From today’s Daily Telegraph comes this pertinent (and spot on) comment from Angela Epstein. It applies not only to the latest outpourings for a dead star, but to all the others.
One that stands out for me, was the instant reaction from one FB poster: “My God, I never saw that coming.” Well, why should they when they were neither an intimate of the man nor possessing any inside knowledge of his lifestyle or his health?
Angela Epstein writes:
“I’m writing this in the sun-blushed courtyard of the Casa Delfino hotel in Crete a 17th Century Venetian mansion nestling in the old harbour town of Chania. It’s a soothing place to remember the amazing talent of George Michael and to recall how his songs bookmarked so many key moments in my own life.
In 1985, wilting like a wall flower from the margins of a student disco, I watched a boyish Oxford undergraduate boogie with another woman as I’m Your Man throbbed from the speakers. (Don’t fret, reader, I married him).
With such a vast and varied songbook, millions around the world will also remember their own special moments of George Michael’s music.
A dazzling talent with a keen ear for melody, his music spanned generations. It was also original, the sort of originality that should make Coldplay and the like hang their heads in shame for their banality.
Yet, tune into social media – the post-millennial default reaction for everyone from bored pre-pubescents to curious silver surfers – and you’ll discover a different way of marking Michael’s death.
A few people writing on Facebook and Twitter about it had a personal connection to him. His partner in Wham!, Andrew Ridgeley, used Twitter to offer a lovely eulogy to his “beloved friend.” But alongside the genuine tributes of those few who knew him well, most of followed news of his death was a lot of people taking his death as just another part of the annus horribilis narrative, the story told online of 2016 as a uniquely miserable 12 months.
Among those who died this year were David Bowie, Prince, Rick Parfitt, and Terry Wogan – men who, each in his own way, brought an infusion of joy, colour and imagination to the mundanity of ordinary life.
Sad losses all, but there’s something a little unsavoury about bundling them all up together into the “worst-year-ever” narrative, a sort of collective hysteria that undermines and somehow renders ignoble the process of mourning.
The shared nature of the internet virtually encourages us to indulge in public grieving: you must keep up, must show how bad you feel about the news, whether it’s slaughter in Syria or a singer gone too soon.
The online echo-chamber has the power to exaggerate sadness for dead celebrities. Such stars may well have offered salvation or succour during dark moments – there was nothing like Wogan’s gentle nattering to ease the work-weary into a bleak Monday morning. But we didn’t know these people beyond their voice, their music or their two-dimensional flicker on a screen. We may feel a pulse of sadness at their loss, but unlike their family and friends, we’ll carry on with our own lives without any real personal loss at their passing.
Meanwhile everywhere there are ordinary people who – there but for the grace – have endured their own bereavements in 2016. Those losses are no less painful or worthy of remembrance. We don’t seize on such losses as reason for public displays of grief or to promote conspiratorial notions that there’s something unusual or cursed about the current year. We treat each death as an individual loss, not seize it as part of some story we like to tell ourselves and each other.
There’s also a political tinge to some versions of that story: many of those who so loudly mourn 2016’s toll of famous names also cite Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in their tale of a year when world went wrong. Bracketing celebrity death with democratic votes strikes me as being in questionable taste at best.
Like many people, I feel deeply sad for the passing of George Michael. But that’s not because “we’ll never see a talent like his again” – another Twitter favourite. It’s because he was only 53 – too young for a man to die. Any man. Each human life is precious, whether it’s spent toiling in a factory or storming up the charts.
The internet allows us all to make our voices heard as never before, but instead of using the deaths of the famous to support our arguments about the wider world, better to remember that people are people. And that the talented, compassionate, complex singer, writer and star who born Georgics Kyriacos Panayiotou was a man too. Just like the Cretans walking in the harbour today.”
Amen to that. 2016 was probably no worse than any other of recent memory. People live, people die. It is the treadmill we all inhabit, celebrity and nonentity alike.