Oh, don’t get me wrong. We have suffered a grievous loss. Whitney Houston was, at least at her height, the most talented female vocalist in pop music. Agreed? And as such, we at Evil Beet Gossip are going to cover the ish out of her death. That’s what we do here.
But let’s get meta. There’s another reason we’re going to cover the ish out of Houston’s death, and it isn’t pretty: there isn’t anything else to talk about. Seriously. Yesterday, for instance? I was at wit’s end. I was torturing myself trying to find one dumb thing unrelated to the persistent, perpetual, ongoing Whitney Houston death reel.
And if you read the Internet or watch the news, chances are you can’t escape the Whitney Houston death reel either.
The 24-hour-news networks have always treated the tragic, sudden death of a wildly famous celebrity like they do a bomb threat or other fresh crime.
They sweep any other news off of their desks in order to unrelentingly focus on the barest information, constantly running the small amount of news footage they have (usually of police tape at the scene and police or medics milling about), vamp with cautious speculation (along with constant warnings against the dangers of speculation), and have experts weigh in on a situation that they know nothing specifically about. (In a bomb threat, it’s a security expert. In a celebrity death, it’s Dr. Drew.)
The main difference is that with a celebrity death, the news producers can augment coverage with old red-carpet footage and clips of old performances—be they musical or acting—to underline just what we’ve lost and the highs from which this dead star plummeted.
Ten years ago, this predictable game plan was irritating, yes, yet somewhat reassuring: It created the illusion of a virtual community.
Ah! How interesting! We bond over death, if only because we feel momentarily united in our sense of collective loss. It’s a total tribe thing. Zoller Seitz goes on to assert,
TV news seems to be gauging the tone of its response by reading Twitter feeds: They estimate the size of the outpouring of grief, multiply their own response by ten, but divide the sincerity by twenty. What remains is of almost zero value to viewers.
At least when they have little to say about a bomb threat but say it over and over again, viewers still remain transfixed because they are waiting for the moment that they will be told they are safe. But when a beloved star dies, there is no safety, only sadness and fascination.
Zoller Seitz is right to acknowledge that much of the media’s hair-tearing is artificial. After all, the media is really only giving its listening audience what it thinks we want.
Lucas Kavner’s recent Huffington Post column, “Between Viral Videos and Posts About Breakfast, We Mourn In a Modern Way,” makes a similar indictment:
“What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?” [writer Zadie Smith] asks.
It’s an interesting question, wondering if our online emotions over someone’s death can accurately reflect the way we’re feeling inside. As Houston’s family and close friends mourn, do our “RIP Whitney” posts mean something, sandwiched between posts about cereal and recaps of “The Bachelor,” especially after we’ve been experiencing, over many consecutive years, her slow-motion fall from grace?
And then there is this paragraph.
So what makes us post about her death online with such a sudden outpouring of energy and swiftness? Is it because, when something of major significance occurs we want all our friends to know we read the news—that we’ve seen it too and we’re processing it? Or are our real selves actually mourning?
I am not stressing this last thought because I’m heartless—of course we are correct to perhaps feel a deep sense of loss at Whitney Houston’s passing. I do, too.
But coupled with that grief is a really weird sense of “togetherness,” a communal sense of magnitude. Does that feeling of “togetherness” make our collective grief somehow less sincere?
And when some of us turn the channel to CNN and catch ourselves sighing at the relentlessness of Whitney Houston death coverage, we’re really only sighing at the media’s disingenuousness, at some sort of cash-grab maneuver.
No, I don’t know, either. Whatever. But Zoller Seitz complains—incisively, I think—that CNN’s Piers Morgan is almost “elbowing his way into a virtual wake.” That’s really astute.