Bye-bye in 2009 Celebrity Deaths and Why We Care


This week I’ve seen several lists of celebrities who died in 2009. There have been some tribute segments on TV shows. All this has made me think about who I’ll miss and why I care at all. I guess when a celebrity dies it’s like losing a little slice of Americana. It is not that a celebrity death is more important, only that it has the potential to impact a lot of people at one time. Our shared enjoyment of entertainment provided by these people connects us to one another and creates cultural common ground.

The 10 celebs that died in 2009 who made my world sweeter:

  1. John Hughes directed some of my favorite flicks. I wish he hadn’t stopped making movies.
  2. Michael Jackson sang some great songs that still keep me dancing.
  3. Dom DeLuise made me laugh for as long as I can remember. His Caesar in History of the World Part I was hilarious.
  4. Brittany Murphy entertained me daily in King of the Hill. I’m going to miss the show as well as the lady. I really loved her in Clueless, too.
  5. Les Paul impacted the music I listen to in so many ways.
  6. David Carradine: Kung Fu, enough said.
  7. Larry Gelbart wrote brilliant scripts for M*A*S*H which was my favorite TV show in the 70’s.
  8. Paul Harvey made me think about a lot of stuff that I probably would have ignored if he hadn’t been on the radio.
  9. Farrah Fawcett inspired my hairstyle when I was 16.
  10. Patrick Swayze made me cry in Ghost (and I don’t cry at many movies).

For some reason all this makes me think about the song, American Pie. Writer, Don McLean said, “You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me… sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.” Now, I am not going to try and interpret American Pie, but I think it’s an example of how one person can be profoundly affected by the death of another even without knowing that person. American Pie demonstrates how powerfully connected we can feel to celebrities.
The song chronicles the deaths of important public figures starting with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper who died in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959. Don McLean, who wrote American Pie, was a 14-year-old news carrier at the time. Two years later his father died. The next year JFK was assassinated, followed by Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Other deaths that may be referenced in the song include the Kent State protesters at the hands of law enforcement, the Charles Manson murders, Vietnam, the death of a fan at the Rolling Stones Altamont California concert, Janis Joplin, and James Dean.

Beyond a commentary on the directions music and society were taking, McLean’s lyrics seem to also describe the impact that deaths had on him personally. A well known section of John Donne’s meditation XVII says “No Man is an Island” and goes on to say that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” Perhaps McLean experienced that diminishment in the death of Buddy Holly, and heard the bell tolling for the next ten years.

McLean writes that “Satan laughed with delight the day the music died.” Disillusionment, disconnection, and disorientation can leave us feeling distant from God and separated from other people. For whatever reason when we lose high profile people we feel a common sense of loss. Those of us who are old enough remember exactly what we were doing when we found out about the deaths of JFK or John Lennon. Many of us miss the talents of people like John Candy, Kurt Cobain, John Belushi or Heath Ledger and wonder what they might have done had they lived longer. While we move on and enjoy the performances of others, we can never recapture the way each individual made us feel when he was using his talents to the fullest. Perhaps these end-of-year tributes are recognition that every single person is truly irreplaceable and that even those who seem larger than life are mortal.

In the shadow of our precious and fragile existence we count our losses. Our personal losses are felt more keenly but the circle that feels that loss is often so small. Perhaps the passing of the famous is a way that we are linked in our common state of loss. Celebrity deaths are grim reminders that all our lives are temporary and unpredictable.

When someone’s death affects our hope and diminishes the music in our spirits, evil is indeed served. Satan laughs with delight. Death is his currency.  Ironically one famous death had an opposite effect. It enlarges rather than diminishes. It brings hope rather than despair. It brings music, light, and life rather than loss. And it was followed by a resurrection.

Celebrity Deaths Had Heavy Impact in 2009

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