Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that flags in his state would be lowered to half-staff on Saturday in honor of the late singer and New Jersey native Whitney Houston. The statement has now become something of a controversy, many people asking whether or not it is appropriate to remember the pop star with a practice usually reserved for fallen soldiers and public servants.
I don't know the answer to that one. It is perfectly within Christie's power to do so, there's no question of that. Also arguing that no celebrity should have the flag lowered for them is problematic, since there was none of this kind of backlash when New Jersey's flags flew at half-staff for E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons last year. I'm more curious about a broader question: how sad should celebrity deaths make us?
Obviously, the loss of any human life is a tragic thing. I do not mean to undercut the loss felt by family and friends of celebrities that die. The rest of us, though, how do we react?
The age of social media has made casual, public mourning for late celebrities easier and more obligatory than ever. Posts eulogizing Houston were trending worldwide for several days on Twitter and continue to pour in almost a week later. Facebook sees so many “R.I.P” and “Forever in our hearts” statuses as soon as a celebrity dies, that it has learned to recognize and consolidate them. I always want to ask the people who post things of this nature, “Are you really sad, or do you just think you should appear to be sad? Will your day be any different than it would have been had this celebrity not died?”
The answer to both of those questions could very well be “yes”. It is important not to underestimate the emotional connection we can feel to one of our favorite musicians, actors, athletes, etc. But internet mourning following a celebrity death can be overwhelming, and then out in the actual world, everyone is fine. Be sad if you are sad, and tell us about it. That's okay. What gets to me is that much of it feels very disingenuous.
It's especially prevalent lately, since celebrities seem to be dying more consistently than ever. There used to be the fabled “rule of three,” stating that celebrities died in packs of three. Clearly anyone referring to that rule in the past would be only half serious at most, but now, even as a joke there is no place for it. If anything, it would have to become the rule of six or seven. Not two months in, 2012 has seen the passing of Whitney Houston, Don Cornelius, Etta James, Joe Paterno and Sarah Burke, among others.
I assume it's just logic: there are more famous people now than there ever have been, so more famous people will die now than ever have. Considering this, maybe the public at large should be praised for not becoming desensitized to the passing of a celebrity. Our large-scale and very public response to the death of Whitney Houston may have been the only appropriate one. But isn't it also possible that millions of mindless tweets, statuses and blog posts can dilute the very real sadness that comes with the passing of a pop icon?