The death of a celebrity has always been a popular talking point in popular culture. Despite most people having little or no actual interaction with the deceased, their death has a huge impact. Celebrities who are otherwise irrelevant in popular contemporary culture are brought back into the collective conscience after death and often have a huge cultural and economic impact. Not only do sales of merchandise, records, and DVDs (depending on the celebrity) skyrocket, but their deaths are accompanied by constant news coverage and popular discussion. Sometimes a celebrity does not even have to die, there can be a hoax of their death to the same effect, if only briefly. Facilitating the intensity of the collective mourning of a celebrity’s death is the word-of-mouth engine that is the internet, social networking sites, and gossip blogs.
Of course, that is not to say that collective the mourning of a celebrity is anything new; think of the deaths of John Lennon, Elvis Presley, or JFK. A popular folk legend has even arisen about celebrity deaths dictating that celebrities always die in threes. Common examples are Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper or John Denver, Princess Diana, and Mother Teresa.
A great contemporary example of the phenomena on celebrity death is the recent passing of Michael Jackson. His death in the summer of 2009 had a tremendous impact on culture. Not only was the news overloaded with Michael Jackson stories, including speculation about the manner of his death, the fate of his three children and estate, and the response of other celebrities, but a huge overload of conversation and discussion online. Gossip blogs and social networking sites were overloaded. CNN jokingly stated that Michael Jackson “broke” the internet (Rawlinson & Hunt, 2009). Massive amounts of traffic overloaded several hugely popular sites, including CNN, Wikipedia, Twitter, and the messaging service AOL.
There are two things that are very interesting in terms of more long term impacts of celebrity deaths on popular culture. One is the immense amount of profit in the death of a celebrity. Michael Jackson’s flew to the top of the charts posthumously making millions in only a few days, (Moore, 2009). Every poster and novelty store you go into has the iconic Farrah Fawcett “Red Swimsuit” poster on display again. After John Hughes death, the “Too Cool for School” DVD collection box set became readily available everywhere. To say that the death of a celebrity has an economic impact is probably an understatement, especially in reference to Michael Jackson whose posthumous record sales beat out those of Elvis within days, (Boyle, 2009). He also was 2009’s top selling artist, selling over 8 million units and more than doubling the next top selling artist, (Kreps, 2010). All these numbers mean one thing: a celebrity’s death makes mega-cash.
The second thing that is very interesting about the death of a celebrity and their impact on pop culture is that all their sins seem to be forgiven by mainstream commentaries. The old adage “don’t speak ill of the dead” is very prevalent, even on the usually rough free-for-all of gossip blogs. Prior to his death, Michael Jackson was involved in his second very public and heavily covered battle against child sex abuse allegations. Even though he was found not guilty of the charges, his erratic behaviour had turned him into a joke.
One of the most popular gossip sites, OhNoTheyDidnt, which is a social networking community on Livejournal.com, has approx 50 000 members (Livejournal, 2010) and over 300 000 views per day, (Tenenbaum, 2008). It is famous not only for its huge membership, its fast posting (often posting stories before popular news sites), and especially for its community involvement. People discuss the story in the comment forum. The post of Michael Jackson’s death started off as a report on his illness and emergency medical personnel rushing him to the hospital. The page was slowly updated to reflect newer information. Early on, before his actual death was reported, there was a lot of joking about his lifestyle and the sexual abuse allegations prior to his death with the odd anxious worried fan chiming in. After his death was confirmed, all the comments turned to lament and intense grief. He went from a wacky pedaphile to a treasured icon in a matter of hours.
MAIN ARGUMENT: The popular response to celebrity deaths has a huge cultural and economic impact.
Boyle, C. (2009, June 30). Jackson posthumous music sales outstrip Elvis. Retrieved from Times Online - Business: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/media/article6607989.ece
Kreps, D. (2010, January 7). Swift Beats Boyle, Plus Michael Jackson, Beatles Rule 2009 Charts. Retrieved from The Rolling Stone: http://www.rollingstone.com/rockdaily/index.php/2010/01/07/swift-beats-boyle-plus-michael-jackson-beatles-rule-2009-charts/
Livejournal. (2010, January 24). OhNoTheyDidnt Community Page. Retrieved from Livejournal: http://community.livejournal.com/ohnotheydidnt/profile
Moore, M. (2009, June 28). Michael Jackson's album reaches No 1. Retrieved from The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/michael-jackson/5675169/Michael-Jacksons-album-reaches-No-1.html
Rawlinson, L., & Hunt, N. (2009, June 26). Jackson dies, almost takes internet with him. Retrieved from CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/06/26/michael.jackson.internet/index.html
Tenenbaum, S. (2008, June 9). Through the Grapevine. Retrieved from PopMatters: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/through-the-grapevine