutes.
However, if the media can find a salacious scandal or perhaps a gruesome murder that is ratings gold. Still the best of all is the Celebrity Death. Why? Because it not only has high drama (often liberally sprinkled with sex, drugs or other controversy) but media can do "Man On The Street" interviews all day long (which are cheap to produce) and reshow old (already paid for) footage of interviews with the star.
For the recording industry, so much the better! Unlike movies, which last two hours, they can peddle tens of millions of three minute downloads for quick cash. Moreover, with the creator now gone agents need no longer pretend qualms about gross commercialization of their art. (Oh yes, dear reader, expect to be hearing Prince music hawking everything from sneakers to soda before the end of this year.)
Finally, with the icon absent benefits inure to all sorts of people otherwise not party to the largesse. Michael Jackson alive was a money pit, but Michael Jackson dead is a catalogue to sell out to the highest bidder. MJ pre-death was millions in debt; MJ's estate post-death has a profit of hundreds of millions.
Of course, vital to remember is the dead celebrity must fall within certain parameters: young, or youngish. Elizabeth Taylor nearly dying at 29 was cause for global concern while Elizabeth Taylor dead at 79 was a third-story news item in most papers. Like the prime demographic mentioned above, dying between 18-45 is best for immortality; the proximity death is to popular distinction being key.
Currently we have generally traversed the first three stages in regard to The Purple One and are just on the cusp of the fourth stage. Another week and we will begin to see all sorts of headlines guessing who gets what and when we can get (by virtue of a beneficent industry Prince loathed so much) access to the "hidden vault" of Prince recordings. There is a pile of money to be made off every prominent corpse.
Should anyone mistake that the above in any way demeans the recently deceased, you have obviously missed the point. This essay is intended in no way to speak ill of the dead but instead to excoriate the living and the crass ways in which talents are fetishized and commoditized so soon after their passing.
Even though his music was not to my taste, Prince was a genuine artist who was nothing if not entirely authentic. Referencing the totally predictable and sordid spectacle playing out exactly according to schedule, I think he would be among the first to be disgusted and amused.