Shortcuts & Delusions: The Year In Celebrity Worship

2016 has been a particularly lethal year for gay and sexually ambiguous musicians, such as George Michael, Prince, David Bowie, and Merle Haggard. When I heard that George Michael had passed away December 25th, I thought “Looks like a Christmas gift for the Westboro Baptist Church.”

OK, I didn’t really think that. But I can not remember a year in which so many musicians, as well as other prominent actors and other public figures, died. It sure seems like 2016 is the Year of Celebrity Death Saturation. Though it’s difficult to tell if it’s because of the number of celebrities who have died, or if it’s due to the prevalence of social media reactions. Lately, every time a famous person is trending on the Facebooks, I hold my cursor over the name to see if he/she has died.

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CNN published an article that begins:

“Move over, 1959. Step aside, 1970.

When it comes to the deaths of musical icons, 2016 may be the worst year ever.
Sunday’s startling death of pop singer George Michael caps 12 wretched months in which we’ve already said goodbye to David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince, Merle Haggard and Leonard Cohen, to name just a quintet of hugely popular and influential performers.
It might be the deadliest era for pop music legends since 1970-71, when we lost Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Louis Armstrong in a sorrowful span of 11 months.
February 3, 1959, when young rockers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash, has been called “the Day the Music Died.” This may become known as the Year the Music Died. And it’s not even over.”

Gee whiz, CNN, what about 1980? I mean, as long as we’re treating years that saw the deaths of popular musicians as though they are wine vintages, don’t John Lennon, Ian Curtis and John Bonham deserve their due?

And Ranker has a few awfully helpful, or just awful, posts where they rank dead musicians. I think Ranker meant this to be complimentary, but it comes across as crude. Here’s one, wherein you can rerank it to fit your own morbid and subjective criteria! This whole ranking thing reminds me of the lyrics to this Bigwig song. It’s a sordid affair, and it gives me douche-chills.

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When I was a senior in high school, I was sad when I heard Mario Puzo had passed away, and I was really bummed when Levon Helm died four years ago. But, I didn’t wail nor rend my garments when I heard the news, and I can’t imagine myself making a pilgrimage to their homes for a candle light vigil. I love Puzo’s books and Helm’s music, but I don’t know them personally.

Maybe it’s because social media often lends itself to the worst impulses a person can have, at least as far as social interactions go, but I can’t help but think this isn’t just Internet Hyperbolethat 2016 is The Worst Year Ever, that there is something darker, some undercurrent of wish fulfillment, hero worship and/or projection that people fear they have lost.

[As I’m writing this, it just came over my teletype that Carrie Fisher just passed away. Give me five seconds, I have to go do something real quick…]

{Debbie Reynolds has also now passed away. This year’s La La Land, which deserves at the very least a nomination for Best Picture, paid homage to this classic movie Reynolds co-starred in.}

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Though 2016 saw the deaths of many beloved celebrities, so many reactions on social media indicate that fans believe when a public figure whom they love has died a piece of them has died as well, or that their accomplishments have been affected in some way. But just because Carrie Fisher has passed onto the next plane of the Force, it doesn’t mean Star Wars can no longer be enjoyed (George Lucas’ Prequels and J.J. Abrams are the reasons why Star Wars can no longer be enjoyed).

What I’m trying to say is people too often conflate the artist with their art, and they push upon their favorite artists, and other public figures, their hopes and aspirations. It’s Human Nature to partition ourselves into groups. Being hysterically upset that a celebrity has died is the new form of Identity Signaling, a modern way to convey what club(s) we claim membership to. Why should our collectives be defined only by ethnicity, gender, religion, athletic team, talent attribute, weight and height? Celebrities are not only people we emulate, they are colorful standards we wave, a new data point entry into the Venn diagram that describes the population.

An outpouring of grief for a celebrity seems fraudulent, unless you are mourning him because he is a friend or family member. It is natural to grieve the loss of someone you have a personal relationship with, but to so strongly lament the death of a person you do not know seems a bit self-destructive. Some celebrities deserve high praise for their work if they accomplish a great artistic feat, but I can’t help but think that elevating these mere mortals to God-tier status is a good way to erode an individuals’ self-esteem and autonomy.

“Vicarious living is not true living.” – Fake Ernest Hemingway Quotes

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The importance placed upon public figures is based on name recognition. 2016 seems like such a terrible year because all of these famous people (with the hopeful exception of Fidel Castro) were so beloved and massively popular. But of all these people who had died, there is only one whose death would actually have any meaningful real world impact on the daily lives of Americans, and that was Antonin Scalia. But even then, the actual effect of SCOTUS decisions on the general populace is quite low since the scope of any given case typically affects relatively small percentages of citizens.

Obviously, we no longer count as celebrities just artists; no, now we live in the age of celebrity politicians. The number one qualification for this year’s presidential candidates was name recognition. “Donald Trump” and “Hillary Clinton” have been on our lips since the early 1990s (which is pretty disgusting if you take that literally; Hillary hasn’t been on Bill Clinton’s lips since the late ’70s). You’d damn well better have a household name if you want to reach a threshold of ~65 million votes, because even though the race for the White House lasts 18 months, there isn’t enough time to introduce yourself to that many people. If you want to be president, you have to already be famous so that you can spend most of the campaign showing how and why your fame is more important than your opponents’ fame. There is no time to actually develop a cult of personality when running for president; your cult of personality has to pre-exist your candidacy, so that you can use your cult to diminish your opposition’s cult and win the election.

And cults they are. A society’s celebrities serve as flags that their supporters can rally around (or serve as effigies for competing cults). Just as we are willing to overlook the personal foibles, vices, and transgressions against others that our favorite celebrities perpetrate, so we are dismissive of allegations of personal wrong doing, and betrayals of ideological principles, that circulate around the leaders of our political movements.

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Slate.com Headline Watch 12/28/16:

“What Was Cinnabon Thinking With This Asinine Tweet About Carrie Fisher?”

“In ‘Happy New Year (Prince Can’t Die Again),’ Mac McCaughan Hopes for a Differently Terrible 2017”

“An Amazon Echo May Help Solve a Murder. That Should Worry Privacy Advocates.”

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And that’s the way it is, as far as you know.

This post was written by Dillon Eliassen.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.

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Dillon Eliassen is the Managing Editor of Being Libertarian. Dillon works in the sales department of a privately owned small company. He holds a BA in Journalism & Creative Writing from Lyndon State College, and needs only to complete his thesis for his Master’s of English from Montclair State University (something which his accomplished and beautiful wife, Alice, is continually pestering him about). He is the author of The Apathetic, available at Amazon.com. He is a self-described Thoreauvian Minarchist.

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