Wolff: Social media, celebrity deaths and debating greatness

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Social media seems to best express itself in unctuous banalities, angry politics, and in celebrity deaths.

Last week the supporting actress, minor wit, and hard-living Hollywood denizen, Carrie Fisher, died at 60 of natural causes and was immediately hailed across social media as a major American talent and national model of pluck and fortitude. In the same week, the British pop singer, George Michael, who, say what you want about his music, hardly remade the culture, died at 53 and became on social media an instant monument of artistic originality and personal expression.

The year has been awash (on social media) in celebrity-focused grief and a seemingly universal acknowledgment of each dead celebrity’s unique and irreplaceable cultural importance. Fisher’s 84-year-old mother Debby Reynolds, who died the day after her daughter, suddenly had her own death-bump increased by her daughter’s big bump.

Clearly, everyone is entitled to his or her own individual and collective grief. But a reasonable question, albeit a cold one, is about how these social media outpourings might alter the reality of each of these lives and their particular contributions. Is this just more democratization? Does social media offer, in the immediate aftermath of a celebrity’s death, a method of popular critical re-evaluation? A kind of spontaneous people’s choice award? And is that good?

The celebrity obituary is a classic and ritual journalistic form, more literary in the British tradition, concerned with the peculiarities of a particular life, and more service-minded in the U.S., concerned with the details of the death and the person’s career high points. But the form allows virtually no room for emotion. Its main goal is to coolly sum up a person’s significance and assign the dead a standing, measured by column inches, in his or her time.

True the presence of scandal in a death, or violence, or when a celebrity dies particularly young – Marilyn Monroe or Princes Diana, for instance – could make it a tabloid or cautionary tale. But, before social media, most celebrity deaths of natural causes passed with only a longer or shorter obituary. Now, however, virtually every celebrity death, except those of the thoroughly ancient (and Leonard Cohen, dead this year at 82, was suddenly back at the top of his game), is an opportunity not just for emotional release but for a collective critical reappraisal and serious career upgrade.

Various elements combine to make this a particular social media phenomenon. Death of any kind, and particularly a celebrity death, is a great conversation opener: “Did you hear?” It’s the purest sort of news. Hence, the best click-bait. Everybody in the business of generating clicks goes big on a celebrity death, confirming the view of fans and sentimentalists everywhere that the death is, in fact, an awesome and worthy one. (Were I simply to list at this point this year’s deaths, my story’s search engine click rate would rise by a compelling factor.) Those fans and sentimentalists, in turn, share and augment with treacly personal perspective this news.

As important, celebrity death becomes an effective tool in the constant search for commonality in social media. The medium is most effective when friends and strangers seem to share what passes as inner feelings. In this, death is a short-hand connection. As is pop culture. Beyond angry politics and cat videos, social media is mostly concerned with music, movie and TV references. “Who do you like?” and “What’s your favorite?” is social media as well as teenage flirting and reaching out. Join that to death and it becomes epically teenage in its instant connectedness.

But is it true?

Should Carrie Fisher rise to the level of attention and cultural consideration and regard as David Bowie, another of 2016’s celebrity fatalities? They seem pretty close, both buoyed by social media to the front page of the New York Times – an obit slot once reserved for major historical personages. Indeed, should David Bowie rise to the level of Churchill as he quite appeared to do?

Via social media, the collective group is now writing (or rewriting) history. It is, by its nature, an emotional and sentimentalist version of history, therefore not history at all but pop-culture propaganda, as if there was not enough of that.

A curious note here is that the idea of being struck down early – no matter the hard living that proceeded the end – has been extended into one’s 50s and 60s. Many more deaths are therefore tragic and portentous: There, but for the grace of God (and drug and other abuse), go I. Tail-end Baby Boomers and rising Gen Xers are, of course, mourning themselves and their lost youth. In this, perhaps naturally, but on an increasingly massive scale, they are elevating the importance of their youth, transforming its commercial (and often camp) cultural moments into high classics. Claiming a particular corpus as iconic is part of a new narrative of generational self-regard.

Social media converts everything into its own purposes, as click bait, or into phony friendship bonds or into political hot buttons. It is all about making the fundamentally impersonal appear to be personal – as though we are actually sharing something. Now we share in the suddenly magnified loss of Carrie Fisher, destined to go down in social media history as, apparently, one of the greats of our time.