Aretha Franklin Died Last Week (Did You Post Your Thoughts Early Enough?)
By Rob Huckins
People lose their minds over the deaths of celebrities. The evidence for this is overwhelming, never more so than in our current era of Hot Take social media use, a trend which has only exemplified Celebrity Death Obsession Syndrome (admittedly a clunky term, so let’s just use the acronym CDOS).
Aretha Franklin is the latest case study in CDOS (and so far one of its most measured examples) after the singer died last week at the age of 76 from pancreatic cancer. News of her expected demise leaked out in advance (numerous stories announced Franklin being placed in hospice care while others offered details of her decreasing physical capacities in the days leading up to her death) so it wasn’t all that shocking when her passing was officially announced. So far, Franklin’s death has caused a steady and overwhelmingly positive outpouring of condolences and tributes from both fans on social media along with reactions from other famous celebrities on various platforms.
Some of this relatively modest outpouring is surely due to her death being uncontroversial and at a decently advanced age. She didn’t die as a young woman because of a drug overdose, for instance. This would have invariably caused a much different reaction. We only have to study our own pop culture history to find proof of this fact. I found out about her death from seeing a painting of Franklin posted by an artist I follow on Instagram, something indicative of how “real news” is consumed these days compared to just a decade ago. I am sure a huge number of people found out on Twitter or some other news app on their phones. Over the next twenty four to forty eight hours an overwhelming amount on internet traffic remembered Franklin in a variety of ways. Videos were posted along with artwork and other tributes signifying her life as an entertainer and pioneer for independent, famous women. This is our normal celebrity death reaction today and for the most part, Franklin’s passing followed this pattern.
While I don’t find this particularly problematic in any way, I do find it curious. Franklin was clearly beloved and respected by both famous and non-famous people all over the world, both for her significant contributions to music and her consistent presence as a strong and independent woman with considerable fame for most of her life. But an overwhelmingly vast amount of the reactions to her death came from people who never knew her at all. This is not uncommon when observing public mourning for celebrities. Franklin’s was refreshing in its consistent dignity and virtually controversy-free treatment in the media and I am sure much of the emotion people felt the need to express in the wake of her death was authentic. But only to a certain point.
People die all the time. We all know this and come to this realization at various points in our young years. One of the first strange and potentially off putting realizations for children or young adults is the understanding of our own mortality; that we all will, in fact, die one day. Even for adults, the idea that every single person currently on our planet will die off at various rates can be staggering if given deep thought on a dark and lonely night. But of course, we also understand that barring some mass extinction, we will all essentially be replaced by future births and then the whole cycle keeps going. Celebrity deaths, however, represent another realm for our culture and one which has come about relatively recently in our collective history. The mere idea of “celebrity” is a modern creation and its definition is changing even you read this sentence. The obsession (or at a minimum, concerned attention) at following and now, reacting to, celebrity deaths is something which has changed dramatically since the advent of social media.
When a celebrity dies, it now feels like a race to see who can mourn publicly the fastest and most lucidly, the emojis and hashtags and videos liberally shared with the world at a pace so rapid it becomes very difficult to discern one thought to the next. While I don’t assume these tributes are necessarily inauthentic or posted merely for self aggrandizing reasons, they do cause me significant pause. To mourn collectively is not new (we still have funerals, after all) but to do so in such a large and immediate way has no real historic precedent. The need for us to publicly declare whatever emotions or loss we are feeling because of this person’s passing appears overwhelming, as if our social media silence would somehow imply we don’t care or that the death went by unmarked. The high volume of public mourning actually can cause one’s own feelings of loss to feel even less significant as hard as that is to believe.
I recall Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 and what a landmark event it seemed at the time, his influence on modern pop music being so significant along with his increasingly controversial public persona over the last thirty years of his life. His death came at age 50 and was accompanied by weeks of news about Jackson’s long time prescription drug dependency and cryptic “last days”. I witnessed Jackson’s ascent to global fame first hand. As a seventh grader I attempted the moonwalk in my kitchen after seeing him perform this seemingly inhuman move on a nationally televised awards show. I wore out my Thriller cassette along with millions of others growing up in that time period and remained a fan of his music for years to come. Without question, he was an iconic and influential celebrity presence in my formative years and I have specific and important memories of that time period associated with his music and videos. In 2009, I was in my late thirties and sitting in a car dealership, waiting on a somewhat new vehicle while his funeral played on the lobby television to a mostly silent group of customers. People were watching but didn’t say anything. Some kept reading their magazines and others poured themselves free coffee. Looking back, it seems strange that nobody was looking at their phones that much (maybe at all?) and the funeral of a ubiquitous celebrity was unfolding in front of us in real time and nobody appeared eager to share thoughts or emotional tributes.
