I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Why are we (the collective “we”) so moved by and intertwined with celebrity deaths? Celebs are mortal just like the rest of us, so it is inevitable that they will die someday, but when they do, they have more mourners than the rest of us. This is especially so when they die tragically or die young, which often coincide.
When someone dies at age 98 in their bed surrounded by family, we say it’s a good death because they lived a long life. Many people die much younger than that. Tragically young. What’s the cutoff age? Is it 40? 50? 60? What about 70? I don’t have the answers. My dads died at 32 and 55—too young in my opinion. My maternal grandparents died at 56 and 60, ages I now see as young, but at the time since I was a young child, I saw them as old.
The first celebrity death I remember being aware of was that of actor/singer River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose on Halloween night, 1993. He was only 23 years old and quite famous. I had seen him in several movies such as Stand By Me and Running on Empty. He was talented, and I remember being so sad when I found out he had died, especially because of the way he died. Anti-drug messages at school started using him as an example of what drug abuse could do.
Next was the suicide of musician Kurt Cobain, who was the lead singer/songwriter of Nirvana. He was found on April 8, 1994. I was 12 at the time, almost 13, and had just discovered his music. I remember watching the aftermath on MTV. Fans gathered outside his home in Seattle to mourn and pay their respects. It was tragic because of the type of death, the fact that he was so young (27) and the amount of influence he had on the grunge music scene of the early 90s—the music that still speaks to me today. I don’t think he ever intended to be as famous as he was. For him, I think it was all about the music—his chosen expression for his talents.
There were times when the celebrity (or almost-celebrity) deaths made me aware of the talent that was cut off way too soon. Singers Selena Quintanilla-Pérez and Christina Grimmie were murdered. Selena was 23 when she was shot on March 31, 1995. Christina was shot after a concert on June 10, 2016, at age 22. Both women would have contributed so much more music had they not died senselessly. You can check out their music on Spotify or Youtube.
Tragic deaths are not limited to my frame of reference. Several celebrities and musicians have died due to accidents, murders, suicides and drugs. Buddy Holly, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, John Lennon just to name a few. I think we can all agree that each of these people was too young to die.
Now, when celebrities die, especially musicians, there is instant coverage on social media and television stations. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is mourning together. Such was the case with Chris Cornell. He was one of the grunge gods of the early 90s, along with Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland, and Eddie Vedder. Cornell, at age 52, had aged out of the tragically young category. Now, Vedder is the last man standing.
Right now, the official cause of death for Cornell is suicide. Just like Cobain. Staley and Weiland died from drugs. Now, new reports are coming out that Cornell had odd combinations of prescription drugs in his system. Regardless of how he died, it’s a tragedy. He, like the others, could have contributed so much more to music. Like “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart,” which is my favorite song of his.
When I found out Cornell had died on May 18, my first thought was “Damn it!” I thought that he, along with Eddie Vedder, would be the ones who would survive the fame and would die from natural causes as old men.
So, the point is, celebrities are people too. They have hopes and dreams, loves and fears, and their bodies and spirits are just as fragile as the rest of ours. They just have to experience all the heartache that life has to offer under the public microscope. Imagine if every time you messed up, there was a photographer nearby, and the whole world could know your business instantly. I think it can make dealing with depression and anxiety harder. The musicians who took their own lives or died because of drugs, I think were suffering from depression and/or anxiety. They were not immune to it just because they had fame, success, and money.
All in all, depression is a scary epidemic. It can affect anyone, and no one case is necessarily the same as another. A lot of people can’t talk about their own pain, so they look to others for understanding. That’s where the artists come in—the songwriters, the poets, the visual artists. The select few who have the right combination of talent, presence and sheer luck to be well-known. I can’t count how many times I have read something, seen something or heard something that put what I was feeling into perspective.
That’s what I hope my poetry can do. I wrote the following lines as part of my poem, “A Walk In The Rain.”
Trapped within the rose-printed wallpaper,
She stood in silent perfection
In thorns that drew no blood.
I know what those words meant to me when I wrote them. What they mean to others is up for interpretation and discussion.
I identify with musicians who are songwriters more than any other celebrities. (Because, seriously, more of them get famous than writers.) They’re artists: writers who share their thoughts in the form of poetry that becomes a song. Being in someone’s thoughts like that mimics the kind of intimacy you develop with your friends. It’s why we hurt with them when one of them is in pain. Why we celebrate when one of them experiences success and why we mourn when one of them dies. Because they’re most human to us during those times.
-Brandi Easterling Collins