The Pop Culture Death Trap, Part 4


by Graeme Abernethy

8 April 2013

Who will be our next dead celebrity? Does it matter? Regardless of who, as Joseph Conrad suggested, we each remain loyal to the nightmare of our choosing.

“How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat?”
—Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

“I … I always thought I would die young.”
—Michael Jordan

Death’s power has always resided in its unpredictability: its paralysis of expecation; its rupturing of the fabric of routine. Despite our (or Michael Jordan’s) best efforts at amateur prophecy, the riddle of its means and moment of arrival confronts us as one of the elemental cruelties or kindnesses of existence.

While making projections about death – ours or anyone else’s – may be futile, it is common enough sport, observable in a variety of contexts: in the declarations of the smug expositors of the mortal dangers of cigarettes and obesity; in the wishful speculations of anxiously debt-ridden heirs; or more revealingly, in the

monitoring of Amy Winehouse’s addiction struggles prior to her death in 2011. Such self-serving auguries of others’ deaths reinforce a process of spectralization inherent in our popular culture.  Celebrities are rendered for us as ghosts even prior to their passing away, not least through the genre of the Hollywood biopic, in which the figures of prototype
and copy merge
, and the original can be, at least temporarily, obscured.

Often enough, this practice is reinforced by the distinctive formulae of the Hollywood biopic, yet another commercial arm of the anxiety of forgetting, and a genre whose logic is predicated on a curiously dissatisfying practice of bait-and-switch, by which the iconic mask of a bankable star is substituted for that of the lionized and, often enough, still-living, figure. Through a fitful revivalism, biopics resuscitate then, by virtue of concessions to profitmaking and myth, strangle their subjects, not least by displacing (through capitalist force) other cultural forms concerned with them. At best (say, The Elephant Man), a biopic is sufficiently well mounted to allow us to suspend disbelief. At worst (The Iron Lady), the genre’s overblown ventriloquism and poverty of imagination simply beggar belief.

Occasionally the charade is so convincing that the effect resembles that of an eclipse; the figures of prototype and copy merge, or the original is, at least temporarily, obscured. (Despite predilections for both Queen and Da Ali G Show, I have no such expectations for Sacha Baron Cohen as Freddie Mercury in the project scheduled for release in 2014.) To give just one example, Jamie Foxx, who apparently received Ray Charles’s living blessing for his performance in Ray (2004), could be seen and heard mimicking, then miming, Charles and his “I Got a Woman”, beyond the frame of Taylor Hackford’s film, in Kanye West’s chart-topping “Gold Digger” in 2005.

Speaking of gold-digging, Ray was released, in a gesture of timing resembling nothing so much as an opportunistically morbid merchandising tie-in, just three months after Charles’s death. Do the more mercenary studio executives and screenwriters prepare treatments for timely movies about celebrities deemed ripe for death?

Often laughably self-important, biopics are indicative of a hagiographical or scriptural impulse that would elevate their subjects to near-divinity, typically through the proving ground of violence. Gandhi, Malcolm X, even (or especially) Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: such films invite us, at least for two-and-a-half hours, to pity, to marvel, and ultimately to worship examples of the exceptional, self-sacrificial, or godly in human form. Spielberg’s recent Lincoln, though restrained in its portrayal of the death of the 16th President, is another such film expressive of our resurrectionary culture’s appetite for images of anguished heroes.

The presumptive cultural authority of the biopic, however, emerges also from the robustness of the medium itself. Experienced, at least traditionally, in the context of cinema’s ritualistic sensory immersion, movies may still be the present culture’s definitive expressions or, rather, products. (Due to their ease of dissemination and affordability relative to iPhones – and their possession of native content – movies may retain this privilege for some time.) The Bible, if written today, would surely be a much-sought-after, if rather unoriginal, screenplay.

As a child of the ‘90s, I would be remiss to overlook the lingering impression of another sort of projection: that of the “zombie with impeccable flow”, the Tupac hologram that appeared, much to the internet’s fleeting delight, in 2012. The Coachella performance’s attention to detail – namely, to the shirtless phantasm’s abdominal “Thug Life” tattoo and Jesus piece – provide a fitting illustration of the ghoulish tone of rap industry posturing in Tupac’s era. For his part, Tupac’s putative adversary Biggie Smalls rapped posthumously and expertly that “You’re Nobody (’til Somebody Kills You)”, a nihilistic creed seemingly contradicted by the very lives and music of both Biggie and Tupac. Death nevertheless allowed their swift translation to legend – certainly it wasn’t the 2009 biopic Notorious.

All of this process of nostalgic retrieval reminds me that it was the music of Snoop Dogg, the Tupac hologram’s live collaborator, that inspired my father to give me, at 14, a reasonably stern talking-to about what he regarded as the relationship between quality music and mature values: “Just promise me you’ll listen to other things than rap,” he demanded. Occasionally I do.

Indeed, it was as a child that I began to discover, while mining the archaeological marvel that was and still is my parents’ basement in the cultural no-man’s land of suburban British Columbia – replete with tube television, Star Wars figurines, and issues of Playboy and Sports Illustrated (talk about adolescent values) from the ‘60s – that violence and haunting are the twin engines of popular culture. The patterns of disposal and resurrection described in this series will persist in their fruitful antitheses.

Appropriately, then, and on the level of customary decency, from which I temporarily recuse myself on the usual premise that I am only commenting on the delusive arena of popular culture, inappropriately, I must conclude with a series of projections pertaining to the inevitability of future celebrity deaths. Who will it be, in other words? Or does it even matter?

Would the death of Justin Bieber behind the wheel of his Fisker Karma give him a more tangibly Dean-like substance? (He already has the hair. But shouldn’t he be driving a cooler car?) Would his abrupt demise in a drug-addled lost weekend in Los Angeles come to define a generation, at least for a hundred more years of those deathless, reductively decade-driven, MTV-style countdown shows? Something tells me, and it could well be The Kid’s apparently guileless Jesus tattoo, that the odds are a little long on this one.

Might LeBron James ride his bicycle in the wrong place at the wrong time? Could Yao Ming be thwarted in his assumption of a second career as a businessman in some wife-of-Bo-Xilai-type killing? Could President Barack Obama achieve a tragic symmetry in his self-alignment with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Could Lance Armstrong’s cancer return with a vengeance? Could the NFL’s own “Sexy Jesus” be shockingly crucified for his blasphemy? Could Rihanna more dramatically fall victim to the ministrations of Chris Brown? Regardless of who next becomes the subject of ghostly retrieval, as Joseph Conrad suggested in Heart of Darkness, we each remain loyal to the nightmare of our choosing.

There is an unavoidably funerary aspect to our pop culture idolatry. Retired jerseys hang like palls from arena rafters. Film stars dress for awards season in their best approximations of coffin clothes. Every Rolling Stones concert is a requiem for the youth and grace of past (now purchased) rebellion. Is there any good reason that we should try to overcome this preoccupation with death? I should think not. We should, simply, as with our lives – and as Ke$ha reminds us in her nauseating fashion – make the most of it.

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