Writing on Air

Writing on Air by Jim Paredes

When celebrities die

Posted on July 04, 2009 by jimparedes

The King of Pop is dead.” The news that shocked us early in the morning in Sydney resonated throughout the world. People everywhere reacted viscerally and with great disbelief.

The Iran election, which had dominated the headlines for weeks, was dislodged from media headlines for at least two days. Google’s cyber technicians reported that the sudden surge in Internet traffic about Michael Jackson made them think initially that they were under a major virus spam attack. Due to the number of people who used the Internet, the Huffington Post and CNN remarked that Michael Jackson’s death threatened to bring the entire Internet down with him.

Many were saddened, if not upset, that the Iran story was dislodged from the headlines by Jackson’s death. That world public, or at least the media, seemed more concerned about the death of the Gloved One while millions of Iranians were being persecuted with dozens killed in their fight for freedom and truth, spoke volumes about the priorities of people — and the media — worldwide.

I felt a sense of disbelief at this turn of events, even if it was explainable in hindsight. Such is the power of celebrity as large as Michael Jackson’s, and the unexpected snuffing out of his life. While I mourn his death, I am thankful that the world has once again focused on Iran.

It is totally shocking to hear about celebrities dying too soon. Among others, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, James Dean, Freddie Mercury, John Lennon, Princess Diana, Heath Ledger, and now Michael Jackson have all died early, eliciting the same shocked reaction from the world. There is a sense of loss, as if their deaths were premature, not having completed what is believed to constitute a “full life.” The incompleteness leaves us hanging, baffled, shocked and feeling a great loss.

We know intellectually that we will all die. There is nothing more certain than death and every day brings us closer to it. “Our birth is nothing but our death begun,” wrote the dramatist Edward Young. Still, we react strongly to its arrival. Even when it’s expected, as when old people who have lived long lives pass away, death continues to catch us unprepared. Pope John Paul II was old and sick but his death still came as a shock to many. What more when it happens to the young?

Tragic as it may be, it is totally romantic for a celebrity to die early. A famous person’s sudden demise practically guarantees some kind of “immortality.” Elvis has probably generated more wealth from royalties, sales of memorabilia and entrance tickets to Graceland than when he was alive. It is safe to say that such derivative income will also enrich Michael Jackson’s estate, keep his music immortal, current and hip even if, before his death, his career had gone awry.

Ironically, even if it was probably from an accidental overdose, Michael’s death was a “master stroke,” career-wise.

Early, unexpected death makes time stop for celebrities. They never really die; they continue to live on, frozen in our memories. How can they not? Their songs were the soundtracks to our lives. Their very lives were our preoccupation. Unlike ordinary mortals, their memories are never put to rest. They do not age or grow irrelevant. They are alive as ever and continue to entertain us.

Even after some 46 years, Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy continue to enthrall the public as details of their lives are dug up. The same goes for Princess Diana. The squashing of youth and the potential it carries leaves everyone speculating endlessly about how the rest of these celebrities’ lives would have played out if they had not died so soon.

It hardly matters that the celebrity who suddenly died was living a life that was far from admirable. Factual reports of substance abuse and immoral conduct in their personal affairs become irrelevant. Their unconscionable behavior is easily forgiven; their personalities and reputations are coated forever with Teflon. Nothing negative will stick.

There are various reasons for this. One is the dictum that if there is nothing good one can say about someone who has died, then it’s better to shut up.

Another reason why the bad stuff is suddenly glossed over by the public is because these celebrities touched our lives in a special way. They worked up our emotions in a way that defined us. John Lennon spoke for my generation when he rebelled against the world of wars, guns, and conformity. Freddie Mercury’s flamboyance and great talent was an outrageous yet brilliant expression of the youth of his time. Elvis gave us rock and roll. And all of their songs — and yes, their personal struggles — took us to a special place away from the ordinariness of our own lives.

We watched Michael Jackson grow up from the little boy who sang ABC with his siblings to become a fantastic performer. He made us sing great songs and dance The Moonwalk. But he also captivated our attention and kept us wondering if his love for children was pedophiliac in nature. And there was his continuously morphing appearance.

These last two aspects were explosive, grotesque dramas that played out in the courts and in public eliciting endless fodder for gossip that hurt his career and gave late night comedy shows something to joke about.

But the main reason why the likes of Michael Jackson will forever be cherished by the public is because such stars create things of beauty that touch us, elicit awe and make us feel alive to ourselves. John Keats was spot on when he wrote that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

* * *

I am happy to announce the 47th run of Tapping the Creative Universe Workshop (TCU), an experience of creative joyful awakening. This will run on August 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 10 from 7 to 9 p.m. at 113 B. Gonzales, Loyola Heights, Q.C. The cost per participant is P5,000.

Please call 426-5375 or 0916-8554304 and ask for Ollie, or write me at emailjimp@gmail.com for questions or reservations. You can also visit http://www.tappingthecreativeuniverse.com for the syllabus, FAQ and testimonials from people who have taken it.

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