The recent suicide death of actor Lee Thompson Young marks the fourth time in just over a month that a popular young television star has died, following the overdose death of “Glee” actor Cory Monteith, the suicide of “The Bachelor” contestant Gia Allemand, and the apparently alcohol-related death of former “That 70’s Show” actress Lisa Robin Kelly.
These deaths, of course, have set the internet ablaze with Tweets and updates expressing everything from the endless string of “RIP”s, to prayers for family, friends, etc…, admonishing for substance abuse, prayers for substance abuse, jokes – the list goes on.
As a Los Angeles resident and a sometimes-member of the Hollywood community, these deaths are particularly relevant and talked about. While I know none of the people named above, everyone certainly knows someone who knows someone who knows someone…
I’m not writing here to discuss their deaths, pass judgment, or anything like that. I hope that nothing I write leads anyone to that conclusion. I’m also not here to discuss addiction or depression, except referentially, as I’m not qualified to discuss either in any particularly sophisticated way.
Here’s what I do want to talk about:
I’m both incredibly interested and incredibly concerned about our society’s collective reaction to the sad events like the ones above.
The most common reaction is the ubiquitous “RIP (insert name here)”. On Facebook and Twitter, there’s also been this dark, morbid race to get one’s post up before everyone else’s to get the inevitable, “Oh my god! No way!” reactions from your ‘friends’.
I’ve always found the ‘Rest in peace’ move to be truly strange and, ironically enough, completely counter productive. When the entirety of the internet is writing “RIP”, Google-ing incessantly, checking TMZ every five minutes, demanding every detail of the death, the chance that the families and those closest to the deceased find any peace drops dramatically. How could it not? You’re helping to make the death of that celebrity you “care” about so much a commodity.
I don’t know of any families or friends of anyone who has ever died who have ever found it easier to cope and recover employing the “aid” of an overwhelming torrent of attention from complete strangers.
I’ve often just been put off by this total feigning of care, seeing it only as tasteless exploitation of death as if it was on the same level as when Kanye stole that microphone away from poor Taylor Swift and ruined all of her future relationships for the rest of her music career.
More recently though, I’ve started considering what makes these deaths such an internet phenomenon. Certainly, there are plenty of deaths in the world that no one gives a good goddamn about. If anyone cared as much about the genocides of the world, the senseless, aimless wars, or about the addictions of those who couldn’t afford to go to Passages as they do about celebrity deaths, we might actually make progress on some issues. Shit, if they cared that much about the sixteen 9/11’s worth of deaths due to the lack of health care each year, people might understand Obamacare.
I see two reasons for the popularity of celebrity deaths. The first has been discussed far too often and at length in countless places, including my own writing – the pervasive (and perverse) obsession with celebrity culture. We buy the magazines, we watch the television shows that literally stalk the people you “care” about, we look them up all day on the internet, we pretend that they’re the characters they play, that they’re our role models, that they’re our friends on Twitter.
We BEG them to Tweet at us! How disturbing is that?
But what I believe to be the second reason is far more intriguing, far more disturbing, and nearly impossible to confront.
My theory is that these celebrity deaths and suicides force our materialistic culture to confront the truth that we bury below our iPads and hybrids, our wireless surround sound system pumping the latest Chris Brown track, our Instagram photos posted only to extract as much jealousy out of our “friends” as possible…
…that the material we spend our lives chasing simply cannot make us happy.
I’m certainly not some ethereal Buddhist hippie who disavows possessions in this physical realm. I love them. I like my car. I like my Apple products. I like my view and my dinners out and my occasional scraps of the glamor life.
I just know enough people who “have it all” to know that that ain’t all it is.
We’ve all heard “money can’t buy happiness”. We all believe it…sort of. Actually, fuck that. We don’t believe it. Almost none of us do. We know that it might not fix everything. It might stop working eventually. But there aren’t many of us who couldn’t use a little more to fix this, or get that, or give our friends or family a little extra. And dammit if that isn’t something. It is.
And the proof of the theory? When one of the above sad deaths occurs, our society responds with something resembling, “Oh, poor child. They had it all and this still happened”, as if drugs don’t torment the rich and famous the way they do the single parent trying to make ends meet. As if depression can be cured by shopping on Rodeo and sushi dinners on La Cienega. As if an appearance on Conan immunizes you from drinking yourself to death at your Malibu “escape”.
When we see those who have reached the pinnacle of the materialism mountain – celebrity – succumb to those same ills that regular people do, it sends a dark wave through pop culture, wiping out our notions about what all of it means.
These days, we have high schoolers on television with their parents buying them “flash mobs” to follow them around at their birthday extravaganzas. There are celebrities who handle the paparazzi incredibly well, extremely graciously, but there are none beyond the most narcissistic who would want them following their every movement. Parents take their kids on the tourist buses in Hollywood to invade their favorite celebrities’ privacy at their houses!
What are we supposed to tell them when that same celebrity that they have stalked and idolized ends it all with a mix of heroin and alcohol or a gun or a rope?
Strangely, I’ve yet to see one of these deaths force us to confront the way we look at fame.
I’ve seen them all drive us further into fame-culture.
How fucked is that?