Today Jackson’s death would have likely driven a fervent social media reaction and renewed discussions about his artistry, pop music legacy, effect on visual music media along with the drug discussion (and surely the murky and persistent allegations of inappropriate behavior with children). The King of Pop was as complex a public figure as one gets in our modern celebrity culture, complete with the artistic genius, a rise and fall (and rise again?) narrative, controversy and a relatively young demise with a sordid cause. There isn’t much social media compost to sift through with Jackson’s death since it was a very different digital landscape just nine years ago so we are left with our own impressions and thoughts and feelings about Jackson’s life, legacy and death — if we even have anything to say about those things at all at this point. I am of the opinion we saw the very best Jackson was capable of during his lifetime and that we would have never seen that level of artistic magic again from him. But his career was nonetheless staggering in its scope and influence.
Perhaps another set of less controversial examples are in order. Imagine if legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson (died in 2005) passed today? Or Johnny Cash (2003)? These would carry enormous weight in the modern celebrity death cycle for both legitimate and macabre reasons, mainly because they each had passionate fan bases and a long history of archived footage and material. Both were mourned extensively when they died publicly but well before the advent of what we now experience in social media. We can see these two perform today virtually anytime we want, but most anyone you ask would be hard pressed to know when they died or even if they have at all (another interesting party exercise — pick a random celebrity and take a poll on if they’re still alive or not. You might be surprised by the puzzled reactions).
We don’t have to even go back to the early 2000s to review this phenomenon. 2016 was deemed by many media outlets as “the worst year ever” (I am sure 1939 or 1968 would take issue with this sentiment) when David Bowie, John Glenn, Nancy Reagan, Gene Wilder, Fidel Castro, Arnold Palmer, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds (yes, Fisher’s mother — same year!), Merle Haggard, Prince, Muhammad Ali and Antonin Scalia all died at various ages and from different causes. This is only a partial listing. It seemed like a celebrity death avalanche at the time, but two years later I wonder if people would realize half of these people died even if they posted on social media about their loss and what these people meant to them. Perhaps many younger people would scratch their heads wondering even who some of these people were at all even though they likely heard the news of their deaths at the time.
Part of this is natural. Every generation has its celebrities, some cross over, some don’t, but they all die and when they do, part of our own history dies with them, memories and connections to our past selves and lives we imagine were probably simpler and maybe even better. This, of course, risks attaching exaggerated significance to both things, resulting in our collective memories assessing the impact of these people much stronger than they deserve or would even want, especially given they likely never met us or us them. I am sure many will remember Aretha Franklin years from now and certainly her musical legacy won’t fade anytime soon. There’s simply too much on record about her and footage to mine for this to happen. But some will forget by Thanksgiving (probably Labor Day) and move onto the next person who kicks the bucket. This isn’t entirely a bad thing; modern research on the human brain and nervous system shows we have an enormous capacity to absorb untold loss and negative information and then move on relatively quickly. For our own survival, this is a good thing. But our penchant for pouring parts of ourselves online about people whom we’ve never met but feel like we have known is striking when viewed in contrast to how quickly we move on afterwards. Are we really mourning these people? Do we really care that much? If so, why?
Part of this, I presume, has to with our own pasts and experiences. Often celebrities, for better or worse, connect to our own experiences in strong ways and usually at key junctures of our lives but in ways rarely direct to the actual celebrity. Music is famous for this association, sometimes on purpose as are specific films, especially for generations schooled on what its legions deem “classic” or “important” in these areas. When celebrities associated with these important memories die, a part of our own experience passes for good. If a celebrity of similar age to us dies it can cast some measure of mortality on our own existence. This can cause us to vastly exaggerate one’s role in a particular time period of our own lives or even remember something incorrectly or out of context to what was actually happening. It’s a version of nostalgia which likely takes on greater importance the further we get from the time period and when this connective celebrity associated with said time period dies. Taking this to another level in our current (often) preferred platform of discourse, social media, the very idea someone of this significance dying without us commenting publicly to show how much we care is unthinkable to many, even those who not only never knew the person (even if it felt like they did) or possibly didn’t think about them very much until they died.
