2016 has been a wild ride. It seems like every day there’s news of yet another celebrity death. Every time I see someone who shares my age, mortality becomes just a little more real to me.
I read a list of celebrity deaths for the year – as of today, there were 91 listed on the Legacy.com list and it hadn’t yet been updated to include the passing of Carrie Fisher.
I was struck, though, by who was on the list. A lot of folks whom I’d heard of in passing or in reference, but really knew little about. There was the 1950’s television actress who portrayed Lois Lane, Noel Neill; Sonny Corleone’s wife, Julie Gregg; actor Michael Massee – whose most notable role still eludes me. A lot of people who may have been famous or celebrities at some point, but really hard to argue that they are (were) currently. More to the point, I’m pretty sure (which is my disclaimer that I have no evidence to back this up) there are more people alive today that could be considered “celebrity” or “famous” than at any other point in our history by the standards that would have Noel Neill occupying a spot on a list of “celebrities.” Consider that for a moment.
No wonder it seems like there’s a celebrity passing everyday – there’s just so damn many of them. With the proliferation of so much media, it becomes possible for everyone to have their 15-minutes of fame.
Consider Christina Grimmie, a young singer who had performed on “The Voice” and whom made a bit of a name for herself on YouTube before that. She died in a shooting attack in June. Talented to be sure, but a talent discovered through the wonders of the internet, accessible and high quality digital recording devices. It makes one wonder if everyone who has appeared on “The Voice” could be considered a “celebrity?”
For that matter, is this “celebritifiction” is the consequence of a proliferation of media channels (YouTube, SnapChat, Twitter, The Voice…) or of the media’s belief that we just can’t get enough news so we get it 24-hours a day? On our phones, televisions, everywhere. You need 24-hours of news to broadcast if you’re going to broadcast 24-hours a day, so we create it. We create celebrities because we need SOMETHING to fill 24-hours of news. TMZ is a media company based entirely on the business of creating celebrity, then reporting on celebrity.
You’d think we’d hit a saturation point with ‘celebrities’ – how many people can you possibly “know,” but yet the plate keeps getting bigger and more names keep getting piled on it.
To be sure, this year has seen bona fide celebrities pass on: Muhammad Ali, Prince, Gordie Howe, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher. It doesn’t follow, though, that every athlete or singer or actor has a presence that could be considered “celebrity.” Prince was a singer and famous and was a celebrity, so therefore Christina Grimmie is a celebrity too?
I think we need higher standards of what “celebrity” means. Anytime a 22-year old is killed it is a tragedy, and perhaps even notable, but it’s really hard for me to consider Grimmie a celebrity when George Michael – who also recently passed – had sold millions of records by the time he was 22. Just totally different stratospheres.
As I was reading through lists of names, I had to remind myself that there was a person behind each one of them. No more, no less valuable than any other. It’s just that they touch different numbers of people. It’s like the difference between local news and national news: what’s important in one localized area may not be in a larger area. The car crash along the Jamaica Way in Jamaica Plain is worthy of some note in the Boston media, but chances are Matt Lauer wouldn’t find it interesting. There’s a place for some additional attention for folks within the public eye, but it just seems we tend to overstate.
I appreciate the Wikipedia approach: “Notable” deaths as opposed to “Celebrity.” Notable is a more appropriate place to conflate a list containing Muhammad Ali, Vera Rubin, and Antonin Scalia with one containing Jacky Lee, Tobias de Boer, and Sarah Grant. Christina Grimmie more appropriately belongs with those considered “Notable” than those considered “Celebrity.”
And so it is then, we allow ourselves the somewhat guilty pleasure of deciding there’s been a rash of celebrity passings this year, by virtue of changing the definition of “celebrity.”