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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Freud and the Death of Celebrity

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Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Walter Cronkite. The sheer volume of news dedicated to the deaths of these celebrities would sink the titanic easily. Oh right, the newspaper is dead; everyone gets their news in the immaterial world of the interweb. My laptop weighs like eight pounds. After carrying it around on my back for a year, I stopped because I was getting neck and back pains. Not so immaterial after all, eh? More to the point, what does this recent obsession with not just celebrity, but recently dead celebrity say about our hyper-mediated culture?

Michael Jackson’s death overloaded the internet, stretching its gargantuan bandwidth to the limit. Last week, 5 of the top 5, and 7 of the top 10 selling albums in Toronto were by Michael Jackson. The day he died, at least that many of twitter’s famous trending topics were dedicated to the man, the myth, the legend. The resurgent popularity of Michael Jackson pedophilia jokes aside, the outpouring of grief and love for one of the people who helped shatter the race barrier in popular music was astounding and nigh-impossible to avoid or ignore. I refuse to dispute his importance, or his talent.

Freud might say in one of his casual moments that celebrities are the externalized ideal egos of the masses. We project what we want for ourselves onto these porcelain deities to remind ourselves that our dreams our possible, achievable. Like latter-day Pygmalions, we animate celebrities with our own hopes, fears, anxieties, and desires. After this magic spell is cast, we mimic their style, hoping for a piece of their fame and glamour in our own comparatively drab lives, as the popularity of Farrah Fawcett’s Charlie’s Angels hairdo attests to. When they slip, we revel in their misfortune out of spite, envy, and ultimately because it is not us falling so dramatically. If they recover, we are reminded of the strength of the human spirit, and vicariously it gives us strength for our own personal struggles.

Yet they are not uniformly ideal egos, as the widespread derision of Michael Jackson before he died attests to, excepting of course his hordes of loyal fans. Alas, some of his fans participated in the derision as well. Or consider Brittney Spears, a perfect negative role model; we can comfort ourselves with our paltry little lives because of the deforming effects of celebrity that seem so apparent after tales of her doomed relationship with K-fed and the subsequent custody brouhaha, or after tales of Gary Coleman’s meteoric descent from household imago to security guard. Ideal egos and scapegoats for our own underachievement, perhaps?

The obsession with their deaths can range from cashing in (note the rogue venders hawking Jackson T-shirts in the streets), the will-to-immortalize our ideal egos, or another occasion to celebrate, simple and plain. However, the pre-emption of living celebrities by the dead recently, the eclipse of the vital by the moribund, suggests something a little more sinister. In the death of our ideal ego, do we perhaps recognize a piece of ourselves dying? Michael Jackson died before his comeback; before he died he tried auctioning off some of his belongings to raise money for debts in Las Vegas. The bids for his gloves remained low: $100-$500. Farrah Fawcett died after a excruciating bout of cancer; no comeback lurked around the corner for her. But we still have episodes of Charlie’s Angels on retro tv stations and the Thriller LP continues to pump out Jackson’s sublime falsetto punctuations in clubs and homes. But we have invested these porcelain deities with our displaced humanity, and gone they are. Is this a wake-up call, an invocation of carpe diem, or rather the pathological avoidance of our own mortality through the ongoing immortalization of our ideal egos? Or perhaps it is the death drive usurping the pleasure principle in and through the commodification of celebrity itself, disarticulated from the living and breathing beings that produce it.