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Meta-Grief and the Celebrity Mourner

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I just don't believe that Michael would want me to share my grief with millions of others. How I feel is between us. Not a public event. — Dame Elizabeth Taylor to her 80,000 followers on Twitter, explaining why she turned down a request to speak at the Staples Center memorial.

I don't think there's a wrong way to express personal grief. I've seen my share of hospital waiting rooms and funeral homes, and people deal with things the best they can, whether they gnash their teeth or find distraction or simply withdraw.

The death of Michael Jackson is a huge media event, but it has also provided an outlet, and for many people a public outlet, for all the ways we grieve. Missing the music and lamenting its decline, missing the child-man and denouncing the man-child, remembering where you were when you first heard "Ben" or "Billie Jean"… Whatever you thought of him as a musician or a human being, his work and life is a nearly universal cultural reference, and everyone has an opinion about it – none more so than the celebrity griever.

I come here not to praise the common man but to bury the celebrity. Celebrity remembrances of Jackson or of any dead star can be as much a celebration of the person talking about it as of the deceased – often more so. When Kurt Cobain died in 1994, "Voice of a Generation" Douglas Coupland pulled off on the side of the road near Candlestick Park in San Francisco to figure out how he felt about it – and made sure to tell that to a major newspaper:

"I felt that I had never asked you to make me care about you," Coupland wrote. "But it happened – against the hype, against the odds – and now you are in my imagination forever. And I figure you're in heaven, too. But how, exactly, does it help you now, to know that you…were once adored?"

That hand-wringing tenor could just as easily have been texted or twittered on June 25, 2009, when the level of teeth-gnashing was directly proportionate to the publicity machine of the mourner. A sample from Salon.com's roundup:

  • Celine Dion: "I am shocked. I am overwhelmed by this tragedy. Michael Jackson has been an idol for me all my life."
  • Madonna: "I can't stop crying over the sad news…I have always admired Michael Jackson…The world has lost one of the greats, but his music will live on forever! My heart goes out to his three children and other members of his family…God bless."
  • Mariah Carey: "I am heartbroken. My prayers go out to the Jackson family, and my heart goes out to his children. Let us remember him for his unparalleled contribution to the world of music, his generosity of spirit in his quest to heal the world, and the joy he brought to his millions of devoted fans throughout the world. I feel blessed to have performed with him several times and to call him my friend. No artist will ever take his place. His star will shine forever."

But the winner of the celebrity mourner's Highest Achievement in Lack of Self-Awareness Award goes to the embattled widow and shoe collector Imelda Marcos. If you know anything about her rise and fall, it's hilarious:

Imelda Marcos: “Michael Jackson enriched our lives, made us happy…The accusations, the persecution caused him so much financial and mental anguish. He was vindicated in court, but the battle took his life. There is probably a lesson here for all of us.”

Photo credit: Hollywood Wax Museum, Branson, Missouri. Photo by Pat Padua

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.
  • http://joannehuspek.wordpress.com Joanne Huspek

    I’m ready to have the coverage go to its final resting place.

  • http://zindy.com/Angel_Of_Our_Time_Master.mp3 Zindy

    I am so sad about Michael’s tragic death. I had to write a Tribute song and now you can download it for Free and share it with all your friends. Let’s all sing this song for Michael together. He is the Angel of our time!

  • http://thismeaneveryone.blogspot.com James A. Gardner

    Our local newspaper received so many angry comments about its coverage of MJ’s death, the executive editor was compelled to publish a column about it. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), her admission, “I made the wrong call about where and how to play the Michael Jackson story,” referred to the paper carrying *too little* about it for the vocal readerships’ satisfaction. And to think, Elvis’ death wasn’t even a lead story at the time.

  • Ghislaine

    I believe the problem rests with 24/7 news coverage.

    Put on reruns of ‘Get Christy Love,’ or make new content, get actors and actresses working. 24/7 news is just so empty, they need to fill it with…stuff. Crappy stuff.

    I watched the memorial and boohoo’d with the best of them. But this feeding frenzy is about the Media, not us. If only they were so hungry about Iraq, Sudan, Appalachia… etc. It might lift all of our IQs.

  • http://blogcritics.org Eric Olsen

    we have an unabashedly celebrity culture now