Only a few months ago, on January 10 of this year, David Bowie died, leaving behind a wake of global grief and an outpouring of admiration for his life's work. Now Prince is dead, and world mourns the loss of another irreplaceable icon. In both life and death, these two beloved artists have reached across cultures, age groups, social strata and ethnicity with their extraordinary talent.
Perhaps one lone survivor of WWII isolated on a remote Pacific island far from modern civilization is unaware of these events, but it would seem nobody else could be due to saturation coverage by traditional news outlets and a constant barrage of tweets and posts on every conceivable social media app. And with this ubiquity I start to have misgivings.
When reporting the murder of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite started the evening newscast with the following statement: "The death of a man who sang and played the guitar overshadows the news from Poland, Iran and Washington tonight." In this statement Cronkite cleverly captures simultaneously his admiration for Lennon and the irony of how his death was being covered. He acknowledges that an entertainer who "played a guitar" could command such focused global attention only if there was something more there, his own understated tribute to Lennon's greatness. Cronkite was an early Beatles fan, at least through the eyes of his daughters, who he got into the dress rehearsal for the Beatle's appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964. Yet Cronkite here is clearly uncomfortable with the shifting balance between his personal and global admiration for Lennon and his understanding of concurrent international events that demand the world's attention. He frets about the loss of perspective.
As an aside, Cronkite's own death invoked a dose of irony involving yet another cultural icon, Michael Jackson, a juxtaposition that I can only hope Cronkite would have appreciated. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009. Cronkite had the misfortune of dying only three weeks later on July 17, 2009, after a period of failing health. Those three weeks though were but a brief moment in the long public mourning and non-stop wall-to-wall reporting about everything Michael. Consequently, coverage of Cronkite, his life, his accomplishments, were ironically overshadowed and cut short by the very type of celebrity worship that bothered him following Lennon's murder.
Cronkite had the proper sense to know that our response to celebrity death had become disproportionate to its importance after a long career of reporting on global affairs that changed the course of history. He witnessed this first nod to worldwide celebrity worship with the extraordinary mass hysteria that followed Princess Diana's fatal car crash in August 1997. Diana's car accident was one of the first major stories to break on the web, with online news just in its earliest stages of development. Mainstream media moguls struggled to catch up with a competition they did not understand, and in their efforts nearly erased the difference between tabloid and serious news. The shift to tabloid-style reporting was largely successful, and more than 33 million viewers saw Diana's funeral. A report on Diana's media coverage later concluded that "this confluence of controversies has led the American media to reexamine fundamental questions about their role, responsibilities and relationship to the American people." But the result was more tabloid sensationalism, not less. The most potent fuel to feed media-led frenzies continues to be celebrity death. The press never weaned itself from the orgy of coverage of Diana's fatal accident, and the public demand for such news only grew more voracious. Sensationalism in mainstream news begat public voyeurism, which in turn created a growing market for sensationalism in a vicious cycle of mutual degradation. This cycle of supply and demand is reminiscent of the illegal drug trade. We have drugs moving north because there is demand. The media created the market for sensationalism, like dealers hooking new users; then the users - and viewers - create more demand in a feedback loop that is mutually reinforcing. Our addiction became evident when Michael Jackson's death consumed 18 percent of all traditional news coverage in the week of his death, and 17 percent for the ensuing two weeks. Magazine revenue increased by $55 million in the two month period following Jackson's death. High-profile deaths were and still are manna from heaven for print and broadcast media in the era of internet news.
Now what we are seeing with the public response to the loss of Bowie and Prince is the inevitable consequence of this cultural shift that began pivoting to its more modern form after Jackson's death. According to a 2009 Pew poll, a sizeable majority of Americans said that news organizations gave too much coverage to the Jackson story. That disconnect may well be the last time there was a gap between majority public sentiment and saturation celebrity death news coverage. With Prince, and with Bowie, the transformation is complete. I doubt we would find such a gap now between news and expectations; hard to imagine that Millennials and Gen Y would find anything amiss about all things turning purple even if Prince is a bit old for them.
There is one odd note here. While the public gorges on the sensationalism of celebrity death with no apparent ill-ease, coverage of scandals while a celebrity is alive is a different matter. About half of all news coverage on both TV and the internet is focused on celebrity gossip. In 2007, the last year for which I can find statistics for this, 87 percent of the public believed that celebrity scandals receive too much coverage. So: too much focus on live celebs, but we can't get enough of the dead ones.
All About Us
What we witness here, but largely fail to appreciate, is that the death of a celebrity like Prince evokes a response that reveals more about us than about the deceased. Our chest beating in grief is a bit self-indulgent. Cronkite was a dinosaur from the past but one who understood this and reported accordingly, but he was probably the last one to do so.
We can use the opportunity in reflecting upon Prince and his life to examine our own sense of priority. We fashion a myth and then mourn the loss of our creation, which has little to do with the person who died. We have created a secular religion, complete with our messiahs. But in creating a demigod, we lose the real human behind the illusion. We do a disservice to the ones we mourn as well as to ourselves in exaggerating the impact of loss out of proportion to life's many other important affairs.
Prince was an iconic figure, a giant in the music industry, a true legend in his own time. His death is newsworthy, absolutely. It is a question of balance and perspective. The outpouring of public angst, candlelight vigils, somber prayer sessions and color tributes on major world monuments was just maybe too much given competing world events and in view of the sweeping saga of human history. As much as we love Prince, this was not the fall of Rome, Pearl Harbor or a moon landing. Prince entertained us, thrilled us, moved us, brought us together, changed music and how we experience it; he did not cure cancer.
Let's frame Prince's contributions and his death in the context of the real world of joys and losses that we personally experience in our own lives. Let's honor Prince by celebrating his life with respectful admiration from the sensible perspective of our rich human past rather than placing him in a false pantheon elevated by myth in place of true accomplishment. Prince's art stands on its own without embellishment and we diminish him by amplifying his influence beyond its rightful place. As we would with any high-profile death, we honor Prince's memory best with balance, and a realistic view of his important contributions unburdened by the worship of a man that never existed but in our own minds.