You would have had to have lived in a cave in recent times to have not heard the sad news that David Bowie and Alan Rickman have died. These days, we don’t generally learn about celebrity deaths on the evening news or from within the pages of a printed newspaper over our coffee the following morning – we learn about it the moment the story breaks, or sooner still from social media sources such as Twitter, where stories quickly escalate.
The Internet has been a marvellous creation in spreading news quickly. Imagine the time of the Roman Empire, when events in the furthest reaches of her territory had to be conveyed to the central government in Italy via missives carried across land and sea – arriving many weeks after the actual events. Knowing what is happening in the rest of the world without delay, and the ease of access to information and other opinions arms us to an extent against despots and regimes that rely on propaganda to sustain themselves. Thus the Internet is vigorously censored in some countries, and tinpot dictators like Ceaușescu would have fallen much sooner in a world where ideas can be shared with millions of people quickly, easily and cheaply.
Yes, we have a lot to be thankful to the Internet for – but in some ways it has weakened our culture.
I remember my distaste at seeing in 2000, at John Gielgud’s passing, an obituary in one of the red tops with the screamer: “Butler in Dudley Moore film dies”. This was in reference to Gielgud’s part, as the kind of sniffy, supercilious wit he could recycle at a fearsomely prolific rate, in the movie “Arthur”, which is perhaps the only role from which the publication believed its readership would know Gielgud (so why bother to even run an obituary, one may wonder?) A superfluous detail like Gielgud was revered as one of the finest stage actors of the Twentieth Century wasn’t deemed worthy of space within the column inches.
“Compo is dead” is another front-page headline obituary, which relates to Bill Owen’s death in 1999. His character name from the long-running comedy for octogenarians Last of the Summer Wine was deemed far more likely to resonate with the target readership than the identity of the actor behind the part.
It was possible, then, to laugh off such tasteless and irreverent reportage as the province of low-rent periodicals, and be consoled that at least the higher-brow publications would produce something with a smidgeon of research and wouldn’t patronise their readership by announcing the death of a fictional character.
Sadly, thanks to the Internet, that’s the trajectory all editors now follow, and the obituary has become a dying art. How many headlines for Alan Rickman read: “Harry Potter actor dies”? Since even one would have been too many, the answer is an obscene number. Now, in the immediate information age, everything has to be compartmentalised. It’s no longer enough to give his name and state that he was an actor. No, his death has to be linked to a popular franchise that far more people will be searching for (“Harry Potter” proving better for click bait in a title than “Alan Rickman”). In the name of traffic to websites, Rickman’s considerable legacy is reduced to his recurring role in children’s fantasy films.
That’s a shame. Rickman was a fine actor with a great voice. Great hair too, especially in “Truly, Madly, Deeply”. He had a respectable body of theatre credits behind him (some obituaries made passing mention to his stage work) – but even the broadsheets now participate in reductionist headlines, and so human accomplishments are brushed aside to make way for healthy website statistics.
Our relationship to celebrity death has been changing for a few decades, and is perhaps best exemplified with the seismic shift that occurred when Princess Diana was killed. The problem there was that Diana’s impromptu death subsequently denied legions of frustrated housewives the vicarious pleasure of following her soap opera life, with Diana’s marital problems representing their own. Tony Blair’s banal epithet, “The People’s Princess”, captured the spirit of the moment, as did scenes of public gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. There was the sense that the public owned the late princess, and queues formed to sign official books of condolence, allowing the populace their say in the death and to feel somehow directly involved in the misfortune. To not join in was to be set apart from prevailing popular culture. The Diana Show may have been cancelled, but the delusion that everybody could take part in the story reverberated. The age of reality television, with the public determining the outcome of events and the creation of ‘celebrities’, was almost upon us…
Reality television took celebrity death to a whole level of kitsch with its creation of Jade Goody – who was chewed up and spat out for our entertainment in various “Big Brother” shows. When the uncultured and ignorant Goody was found to be terminally ill, she was persuaded to turn her dying months into yet another instalment of televisual entertainment as the cameras followed her around, capturing the most heartfelt reactions as the clock ticked down. Why would she have refused? She knew no better, and a large portion of her unfortunately short adult life was spent under the watchful eye of the camera lens, as a willing participant in our culture’s latest freak show.
Rickman, like Goody from poverty and working class roots, had educated himself prior to the acquisition of wealth, and had the good taste and judgement to shield his personal life and terminal illness from the public. Bowie, to his credit, had fiercely guarded his eighteen-month decline – both major celebrities dying in private, away from the media spotlight. They understood that the public did not own them, and that they were not required to explain, apologise for or even give due notice of their deaths. But then, their fame was accrued before the Internet age, and was in no way related to reality television’s manufacture of celebrity and importance for its own sake. They were artists, not pawns in a bloated game show.
But the trajectory has shifted. Whilst celebrities can still die secretly, and with their privacy intact, they can do nothing to stem the flood of reaction on social media that never divorces fame-hungry pseudo-celebrities (and de facto celebrities, such as royalty) from those with a talent worth celebrating. Social media is the new outlet for public grief as a result of the commodification of celebrities and the ‘famous’. There’s no longer any reason to take to the streets to unite in a shared experience of loss such as when Diana died – social media allows heartfelt expressions of loss at the touch of a button or screen. This is healthier than the bad old days when only a few people were revered sufficiently for anyone to care if they pronounced on matters – the pope for example – but nowadays with the loss of very high profile people, the Prime Minister is generally expected to stop running the country for a bit and express solidarity with the populace. Thus David Cameron took to Facebook and Twitter to reassure us he felt pain over the loss of Bowie too.
And, incidentally, as if that wasn’t a savage enough blow to Bowie’s alleged rebellious credentials, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, taking a break from pushing LGBT under the proverbial bus once again to appease the reactionary bigots within his global cult (a strained sense of ‘unity’, as ever, far more important to the head of the Anglican Communion than common decency and morality) joined in the fervour with his own heartfelt words of comfort over the nation’s shared loss. If the Queen had chipped in (as she was bullied into doing when Diana died), then Bowie would have hit the jackpot of the Holy Trinity of establishment figures mourning his passing.
But then it’s easy to rebel and kick against the social mores as a celebrity with more than a few million pounds at your disposal. Rebellion doesn’t have to contain a threat to self to qualify as such, but what did Bowie stand to lose or what inconvenience did he brave as a result of bucking trends? He was hardly a rebel of the calibre of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who suffered greatly as a consequence of his gentler, but far more seismic rebellion against the status quo, and whose passing went largely uncommented in 2008.
Bowie’s output, praised for its originality and outrageousness, safely and vicariously provided originality and outrage in the lives of those who – for whatever reason – could conjure none in their own. That’s why so many people from differing backgrounds felt they owned a man impossible to pin down, who changed his image and his persona to adapt to ever-changing times. Bowie’s appeal was universal. He no more belonged to the fringes of society than to David Cameron and his fellow Etonians.
Other celebrities will come along to fill the void – just as the anniversary of Diana’s death is now largely forgotten since the populace have been granted Kate Middleton to replace her with and take possession of and live their lives through. These upcoming celebrities will understand that the relationship between them and ‘ordinary’ people has changed.
We no longer ask celebrities for an autograph – the transaction has to appear more symbiotic than that. Thus we take a selfie or have a mate take a photograph of us with our arm around the celebrity, conjuring an illusion of familiarity, and with the commodification of celebrities and their lives, they are expected to take that in their stride. Celebrities are never allowed to be off duty.
We own celebrities now – even when they’re dead.