We mark time by the passing of celebrities. "July 18," we say. "That was post-Betty Ford and pre-Amy Winehouse." 2009 is just The Year of Michael. 2008? Heath Ledger.
Nothing quite brings us together like the news that someone famous has died. There are True Public Tragedies, but we are generally too despondent to get a real kick out of those. But tell us that a singer or songwriter or public hero of some description has slipped off his mortal coil, and we pour into the streets with accolades, musical tributes, and ill-conceived paintings of the deceased. It’s something of a national hobby.
The only trouble is that everyone’s a little bit famous nowadays. I frequently take pictures of people at the grocery at random and email them to tabloids, just in case.
The difficulty with everyone's being a celebrity is that, as Auden wrote, "As the poets have mournfully sung/Death takes the innocent young/The rolling-in-money/The screaming-funny" and something indelicate which you can look up afterwards. This stubborn inevitability of death means that you can have quite a busy week of passings, in obedience to the rule that These Things Generally Occur in Threes. Scratch someone still in mourning for Michael Jackson and you will hear the confession that he wishes we’d been able to devote more time to Farrah Fawcett’s untimely departure.
And, of course, there are the jokes.
Too-soon-erism is something of a modern art. Within minutes' of Winehouse's passing, Twitter was swamped with people suggesting that she ought to have said "yes, yes, yes" to rehab. And those were the decorous ones.
We may not all watch the same movies or read the same books, but we’re all fully aware of Amy Winehouse’s passing. It’s a common conversation.
It used to be that when someone died, we would mourn. We still do. But now we point as well.
There's a strangely casual bloodlust that is the other edge of our keen fascination with celebrities. It’s not merely the paparazzi, stalking their pray with all the silence and ferocity of particularly silent and ferocious jaguars. It’s everyone. Perhaps it’s a neanderthal impulse and we can’t help ourselves.
At the conclusion of Roxie Hart's trial in the musical "Chicago," a show with a keen grasp on modern celebrity, Roxie is found not guilty of murder. "They love me!" Roxie screams, as the public crowds to buy papers detailing her innocence.
Her lawyer replies, "They'd love you a lot more if you were hanged. You know why? Because it would sell more papers!"
That's the trouble with celebrity.
Consider Stiffs.com. It's a Celebrity Death Pool that's been continuously in operation since Lee Atwater's death in 1994. The prize for identifying in advance the celebrities who perish in a given year? $3000. So far, the leader is someone named Kudskroakers, whose list included Liz Taylor and Betty Ford. He’s 6 for 10 so far — bad news for Merle Haggard, if his streak continues.
"Amy Winehouse died?" everyone says. "Nuts, I had her down for 2012."
Are we okay with this? Do we need to be?
One of my favorite Onion videos shows a group of Beatles fans saying how much they are looking forward to the posthumous Paul McCartney tributes. Michael Jackson’s death was something of a national holiday. Gerry Rafferty’s passing lowered all the flags in New Jersey.
Amy Winehouse left a smaller body of music — the trouble with joing the “27 club” — but the sudden shock of her passing has already led to more tributes than you can shake a stick at. And we’re devouring it with a holiday fever.
It’s the trouble with the performative life. Oscar Wilde said that he put his genius into his life and his talent into his works. In the days of 24/7 media scrutiny, the last acts of famous lives are constrained to be just that — acts.
Are we cynical? Is this our fault? Is oxygen scarce in the glass bubble of celebrity?
Our fixation on celebrity has taught us many things, but how to mourn is not one of them. Forget that Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard. We’re a bit low on mute inglorious Miltons these days. Everyone wants to see and be seen.
Perhaps that’s what captivates us about celebrities dying. It's the potent alchemy of fame and death! How could we miss it?
"Celebrities – they're just like us. Mortal."