As summer finally gives way to fall, the blistering season will forever be known for its rash of celebrity deaths. As if the hyped media blitz or never-ending Twitter updates weren’t enough to keep you in the know, let’s recap shall we?
In the past few months, actress Farrah Fawcett and actor Patrick Swayze both lost their fights with cancer, talk show personality and TV host Ed McMahon died as a result of ongoing health problems, and before he could make it to rehab, celebrity disc jockey DJ AM died of a drug overdose.
Similarly, King of the Infomercial, “OxiClean” pitchman Billy Mays died of heart disease and, for those of you without television sets, Internet access or sentience, King of Pop Michael Jackson “jamon”ed his last. Producing just one made-for-TV movie and a series of failed modeling campaigns, Lindsay Lohan’s career also took its fatal plunge this year.
But rather than mourn Hollywood’s losses, or in some cases celebrate the deceased’s accomplishments, many saw it as the perfect time to capitalize on people’s pain to do what Americans unfailingly attempt to do: make money.
Cue the souvenir T-shirts and collectible CDs for this once-in-a-lifetime event: death.
With impeding deaths being fiercely covered by mainstream media outlets, exploitation and glorification rose to new heights. Instead of a moment of silence, the media had itself a heyday — a noisy one too.
Weeks into Fawcett’s cancer fight, tabloids produced pictures of the bald actress, facing chemotherapy and in ailing condition. Online gossip rags offered ridiculous amounts to sway hospital staff to leak confidential medical records. In family members’ periods of grief, paparazzi maneuvered illegally to get personal reactions and interviews.
Note to TMZ: Sending paparazzi to private memorial services is not OK. Though the public’s demand for information needed answering, websites like TMZ must always remember to act within limits. Normal, everyday actions are known to make headlines (e.g. Shiloh Jolie-Pitt losing a front tooth or Britney Spears going to Ralph’s), but a celebrity’s death must be uniquely handled with appropriate discretion, respect and privacy.
Still, the media’s lack of sensitivity over the warm months would not have been so clear if the deaths had not hit Hollywood by the dozens. Each death intensified the debate as to whether the media was moving further out of line.
Madonna actually pointed the finger at the inquiring public for overexposure of Jackson’s death, saying that prior to the legend’s cardiac arrest, many of his fans had already abandoned him because of negative stories in the press. Personal remorse became a stimulus in the growing curiosity surrounding the deceased pop star.
Like Madonna, music newcomer Lady Gaga also commented on death, this time through her MTV Video Music Award performance of her single “Paparazzi,” an ironic, elegiac song that describes her obsession with fame. During the performance, Gaga was portrayed as being shot on the stage, with the help of fake, projectile blood. She was then reincarnated in a simulated chapel. Her theatrics had a point: Like a bad car accident, death forces us to rubberneck and not turn away.
Suddenly, the tables are turned and angry criticism is directed at the other side: the usually innocent public. Celebrities will obviously sign up to invest their full lives to the public (or as long we want them), but in the afterlife the general public should know when to step off.
Even in Hollywood, a place full of action and alive with excitement, death should not be taken lightly.
Christopher Agutos is a junior majoring in public relations. His column, “Pop Life,” runs Tuesdays.