Do you remember where you were when River Phoenix died?
Probably not. A better question might be, “Do you remember who River Phoenix was?”( He was an up and coming, very talented young actor back in the day. Did a wicked Harrison Ford impression at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Made a few other flicks and then died of a drug overdose about fifteen years ago or so.)
I don’t remember where I was when River died, either. But I remember where I was when an actor friend of mine started crying over it. He had never met Mr. Phoenix, but he mourned the “movies I’ll never get to see” because of River’s death.
It was then that I realized that celebrity deaths don’t mean very much to me, if they mean anything at all.
I say all this, obviously, in the light of Michael Jackson’s shocking, sudden death today, which has overshadowed Farrah Fawcett’s not-so-shocking, long-time-coming death on the same day. Others are throwing in the “What? He was still alive?” death of Ed McMahon and claiming that all celebrity deaths come in threes. I think claiming Ed McMahon is still a celebrity is really, really pushing it.
Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t mean to be heartless, and I wish the surviving loved ones of all these people well. I just don’t understand why I ought to be more heartbroken about Michael Jackson’s death than any other death I hear about on the news on a daily basis. I didn’t know Michael Jackson, and nothing in my life will change as a result of his demise. (Michael Jackson did, however, used to go knocking doors for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in my neighborhood, wearing a beard and a hat as a disguise. At least, my friend Pus-head told me that. If you can’t trust a guy called Pus-head, who can you trust?)
There is the argument to be made that I’ve lost all the great music that we’ll never get as a result of his demise, much like River Phoenix’s movies we’ll never see. But odds are that I wouldn’t have seen River’s movies, and the evidence suggests that Michael’s days of producing great music are well behind him. His last decent album was Dangerous in 1991. The new stuff on his HISstory anthology in 1994 was unlistenable, and 2001’s Invincible is all kinds of suck. But Thriller is still deeply and thoroughly awesome, and I could listen to Off the Wall’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” from now until forever and still get caught up in the unrelenting funk of that irresistible bass line.
And, best of all, Thriller is still here. Michael Jackson has already given me everything of value that he’s going to give me, and I’ve lost none of it with his passing.
The “loss of talent” argument does work with some celebrity deaths, however. John Lennon’s death forever thwarted an otherwise inevitable Beatles reunion, and Heath Ledger’s death means that the sequel to The Dark Knight won’t be as good as it was supposed to be. That disappoints me. But that’s a very, very different thing from mourning the loss of the person who died.
Mourning over Princess Diana’s death reached a fever pitch in 1997, despite the fact that Diana was primarily famous solely for being famous. But everyone felt they knew her, so her death took on the nature of a communal event.
And, I think, that’s the whole crux of celebrity deaths. It brings the world together, because it illustrates we all have something in common. We all knew Michael Jackson, or at least we thought we did. Everyone can sing “Beat It and “Thriller.” Everyone can pretend to pop one of his patented dance moves – especially me. And being able to share something with everyone you know – or don’t know – provides a strange form of comfort. But the ritualistic weeping and wailing by people who have never spent a second of their lives in conversation with the famed Wacko Jacko starts to grate on me very quickly.
That’s not to say I’m completely unmoved by the death of people I don’t know. 9/11 was devastating, and not just because we all had it in common. It was a reminder of how much evil is out there, and a grim warning that the monsters who killed 3,000 Americans wanted to kill me, too. The sheer enormity of the number added weight to the moment, but it wasn’t the main reason to mourn. When a similar number died in the tsunami a few years back, it didn’t have the same personal impact to me.
I’m not sure how I feel, to be honest. When truly evil people make the world a better place by getting off of it – i.e. Yasser Arafat, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the like – I confess I permit myself a grisly moment of celebration. Michael Jackson wasn’t in that same league, but he was certainly creepy. He was never convicted of child molestation, but I know I’d never want my children within 50 yards of the guy. But his heinousness does not rise to the level of posthumous schadenfreude. All things considered, I’d probably rather he were still alive. But he isn’t, and I can find a way to carry on.
I have nothing profound to say, I guess. But I think that lack of profundity is profound in and of itself. (Whoa.) All I have left is The Essential Michael Jackson on compact disc, except I can’t find disc one, and I think Stalliondo may have been using it as a Frisbee.
Rest in peace, River Phoenix.