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Q&A: Things to know about celebrity deaths

ASU lecturer Dustin Gann breaks down the history and function of celebrity — there's a lot more to it than you might think

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January 06, 2017

The first week of the new year has come to a close and there have been no celebrity obituaries to dominate the news cycle — something that might have seemed unfathomable in December when George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died in rapid succession to close a year that also marked the losses of Muhammad Ali, Prince and David Bowie. 

And John Glenn, Arnold Palmer and Gordie Howe. And Gene Wilder, Gwen Ifill and Patty Duke. And Maurice White, Phife Dawg and Glenn Frey …

The number, profile and expansive range of celebrity deaths in 2016 prompted tweets, conversations, articles, tributes, memes, Facebook posts and tears. It shows, said ASU lecturer Dustin Gann, just how important celebrity culture is — and has been.

“While many view the proliferation of celebrities as a relatively recent phenomenon, the idea of celebrities and their influence has bedeviled Western culture for quite some time,” he said.

Gann, whose research interests include history and pop culture, has recently shared some of his insights with ASU Now to provide fresh perspective to the ongoing national conversation about celebrity deaths and why they're such a big deal. (His answers have been lightly edited for style and length.)

ASU lecturer

Dustin Gann

Question: Have celebrity deaths always been such a big deal?

Answer: There is a long tradition of commemorating celebrity death in the United States.

In 1865, for example, the train carrying Abraham Lincoln’s casket made stops in over 180 cities. Residents in these communities — many of whom would have voted for Lincoln but some who undoubtedly didn’t — turned out in droves to view Lincoln’s body and pay their final respects.

In the early 1990s, the Academy Awards began including an “In Memoriam” segment. This addition has been copied by most other entertainment awards shows and ceremonies. The segment … simultaneously celebrates the accomplishments of celebrities and commemorates their recent death.

Q: Is it more of a cultural phenomenon now than in past decades?

A: There are several reasons that the issue of celebrity death appears increasingly prominent within American culture. One of the most notable, I think, is the proliferation of media platforms and outlets, which keep celebrities in the news.

Nostalgia and the mining of nostalgia for television shows like “Behind the Music,” “I Love the ’70s,” “30 for 30” and “Celebrity Apprentice” ensures that many celebrities remain visible even after the pinnacle of their career.

The recent passing of Carrie Fisher provides a perfect example of this phenomena.

Fisher, whose prolific career included many noteworthy roles, was most closely associated with her portrayal of Princess Leia in “Star Wars.” The final film of the original trilogy, “Return of the Jedi” (1983), is over 30 years old.

The space saga did not fade from public view, however, as fan conventions, merchandise and memorabilia sales, television broadcasts and DVD re-releases kept the films alive.

The recent release of “The Force Awakens” (2015) introduced her character to a new generation of fans. Thus, Fisher found an ongoing source of celebrity as Princess Leia that she could never have achieved from her co-starring role in “When Harry Met Sally ... ” (1989).

In addition, within an increasingly fragmented media environment, individuals are much freer to indulge their own unique tastes. If I want to listen to the music of Prince, George Michael or David Bowie, for example, I’m not limited to what a local radio station plays. I can download or stream songs that keep the music of artists whose original production peaked in the 1980s in regular rotation.

Finally, celebrities have a symbiotic relationship with media — television and print — outlets. Covering celebrity news represents a relatively “safe” topic, which can provide a welcome distraction from more “serious” news. 

Q: Have celebrity deaths always be such a big deal?

A: While many view the proliferation of celebrities as a relatively recent phenomenon, the idea of celebrities and their influence has bedeviled Western culture for quite some time.

Around 380 B.C.E., the Greek philosopher Plato warned in “The Republic” that figures within contemporary myths — Heracles or Achilles, for example — were so well-known that they had undue influence over everyday people. Plato proposed a version of censorship that would replace heroic tales of individual achievement with more structured glorifying of the collective pursuit of truth.

The identification of exemplary individuals has also been used historically to reinforce dedication to specific causes. The canonization of Catholic saints during the Middle Ages, for example, singled out religious figures worthy of emulation.

The Catholic Church — at the time one of the largest sources of intellectual knowledge — selected saints who exhibited behavior (piety, obedience, self-sacrifice, etc.) that it wished to encourage within its adherents.

Since the early 20th century, celebrities have become more visible through ubiquitous advertising and a deepening connection between Americans and all forms of media. 

Q: It seems like there are more celebrities these days. Is that the case?

A: Contemporary American celebrities range from elected political figures to viral internet sensations — essentially anyone in the public eye. Thus, there are simultaneously fewer celebrities who command mass attention and an increasing number who have smaller, but equally devoted fan bases.

Paying tribute to celebrities who are not universally beloved can often backfire.

Following Nancy Reagan’s death, for example, Hillary Clinton praised her leadership on health issues during the 1980s. Clinton’s comments sparked outrage among many LGBT and AIDS activists, however, because neither President Reagan nor Nancy Reagan specifically mentioned AIDS until the final year of Reagan’s presidency. Clinton subsequently apologized for her initial statement and reframed her praise of Nancy Reagan.

Another example of public relations backlash can be seen in the response to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement regarding the death of Fidel Castro. Trudeau initially cast Castro in rather benign terms, but after the mocking hashtag #Trudeaueulogies began trending on Twitter, Trudeau issued an updated statement to quiet critics.

Q: Why is it that when celebrities die, their work tends gets more exposure?

A: When a celebrity dies, their work gets more exposure for the simple fact that more people are talking about them. In some instances, this is extremely positive because it reminds a broad audience of the important contributions an individual made during their career.

Muhammad Ali’s death in June, for example, prompted an ESPN retrospective. Over almost four hours of commercial-free coverage, the network chronicled Ali’s athletic achievements and social activism. The dedicated coverage, including tributes from many of Ali’s contemporaries, exposed a new generation of Americans — some whose only memory of Ali was his lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta — to Ali’s multifaceted legacy.


Top photo: By Oreos (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons