Mourning Isn’t Fair

June 26th, 2009

After the busy news day yesterday on the celebrity-death front, my friend commented that it didn’t seem fair that Michael Jackson’s death was getting more attention than Ed McMahon’s or Farrah Fawcett’s.  It brought back memories of the weekend in 1997 when news broke of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana’s death.

I guess I wonder, particularly in the world of Facebook and Twitter, whether short lines of grieving from fans count as elegies–that is, whether we should feel compelled to dedicate them to noble celebrities and eschew them for unworthy ones.  What am I really saying when I tweet about a current obituary?

We use these tweets and status updates to work through our feelings in public, to negotiate a way of feeling about things through our friends.  Of course, my daily life changes very little with the passing of Michael Jackson or Ed McMahon.  I don’t have to worry how I’m going to live without either of them. And both deaths might be seen as trivial in the face of other deaths at war or in fights for civil justice.

But I can’t say that I have complicated questions about Ed McMahon to work through, but I think we all have complicated questions about Michael Jackson.   At one point in the 80s, Jackson was one of three major pop solo artists, along with Madonna and Prince.  Those two, while having complicated relationships with the limelight, both are still making music.  It’s not hard to imagine an alternate path of history where Michael Jackson kept releasing new music and performing well into the 21st century.  As it happens, he didn’t.  His media persona overruled his music.  Who would have thought in 1985 that of those three, Michael Jackson would be the one to go off the deep end?

As I said in my last post about Rachel Getting Married, there are two strategies for getting attention–success and failure.  Ed McMahon was, by all reports, a good man and a good role model.  Michael Jackson left behind a legacy of musical talent, but for the last ten years was much more likely in the news for a court battle than for a song.

Michael’s failures got more attention than McMahon’s successes.  It’s not fair, but feelings aren’t fair.  If people need to talk through their feelings about one death more than another, that’s okay.

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