If its current pace continues forward, the future of CDOS is overwhelming. Today, we simply have more celebrities, many of whom are so called “Internet famous” (a somewhat dated but still appropriate phrase) along with the more traditionally famous celebrities in the arts, sports and politics. Aretha Franklin is one thing. What happens when our increasingly fragmented culture mourns the death of a particular YouTube star or niche rapper? Will some feel the need to espouse some emotional tribute merely because others their own age are doing so? Or because it seems good to do so based on the person’s contribution to a particular part of society?
The magnitude of this is difficult to comprehend. Using this criteria, a celebrity will probably die all the time, daily perhaps, causing our news feeds to consist mainly of reflective tributes from other celebrities and fans and observers on social media. In this future, the death of a moderately known YouTuber would carry a far more significant reaction than the relatively abstract death of historical giant Abraham Lincoln. Of course, this seems absurd. But then again, the entire current culture of CDOS is absurd. But not necessarily inaccurate. A YouTuber’s untimely death might impact more people today than the death of Lincoln did in 1865. Let’s look at a similar example, John F. Kennedy. There is no question the impact of JFK’s assassination was felt more widely and acutely due to the advent of mass media, namely television, than if the medium had not yet been around in 1963. Lincoln’s death arguably had a much greater and significant direct consequence on the historical direction of America than JFK’s because of its implications in connection with the end of the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction period, but in no way did it have the same impact emotionally for most Americans due to mass media’s role in how Americans learn about events. An even more cynical observer could argue JFK’s tragic death at a relatively young age made him somewhat impervious to careful criticism for his performance in office let alone his legacy in our history. This is partly the syndrome (and curse, at times) of dying young. You don’t live quite long enough to become yourself but you also never age enough to truly become dissected for decades of work and subject to greater critical analysis.
But JFK and Lincoln (and countless others) never existed in an age of widespread social media. Lincoln only had delayed, printed sources available to report his death (that and limited word of mouth)! Television from JFK’s era seems both more powerful because of its simplicity (thank you Walter Cronkite) and very quaint. The closest we have gotten to a modern treatment of a deceased president came with Ronald Reagan (2004) and Gerald Ford (2006), recent enough deaths historically but light years ago in terms of the media landscape and our cultural reaction to deaths of this magnitude.
Reagan became even more elevated in stature because of his death while Ford saw a slight redemption to his otherwise benign and unremarkable legacy in the White House. But their deaths today would carry a likely very different tone in the public view because of those who would report the stories. News is no longer like it was then (when it was mainly three big networks and some cable stations along with a smattering of niche online sources). Today the narrative would likely take a much more direct (harsh, even) turn on partisan lines (would we really want to endure President Trump’s tweets signifying the death of Reagan? I thought not). Also, both Reagan and Ford died at an elderly age and not by some tragic act. Nobody was completely shocked that they each died when they did; it was simply a time to reflect on their contributions to our country as politicians and cultural figures (especially in Reagan’s case, whose death I would argue propelled him to an even higher standing in public opinion than ever before, especially among conservatives, who by that time had welcomed another generation which had never lived during Reagan’s actual time as president and were essentially introduced to him for the first time).
Death has always been inevitable just as it has been observed by those left behind through various ceremonies and other symbolic gestures. But never has it been so massive in its scope or emotionally predictable culturally. The cycle of mourning publicly for a celebrity has become almost commonplace, its emotional toll foreseeable and social media trail plainly visible for anyone and everyone to see and engage in as much as anyone can take, largely over a person who most never knew even if they felt like they did. For those who knew Aretha Franklin, the mourning is real. For everyone else, it’s an emotional pit stop until the next celebrity leaves us for good. Prepare your Twitter posts accordingly. You won’t be alone.