“I’m Literally Sobbing”- On Pop Culture and Grief

Edited by Ananya Khandelwal 

 

               “At least, no one died, right?”, says my best friends, as he rubs my back soothingly. I am fourteen and crying; it is the night before my math final and Modest! Management has just put out a statement about Zayn Malik leaving One Direction. I was distraught- and it wasn’t just me. CNN published a guide for parents of devastated One Direction fans on how to deal with their children’s pain. Fandom twitter was in mourning- and this outpouring of sadness and confusion created a strange kind of solidarity. 

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     When famous people do die, the public mourns. The first time I remember seeing the world affected strongly by a celebrity death was 2009. Michael Jackson had died of cardiac arrest, days before his highly anticipated tour was scheduled to begin. That’s when I got my first Michael Jackson album, my parents and I were sitting in the living room, listening to his greatest hits. Jackson’s death was sensationalised and monetised by reputed news sources and tabloid magazines alike. Websites collapsed due to the traffic that Jackson’s death caused. Fans all over the world set up memorial services and laid flowers at his former home and his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

 

     In 2017, Chester Bennington, the frontman of Linkin Park died by suicide two months after Chris Cornell died in the same way- I’ve lost count of the number of tribute posts I saw after that dayh. Sridevi died and over seven thousand people were a part of her funeral procession. On a far smaller scale, the bulldog from Queer Eye died last week, and for no apparent reason, I teared up. 

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     In thinking only of the rational facts, the outpouring of grief over celebrity deaths seems ridiculous and unprecedented. A stranger died, far away, in a tragic and upsetting way. This person will never know your name. Your grief is for someone who will never know your name. So, objectively this should not have any bearing on your life- it should not be real or  important to you. But of course, nothing about pop culture can be objective- it’s what shapes us. 

 

     In the age of the internet, we’ve all read enough Buzzfeed listicles to be able to recall inane details like Taylor Swift’s favourite pastel nail polish. The inflow of tweets, pictures and posts on our timelines is rapid and inescapable. What features like these do is make celebrities seem more real, accessible and relatable. Thus, we become emotionally invested in their personal and professional lives.

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     Pop culture is more significant and more influential than anyone gives it credit for. It is not an isolated, individual thing- it’s your father’s favourite band that you grew up listening to, it’s the show you watch with your mother after dinner, it’s the song your best friends and you are the happiest dancing to. It’s the reason that people tattoo song lyrics on their bodies, and the reason gifting someone your favourite book is special. It’s why you cry listening to Taylor Swift after you’ve been dumped. We imbue pop culture with emotion, assign memory and structure to it, and make it a part of the framework within which we live. It’s what we use to make sense of things in our lives. So maybe it’s true that no one really died, but as the aforementioned CNN article writes on the public grief over celebrities- “... it is real, and incredibly painful”- and there is definitely a real loss to grapple with.