Death Fetish

Thursday, 16 February 2012

I'm going to go out on a little bit of a limb, here.  It may be a little too soon.  It may be in bad taste.  (And it is in direct contradiction - but possibly some weird flipside of the same coin - to what Clem Bastow was lamenting in The Age  on Tuesday) but I find it really creepy that Whitney Houston's albums have made a return to the US Billboard charts.

Of course, it goes without saying (but I guess I will in case my point is easy to miss) that it's very sad that Whitney Houston died so young.

But I would really like to know how many people who bought her albums this week, wouldn't have really cared to listen to any of them last week?  I'd be willing to bet that it's a reasonable amount of people.

What has changed about people's perceptions of her that make them want to rush out/online and start listening now?  True, there is an almost-romance about someone passing over to the other side, the mystery of where they have gone (if anywhere).  A full stop has appeared where their life just was.

The shock of celebrity deaths are a container for us to pour our own grief into about our own pending deaths, and those of every single person we know, don't know, love or hate.

So while that's all understandable, it's still damn creepy.  Someone has been put on a pedestal who, when people thought of her a week ago, probably would have had meaner thoughts than they have now that she's dead (like the way people now feel about Michael Jackson.  He was whacko before, but now his life is over he's more sad than whacko, more misunderstood genius than potential-paedophile (or whatever it was you thought about Michael Jackson).  How many of the people who are now re-acquainting themselves with her music thought last week that Whitney was a bit of a has-been, or a bit of a sad old thing who'd lost her way a little in drugs?

The superstitiously-minded of us aver that the things people thought about her last week they shouldn't be thinking of this week.  It is bad form to speak ill of the dead and all.

Which is nice.  But it's also sentimentalism and fetishising death, fetishising something that is coming for us all.

And while celebrity deaths are one of those distancing containers for us to pour some of our grief into, putting everyone on a pedestal who has died is distancing the colour and shape, the dark and the light of their lives.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could instead rose-colour our views of everybody while they're still alive?  When it counts?  Maybe there's something helping in keeping before us the notion that everyone we come in contact with will one day be dead.  There are some who may call that morbid.

But maybe it's just reality.


  1. Both your piece and Bastow's I find very thoughtful, Sue. I could give all sorts of high-minded reasons for what's going on. What I might just say is that we're mostly totally unaware of our own magnificence as expressions of the universe, and adore those who seem to be aware, at least in part, of theirs. This is what happened with Jesus, and to a cosmic degree, because no-one like him had ever been known. He was just trying to tell us, look, how I am is the way you are, the only difference is that I know it and you don't... yet. Believe this Good News, and change your mind about life.

    What a rambling comment. Hope you get my point:)

  2. Wait, you mean you don't have death fetish?
    But seriously, on this theme it ought to make us think which famous stars we know who are in a mess and appreciate them immediately. That sounds not serious, but I mean it. It might make them get better, now there's a thought. I thought of poor Charlie Sheen. He's an eejit but let's tell him we thought he was great in that war movie and funny in that sitcom NOW, in case he has rubbish friends to take care of him. Or Demi Moore. Demi, take better care of yourself, we like your voice and you were great allowing us to live vicariously in Ghost.

    Also twisted is that Sony put the price of Whitney's albums up a few hours after her death...

  3. Really thoughtful post, Sue, and I liked Clem Bastow's that you link to also. This whole topic is interesting, isn't it? On your comment on record sales, perhaps we could be generous and say that perhaps 30% of the sales were by younger people who didn't know her at her peak, or those who were forcibly reminded how great she was. That still leaves a lot of sales due to likely mawkish or sentimental reasons. 
    It reminds me a lot of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when my friends and I were walking round in a bit of a daze, saying to each other words to the effect of "I'm an intelligent woman, I didn't know her, why am I so affected by this?". I think there's some kind of communal catharsis that goes on. For example people I really respect watched the Houston live funeral feed, even though they weren't particular fans, and I don't think they can explain why.
    What's new, of course, is the presence of Twitter and Facebook and the sheer volume and speed of the Houston (or whoever) overwhelm. I think it does give rise to a kind of collective hysteria. And full disclosure: I have today watched clips from the funeral and shed a few tears! 

  4. Haha, ramble away, Harry :)  

    Yes, I totally get your point.  And I love it :)  We try to hang on to what we see in other people when all we really need to do is find it in ourselves.  

  5. It's weird when it comes to famous people, isn't it, because on the one hand I agree with what you're saying - that we need to care for famous people because they are just people after all with flaws.  And yet its their very fame that seems to stop that from happening.  Fame is a strange thing.  I wouldn't wish it on anyone.  There seems to be very few people who can handle it well ... and they're probably completely out of our thoughts because they're too boring for the media to focus on them :)

    Ahh, I didn't know that about Sony.  Now, that IS twisted :(

  6. That's an interesting point you bring up about collective hysteria, Tess.  Social media does seem to fuel that whole thing so that it's very over-dramatised.  I think that's what I find so distasteful about the whole thing;  it's like we're all getting drunk on the latest awful thing to happen.  

    But then there IS something to the communal catharsis, isn't there.  It's like it's something necessary to us as a culture.  It's just a shame that real live famous people take that place.  They can't live up to it.  I think that space should be reserved for myths and archetypes (and the divine, whatever that is :)

  7. PS: Glad to see five years in Canada hasn't taken the linguistic "eejits" of out you, Emma.  Very cool :)

  8. We project our magnificence onto them, and likewise the other stuff, 'cos we can't handle either. In fact we invest our whole identity sometimes, sacrificing our unique potential on that altar. We adore and we crucify, still living in the nightmare of our own creating. All it takes is to 'fall awake', seeing the dream for what it is, and then we don't get fooled so easily again. That's the theory, anyway:)


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