I remember once, when I was younger, overhearing a conversation my parents and their friends were having about where they all were when JFK was shot. It seemed, much like my generation can place their exact location when those planes hit the twin towers, that everyone could remember the tiniest details about that moment, when everything flared up around you, and you could even feel it under your skin, like you had come down with a sudden fever, and you were being pricked with a million tiny acupuncture needles at once. Everyone remembers JFK because he was our president, but not only was he our president, he was dashing and lively and young and came from a wealthy but tragic background.
At the same time, I’d bet that a number of us can remember where we were when Heath Ledger died. I remember I was in the office, refreshing the Gawker page to read it as it was updated because goddammit am I a loser, and a headline showed up “Actor Heath Ledger Found Dead” just as my friend Meg IMed me with the shocking news. I ran around my office disseminating the gossip like an old woman who just found out she’s about to be a grandmother. The media outlets were so frenzied it was as if God himself had given up, died and tumbled out of the sky. Heath Ledger actually lived across from my apartment, and he died there, so my neighborhood was swarmed with paparazzi and newspaper reporters desperate for the latest scoop. “Did Mary-kate Olsen really own this place?” a Washington Post reporter begged of me. “How did Heath look when you saw him last?” a New York Times guy wanted to know. It was all people could talk about for days, and I even got emotionally choked up after hearing the news.
So with Tim Russert’s untimely death yesterday, and of course, the inevitable backlash, I asked my Dad recently: did people get so upset about celebrity deaths when you were my age? He basically said that unless it was a megastar, no one really cared that much.
So why now? Why did I feel inexplainably sad yesterday after learning that someone I had never met had passed away? Empathy for his friends and relatives aside, you have to admit there is something more to it.
Rampant celebrity culture has swooped in and jumped down our throats like the little blue pill the big drug companies recommend we pop every morning with breakfast. Lindsay Lohan doesn’t take a piss without me - and everyone else - knowing about it. This builds an intense emotional connection to these people. We see them in movies, we know the intimate details of their personal lives, what their families are like, how they dress, their bad habits (but rarely their good ones), their home movies and favorite bands and the way they move their hands when embroiled in everyday conversation. We don’t know them, but we do, better than even some members of our family. And so one day, when they die - especially in an unexpected manner, we feel as if someone we've known has died, someone we have shared something with and grown to care about in a way that is unlike any other method of caring about people. And with media coverage online, the news surfaces almost instantaneously.
And I don’t know how I feel about it. I am complicit in the rumor mongering and the slandering and the Perez Hilton obsession, but does this diminish our ability to care about each other, about the people who are really in our lives? Or is it simply a vehicle to feel a more connectedness, to understand what being human is about, and then to conjure that through images and films of people who we can learn to care about, but never have to worry about them caring back.