The Pop Culture Death Trap, Part 3: Grief and Immortality

Beyoncé celebrating the late Michael Jackson. Srvzdix / Image from

Through the act of collective mourning, we elevate dead celebrities to near-divinity. The need is both a primitive and a decidedly American one: to define ourselves by something other than an alienating individualism.

And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.

-- Acts 17:32

It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

-- Toni Morrison, Sula

As we witnessed rather extravagantly after Michael Jackson’s untimely, if not quite romantically youthful, death in 2009, the experience of pop culture during a period of mourning for a celebrity represents a heightening of ordinary patterns of both grief and consumption. Collectively, we observed news of Jackson’s death breaking on the tabloid site; we scrolled through those cut-and-paste catalogues of grief or, at least, of YouTube videos and “RIP MJ”s on Twitter and Facebook; we gazed (via helicopter footage) upon the sombre spectacle of black carpet arrivals at the private memorial service at Forest Lawn; and, fittingly enough, we watched Jackson’s public memorial broadcast live by NBC from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. His death was further monetized with the release of the sort-of-concert documentary Michael Jackson: This Is It, by some accounts the highest-grossing documentary of all time.

Such spectacles of mutual consolation are hardly unique to Jackson who, it must be said, would have relished the attitudes of worship aroused by his departure, which only served as a final curtain call of sorts for the lifelong performer.

Just as the geographically scattered members of extended families come together to honor and bury loved ones, other collective units – towns, nations, races, generations, religions – close ranks around emblematic figures. It is around and through such figures shared in common, and especially through their collective mourning, that the reassuring boundaries of group belonging are drawn.

Like ordinary folk, celebrities are typically hyperbolized at their deaths, though on a scale appropriate to their outsized living reputations. Celebrity death, in other words, is not celebrity death without the augmentation supplied by grief on the grand scale. Beyoncé’s statement in response to Jackson’s death is a case in point: “The incomparable Michael Jackson has made a bigger impact on music than any other artist in the history of music. He was magic.” Duke Ellington and JS Bach (and the fictitiousness of magic) be damned.

In the social ritual of mourning, such willful falsehoods are dispensed freely, I suppose, as an antidote to trauma. What is at stake in these myths is our investment in these figures as somehow ideally representative: as tragic victims, as messiahs, as martyrs. No longer subject to the whims of their existence, we shape public figures to serve our purposes more in death than we are able to in life.

Especially when dealing with death, the cultural impulse to fabrication is a powerful one. In narrative terms, death represents a convenient ending or, indeed, a beginning – a single fixed point in the ceaseless flood that finally consumes us all. In light of death’s finality (not to speak of our tendencies to boredom and ever-unreliable memory), we are sorely tempted to embellish. The novelist David Bradley has written of the process of fictionalization involved even in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a purported non-fiction pervaded by Malcolm’s prophesying of his imminent death:

”He made the bottom deeper so the top could be higher. He did just what a novelist or a scriptwriter would have done; tightened up the action, combined characters, gave the thing a better act structure and more dramatic impact – more punch.”

Revisionism here is a form of wish fulfillment. Much as Malcolm X engaged in self-mythologizing shortly before his death, we undertake to alter and amend when authoring the resurrections of dead celebrities, from Michael Jackson to Martin Luther King, from Belushi to Basquiat.

The rituals of burial and resurrection – indeed, often with decidedly Christian overtones – have by now worn canyons into the bedrock of our pop culture landscape. The compulsion to cultural immortality is evident in the habits of performers as well as audiences. In acknowledgment of their pseudo-religious potential, entertainers alive and dead have frequently and self-consciously struck their Jesus poses.

While the “Wacko Jacko” narrative and interest in the archaeology of Jackson’s face began to dominate media perceptions during his last decades, he has been more comprehensively recast since his death as a Christ figure embodying, in various contexts, the ongoing psychic trauma of the abused child, of post-Civil Rights African American identity, of fragile artistic genius, or of the vulnerable human individual more generally. Jackson’s resurrection-as-Christ seems to imply an equation of his perpetual changeability with suffering, his physical transformations roughly analogous to the stations of the cross – a popular understanding rooted, necessarily, in his body’s acute and ultimately fatal visibility.

Other figures than Jackson can be seen to conform to the martyr’s pose, even when affirming the most traditionally American of values. The music video for Lana Del Rey’s “National Anthem” features the singer and rapper A$AP Rocky cavorting in a simulacrum of Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s “Camelot”. While superficially challenging the rigidity of American racial norms, the video – by concluding with a reenactment of the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination – also straightforwardly reaffirms the relevance of images of violent death to the praxis of youth-obsession and narratives of glamorous aspiration.

