Did you hear that? No?
Put your ear closer to the suds of culture and listen more closely.
Two more tiny bubbles of celebrity burst. Two people whom I never met have passed, and all around me, I'm watching folks mourn.
Yes. I understand that if "I'll Be There" was playing in the background the night you lost your virginity, well maybe you feel some affinity to the singer of the song.
And if in high school, someone once told you that your hair looked like Farrah's, well, maybe you thought that gave the two of you a special bond.
But what did you know of either one of them? You watched Farrah's 'documentary' about dying from cancer and you were moved. You've seen The Jacksons on VH1 so often, you know by heart the moments when Papa Joe blows a gasket and beats poor Michael.
But what do you really know?
Yes. It is sad when a person transitions from life to death. We, the living, call it mourning, we call it grief, we attend funerals and wakes and memorial services. But, in general, when someone passes, they are someone who has been part of our life in some tangential way. We spoke to them, we touched them, we held them, we gave birth to them, we made love with them, we teased them at the dinner table, we went for walks with them on summer afternoons. We formed real, emotional bonds with these people and we grieve when they are gone.
What does it say about our culture that we are mourning people that the vast majority of us had no contact with whatsoever? What does it say that we are mourning one man in particular who was the butt of jokes, who, until 2:30 pm Pacific Time yesterday was a washed-up pop phenomenon who lived in isolation and who freaked us out with his constantly changing looks and his hooded or masked children, who always looked as if they were being held hostage by Shining Path Guerrilas?
I listened to Michael Jackson when I was a teenager. I remember "Motown 25 years" and the moonwalk. I remember the ubiquitous poster of Farrah in her orange tank top and her mass of hair and perfect teeth.
But they were not my friends. They were not people I could call in the middle of the night to say I was having trouble sleeping. I wasn't going to go sit with them when they were having a hard day. They weren't going to loan me money during a tight spot, or come with me on a hike.
In a lot of ways, Farrah and Michael were abstract nouns. Since hearing of their deaths yesterday, I haven't shed a tear. Truth be told, I haven't even felt sad.
But show me this:
A child dying of starvation in Darfur, or
A woman who bled to death from an illegal abortion, or
women whose bodies were destroyed by rape in the Congo Civil War or
a young American soldier killed in Iraq,
and I get angry. Or sad. Grieve. Cry. Feel called to action. Want to change the world.
For those folks who feel that they have lost some genuine connection with the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, I say, "Let you find comfort in your grief."
But for the rest of the world, that seems to be participating in some meaningless ritual of rending garments and leaving flowers and gathering together to mourn dead pop icons, I say, please find ways to connect with the real and the genuine.
Make a difference in the life of a child.
Aid a woman who seeks shelter.
Provide an ear to a young soldier who needs to talk.
Give money to aid organizations trying to feed and protect people in Africa.
There are different ways of connecting us, one to the other. I cannot join you as you weep for voices you heard on the radio, or an actress you saw on a mid-1970's piece of schlock television. I can weep with you as we work to give aid and comfort to those who need it.
Some bubbles are easy to hear as they burst.
But listen closely:
Underneath the pop bubbles, real people are drowning.
The first couple of comments, by Cartouche and Mamoore, reminded me of something that was inchoate in this essay but which I neglected to bring out. Yes. Dead celebrities remind us of our own mortality, but in a culture in which large-scale rituals have pretty much disappeared, there is something about participating in these mass grieving rallies that must give some meaning to some people. Do they feel disconnected from culture and this helps them to feel a connection? I don't know. But I appreciate Cartouche and Mamoore for pointing out how someone dying--especially someone prominent and young--reminds me that I'm going to die someday, too.