Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Ranting On...Prince and Public Grief

Okay, that was a longer break than I was expecting, but in a bit of a triumph for myself, I decided to have a proper vacation.  There's something about exiting all of your responsibilities for a time, completely checking out and just having a joyous time that doesn't involve anything you do on a regular basis to bring the rest of your life into focus-what's working, what's not, and what you need to re-prioritize.  I have a whole lot of new ideas to add into my current life that I'm going to start implementing in the next few weeks, but know that writing on the blog, and getting back to our regular 12-post-a-week schedule is one of them.

As a result, I decided to kick myself back into shape and start discussing a couple of topics that happened while I was away, including the death of music legend Prince.  As a native Minnesotan, I always enjoyed Prince and his music, especially during his 1980's heyday, was sublime.  Though it wasn't his cover of it, "Nothing Compares 2 U" is one of my all-time favorite songs, and am stunned by his death, which felt very out-of-the-blue.  However, I feel like the focus here shouldn't be trying to find vague connections with an artist I respected from afar, but didn't really love in a unique way, that it's time to open up that most cherished of chestnuts whenever there's a public death: the "public mourning" debate.

I know a lot of people have piped in with their thoughts on this topic, but I never have and thought it was about time as I spend a lot of time focused on public figures that I have never met and likely never will (and even if I do-I met Finn Wittrock this weekend for the record and it was awesome and somehow he's even prettier in real-life-I won't have more than a passing glance with them until they return to the celebrity cavalcade), so this is a topic that is close to my heart.  For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, every time a major celebrity like Prince or Michael Jackson or Robin Williams passes away, there is an outpouring of grief not just from those who knew them in real-life, but also from fans on social media and blogs, fans who felt a personal connection with the artist and who want to find an outlet for their shared depression.  Many people, including some psychologists, have stated this is unhealthy.  After all, the people on social media are mourning someone they didn't know, someone that simply was an idea to them and it occasionally feels like attention-seeking, quite frankly, where people randomly start talking about the deep, personal connection they had with someone you've never seen them post or speak about before even once.

I go two ways on this.  Personally, I do think that on occasion people simply want to gain attention, and with someone like Prince dying, someone unexpected who has universal name recognition and acclaim,  it's a way to turn on the waterworks in a way that feels disingenuous.  Mourning for the sake of mourning, or trying to gain attention in such a way is kind of a ridiculous thing to do, and if you don't have a personal or professional connection with a particular celebrity it feels like something that you're just doing because it's trendy to do that day.  I don't know if you've noticed this before (I don't expect anyone to be reading this blog that closely), but I only rarely put out obituaries for celebrities or public figures, and I only do it A) if I was a particular fan of their work or them as a person and want to work through their death in letters or B) if I find some angle about their death or the way they died particularly compelling or thought-provoking (see my Margaret Thatcher article for an example).  I find that doing it for everyone, particularly since this is my own blog and not a comprehensive one about the news, makes the most sense-I might occasionally do a post because I know it will get foot traffic, but I think cashing in on someone's death is the wrong time to do that.

That being said, I think that connections to a particular celebrity, especially ones that have shaped your life or your youth, is an appropriate reaction.  I openly wept when Ted Kennedy died, for example, as he had been a hero of mine since I was a kid-I literally have a photo of him on the wall of my apartment, and had another one on my door most of my adolescence. I know that when people who are getting older that I have been ardent admirers of for years, individuals like Shirley MacLaine or Dolly Parton or Martin Scorsese, pass away it will be a hard time for me.  The reality is that we invite celebrities into our lives in a way we don't almost anyone else.  I couldn't pick out my next door neighbors in a lineup (I live in an urban apartment-don't judge me-no one in an apartment building gets to know each other), but know every word to "Jolene" or "Coat of Many Colors" by heart.  Celebrities and their films, athletic competitions, words, and other contributions are there for me when I am down or need to feel happy or want to mark an occasion.  I've spent more time with certain public figures in my life than I have nearly all of my cousins, for example, to expect there not to be a mourning process is ridiculous.  This has advanced even further through social media, where you can get a sense of a celebrity's personality in addition to their public works-you gain a stronger connection when you find out who they champion, who is a star in their world.  So while I do think that occasionally the mourning feels over-the-top and disingenuous, I do think that if it's that person that has been at the center of your pop culture universe for years, you need to take the time to grieve, and no one should be chastising you for taking a moment.

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