Seeking Our Own Salvation

Indeed, images of the ‘60s frequently serve the current culture as shorthand for a self-serving political nostalgia. Typically appearing as an era in which politics were more accessible in the cultural mainstream and more revolutionary, the ‘60s in pop culture appear rife with political assassinations crystallizing the key conflicts of the period, from foreign policy to Civil Rights. Relative to the latter, President Obama’s recent inauguration strategically exploited a perceived link between his Presidency and the leadership of Martin Luther King, he of the twin Christian and American faiths. Obama’s speech, occurring as it did on Martin Luther King Day, gestured at the King Memorial on the National Mall and made direct reference to the preacher’s unifying potential: “a King proclaim[ed] that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

As in his recent reincarnations – he was played, improbably, by Samuel L. Jackson on Broadway in The Mountaintop; even more improbably, if allusively, he was played by Christoph Waltz as “Dr. King Schultz” in Django Unchained – Dr. King is at risk, even in being honored, of being falsely remembered. Particularly considering the global reach of his sentiments, President Obama diminishes the understanding of American Civil Rights by implicitly appealing to romantic notions of the murdered King as a singular messiah rather than as just one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most prominent leaders.

Malcolm X, a more polarizing Civil Rights figure than Dr. King – and, crucially for his alienation from the Civil Rights mainstream, a Muslim – further demonstrates the equal potential for honor and indignity in cultural resurrection. Since his assassination in February 1965, responses to Malcolm’s death have ranged from journalistic sensationalism to mournful hagiography, from generational contest to internet voyeurism.

In light of such grim eventualities as The Smoking Gun’s publication of a photograph of “Malcolm in the Morgue”, it must be acknowledged that there is a conspicuously incursive quality to our curiosity about celebrities. This is the much-touted logic of the car crash: one simply cannot look away. As much as any contemporary artist, David LaChapelle explores this strain of violence running through our messianic yearning and manufacture. In his Still Life series (2009-2012), LaChapelle depicts Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Princess Diana, and Heath Ledger (as The Joker), among others, as shattered, dismembered, and discarded waxworks that are equal parts mangled sexual object and religious icon. LaChapelle suggests with this series of images that our illusions may be more enduring than our lives.

The relationship between politics and celebrity death has shifted since the radical ‘60s. Is there a dawning sense that we are as threatened by entertainers as by political figures? The shift certainly has something to do with pop culture’s rapid erosion of traditional notions of the right to private death and life. What is increasingly apparent in this relation is that we as spectators align more closely with the killers than the victims. (This may explain our eagerness to identify with the latter.) An apparent watershed was Mark David Chapman’s shooting of John Lennon outside his New York apartment in 1980. The murder was reportedly inflected with Chapman’s own sense of threatened messianism. But this was much less the deed of an activist than that of a deranged fan. Murdering one’s idol may be, on some level, an extension of the dissatisfaction with self that anchors pop fanaticism.

The ethics of grief and immortality in pop culture are peculiarly murky. It was only after Diana’s death in 1997 that the sanctimonies of paparazzi bashing became orthodox, even as tabloid sales soared. The death of royalty of course remains one of our most volatile and anticipated spectatorial luxuries, involving the pageantry both of succession and extravagant burial. (Think, along similar lines, of the 2011 fuss over Kim Jong-il.) While few would openly admit it, many “royal watchers” must await Queen Elizabeth II’s inevitable passing with particular intensity.

Just as your beloved grandmother’s departure is not to be endured without the ritual of appropriate hymn, eulogy, and slide show, a favored celebrity’s death is not suffered to pass without ceremony. Our relationship to the abstracted figures of pop culture is, paradoxically, one of treasured (if largely one-sided) intimacy. The bargain is a self-debasing and unequal one. We are reminded of Christ’s consoling words to his disciples: “Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” Through the act of collective mourning, we elevate the likes of Michael Jackson to near-divinity. In doing so, we attempt to resolve our own anxieties about death and anonymity, preserving the possibility – however faint – of our own salvation through and alongside him. The need is both a primitive and a decidedly American one: to define ourselves by something other than an alienating individualism.

In some ways, these periodic upwellings of grief also represent an act of protest against the culture of disposal. In posthumously transforming celebrities – even singular Kings of Pop – into icons, we attempt to deploy cultural immortality as a weapon against the cruelty of a world that would simply forget. But, we do forget again, little by little. We have wearied of listening to Thriller again, now in our iTunes rather than on vinyl. We dance to “Billie Jean”, again, only occasionally at weddings or, usually with regret, at staff Christmas parties. Despite our best intentions, finally, the patterns of our remembrance only reinforce the culture of forgetting we initially set out to reject.

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