The death of Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher, hard on the heels of musical maestro George Michael and a host of much-loved celebrities from Bowie to Cohen, has promoted international mourning on a scale supposed by many to be almost unprecedented. JULIAN COLE examines the truth about 2016, a year of celebrity annus horribilis
GEORGE Michael’s music didn’t fill my life but it did fill much of Boxing Day. We were out for the day and my wife’s sister was streaming his music non-stop in tribute.
Earlier this year, after David Bowie died, I wrote a feature for Mensa Magazine which wondered why we grieve those we only knew through the window of celebrity. Much of what was written then also applies now
George Michael died peacefully in bed on Christmas morning, or so it has been reported. As no one else was present, it is impossible to know his state of mind but dying in bed, possibly in sleep, is a peaceful way to go. A good exit if you have lived a long life; less so if you are only 53, as George was.
The passing of Carrie Fisher memorialises an actress with whom recent generations have grown up over four decades of Star Wars; fans of Bowie were distraught for many possible reasons, but one plausible explanation was that they identified strongly with the singer from their own pasts. His outstanding music defined not one era but many, as did his chameleon-like appearance and shifting celebrity image. He was also blessed with a long career, and that longevity added to the sense of loss.
With Bowie, there were a lot of touch-points; lots of different David Bowies to relate to and to mourn. George Michael was less varied perhaps, but hardly much less of a cultural icon, especially to those who grew up in the 1980s (I’d grown up by then more or less and was aware of Michael without being a fan). Listening to him yesterday, singing out the day, it was possible to be struck by two things: he sang a variety of songs and he had a tremendous voice.
His early Wham! Days with Andrew Ridgeley introduced him as a perfectly formed pop star, and his solo work confirmed him as a mature musical talent. He lived his personal life both in secret by initially denying his sexuality, and in public as his frequent disintegrations were recorded by the newspapers.
There is something distasteful about the way some tabloids harassed George Michael in life and hymn him in death. They gloried in his unravelling and gather to mark his passing with solemnity.
Is that hypocrisy or just an acknowledgement of the different sides of a man who was brilliant at what he did, and yet troubled in himself? Probably a bit of both, but the gleefulness at George Michael’s low times was distasteful.
Interestingly, many stories emerged yesterday of how kind George Michael could be, generous to charities and occasionally to strangers, too, once tipping a student nurse £5,000 because she was struggling with debts.
Mourning George Michael seems natural if you were a fan, and he must have had many as he sold 100m albums in total, clearing 25m of his first solo album, Faith. It also seems natural from a human sense, as so much of his life was lived in the public eye, and because his search for happiness and truthfulness mirrors that of everyone else, only conducted more publicly.
In that article for Mensa, I looked back to other famous deaths and the public grief they stirred. Diana was the obvious one, although it would be wrong to suggest that the hysteria began after her death in 1997.
When Charles Dickens died in June 1870, a three-day-long procession of mourners filed past the great writer’s coffin at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Over in America, following silent screen heart-throb Rudolph Valentino’s death from acute peritonitis at the age of 31 in 1926, 80,000 people attended the funeral, which generated mass hysteria; dozens of women are thought to have committed suicide in the emotional aftermath, according to the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying.
Then there is Elvis, whose funeral service at Graceland in August 1977 saw 150 police officers and National Guardsman keeping back a 50,000-strong, weeping mob, while 16 white limousines accompanied the coffin to a local cemetery.
Nowadays, some miserable soul or other usually complains that there has been too much fuss over the death of a celebrity. I don’t mind the level of coverage: why shouldn’t we honour cultural figures alongside, or above, others who shuffle through the public sphere, such as politicians?
Cultural figures pinpoint emotions, make us feel or think; or, like George Michael, write sweet soulful pop songs that mean something to people. It would be nice to think that he’d led a happier life, but perhaps he was as happy as he could be; perhaps his talents made him and broke him.
It’s complicated. But mourning George Michael seems natural enough to me.