if i should mourn, i would only be in your way

One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.
-Oscar Wilde

So, Whitney Houston died. At “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” a fairly popular academic blog, Robert Farley posted this sour little non-obituary, which attracted a fair amount of negative attention. My friend SEK responded by posting this, which some of you may recognize as a quote from Bret Easton Ellis’s book American Psycho. (It’s also quoted pretty much word-for-word in the movie.)

I’m not going to try to defend Farley’s post, which I found irritating and disingenuous. I say “disingenuous” because the post was obviously commenter bait; nothing is as dependable as being topical, even if you have nothing to say. It’s not like we really need Farley to tell us about a publication called “The Village Voice.”

The situation with SEK’s post, however, is more complex. I’m certainly not going to call it a great post, mainly because it’s just a long quotation, as opposed to something SEK wrote himself. There’s a reason I post quotations to Tumblr, rather than WordPress. But I think the absurd intensity of the reactions to his post speaks to several recurrent modern headaches. It would be tempting to narrow that down to “problems with blogging” or “problems with the blogosphere” (including commenters), but what happens in the blogosphere is just one symptom of a larger malady.

Most celebrity deaths are not emotional events for me. I cared a lot more about Amy Winehouse’s death than I do about Whitney Houston’s death, for two simple reasons. I like a lot of Amy Winehouse’s songs; I like exactly one Whitney Houston song (“I Will Always Love You”). I thought Winehouse was maybe going to produce a lot more good music; Whitney’s career seemed over. While it may seem callous to calibrate my level of mourning according to what is, or isn’t, in my iTunes library, I would argue that when it comes to celebrities, there’s no other reasonable standard. That’s what it means to make your living as an entertainer.

Nonetheless, like everyone else, I was deluged with blips on my social networks, expressing deep grief over Whitney’s passing. Most of this grief, if not in fact phony, was at least greatly exaggerated. Like so many other things that people do in relation to popular culture, it was a weird, projective emotional performance, designed to convince oneself and others that one has the right emotions in the right amounts. It was annoying that people gave Tony Bennett props for responding to Whitney’s death by speaking out about drug legalization…other celebrities have been saying the same things for years. (It was doubly annoying since he said really obnoxious things about Winehouse “sinning against her talent” by abusing alcohol and drugs.) As with any news story like this, it was hard not to wonder where all this sympathy is when somebody who isn’t famous dies of drug abuse.

It’s significant that SEK was quoting American Psycho; the narrator, Patrick Bateman, is a serial killer who has extremely emotional reactions to sentimental music precisely because he is emotionally paralyzed in real life. Although there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between fake emotions and real emotionlessness, it is nonetheless a legitimate problem. Oscar Wilde obviously cared a great deal about the deaths of literary characters, including that of his own creation Dorian Gray; that wasn’t his point. His point was that one could weep profusely over the death of Little Nell without lifting a finger to help real children like her.

Sure, some people who really loved and comprehended Whitney’s career will write amazing tributes to her, just as John Jeremiah Sullivan was able to write an amazing tribute to Michael Jackson. Still, here are my Five Rules About Celebrity Deaths:

1. A blogger is not capable of being “disrespectful” to a dead famous person. That person’s friends and family do not care.

2. In most cases, famous people who die young will still have managed to have more of “a life” than 99.99% of people who die old.

3. Many people who are publicly sad about a celebrity death had not thought about that celebrity once in the previous twelve months.

4. Some of the things that lead to celebrity deaths are, in fact, not relevant to the lives of ordinary folks (e.g. Michael Jackson’s personal drug doctor).

5. Public mourning is affected by ridiculous, irrelevant factors. For example, the bad economy increased mourning for Steve Jobs. People are more grieved by Whitney Houston’s death than they were by Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s death because her songs were more radio-friendly and sentimental.

In my recent post “Calmedy Central,” I responded to Pico Iyer’s simpering article “The Joy of Quiet” thus:

I realize that a lot of legitimate objections have been made about irony in pop culture; it has its problems and limits, for sure. But anyone who is trying to live deliberately in 2012 is bombarded with all kinds of well-meaning advice, all kinds of criss-crossing, incompatible values. Irony is one way of clearing the space one needs in order to thrive — and clearing it where it counts, in the virtual world of our thoughts.

I consider it entirely fair for SEK to post from American Psycho simply in order to clear the way for subjects that are more important than Whitney Houston’s death. With all due respect to her loved ones and fans, there are a lot of those.

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