Life After Death: How Celebrities Linger On In Public Memory

When artists, musicians, actors and celebrities die, they leave behind something that has been imprinted in our memory: an image, a song, a film, a book, a sensation. Yet what fascinates me is how the death of a celebrity, when it is most unexpected, becomes the center of our universe. Take Michael Jackson’s death, for instance-here a ruined musician who went from being completely loathed by society in life to becoming a beloved icon adored by all in death. Let’s be honest-the reaction to and coverage of Michael Jackson’s death was one of the most sickening occurrences of this decade. Never before had we seen the power and frightening reality of the media-obsessed culture we currently live in.

But what happens to a musician, who was largely unheard of in the United States, who died under bizarre and horrifically tragic circumstances, and who was just beginning her career? How will she remembered by the media?

Taylor Mitchell was a Canadian folk singer who I bet practically no one on this campus had heard of until her death. I didn’t either until I read a headline that I believed was a joke: “Taylor Mitchell, singer, killed by coyotes.” Mitchell was hiking in a Canadian national park when she was attacked and killed on Oct. 27. Had Mitchell just been an average person, her death surely would have been reported on; it is only the second human-killed by coyote case in North America.

Taylor Mitchell

Her death is most striking because Mitchell was only 19. Now her life, and brief career, will have a new, far more significant meaning. She will, undoubtedly, in death have a greater influence than she ever did in life.

Like most people, I sought out her music on her MySpace page. What I found were seven promising tracks of a singer, who had she had been given the time, certainly would have made a mark in the US. Songs such as “Don’t Know how I got here,” “For Your Consideration” and “Fun While It Lasted” not only speak her talent but, when heard in the context of her death, they have a chilling and eerie foreshadowing effect.

What has occurred following her death are remembrance posts on MySpace, tribute videos on YouTube, trending topics on Twitter, memorial groups on Facebook-which are all very banal and very impersonal. They focus on the way she died, not necessarily on her life. Even more disturbing is how these tribute videos, for instance, often include images of coyotes spliced together with images of Mitchell. We, as a collective society, trivialize celebrity deaths for the sake of entertainment. Should we expect anything less when we are given so many outlets to make light of the phenomenon of celebrity?

How we address the deaths of celebrities shows how we are unable to deal with the reality of death, something that is so final and conclusive. We can easily trivialize the death of someone like Michael Jackson because we know too much about his life. But what happens to someone like Mitchell and her legacy-of what little there is-is a clinging to the idea that there is life, through memory and in her case music, after death. Taylor Mitchell’s life will most likely be that of something similar to James Dean. She is someone who did so little in life, but left us with just enough to immortalize her in a way that assures us of the longevity of being.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
November 5, 2009
Reprinted with permission


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