Sunday, April 24, 2016

Yesterday, Mourn: Why does the death of celebrities affect us so much?

As I'm sure you well know, the formerly living person known as Prince died the other day.  I don't have much to say about him other than I respect him as a musician, someone who still recorded and performed with instruments both in the studio and on stage.  That's becoming an increasing rarity.  Rather, his death and the reaction of many made me ask why we react so strongly to such news.  I know I reacted strongly a few months ago when Rush said, after 40 years of touring, that last year was their last major tour.

Writers don't elicit large reactions from the public when they die.  They tend to produce sporadically and appear publicly only rarely.  Even those who are influential, hugely popular and/or produce large amounts don't engender the same emotional response.  Harper Lee wrote a massively important book with a second released and highly talked about shortly before her death, but there still wasn't a "national mourning".  There wasn't such a response when Carl Sagan or Kurt Vonnegut died, and those three got a lot more attention from the media after their deaths than most writers will.  Even when J. K. Rowling eventually dies, people won't travel by the thousands to her gravesite.

On the other hand musicians and actors are unlike other artists in that there is not just an ongoing body of work but a constant visible presence through the media.  Actors make movies and/or TV series, musicians record albums and perform on tours.  Both do interviews and are photographed, living their lives in parallel with their audience's lives.  We see, listen to and think about them almost daily for decades, sometimes as much as we do our family or friends.

As the audience, we grow up with musicians and actors and identify as much with them personally as with what they do.  We become invested in their lives, for lack of a better word.  They die, bands break up or retire, they lose popularity, they get arrested or imprisoned, etc.   It's not surprising that it affects us when their life's work ends.

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