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Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and Celebrity Death Culture


With the internet abuzz this week trying to get the first/latest/best look at Michael Jackson‘s body, Farah Fawcett‘s funeral, and Mr. Jackson’s financial papers, it may finally be time to talk about celebrity death culture here at the Interdependence Project weblog.

What exactly is celebrity death culture? It is a culture that honors and supports a media system and private conversation about matters that do not concern us, masquerading as curiosity, free speech rights, and a “free press”.  You may notice that my definition could be broadly applied to forms of entertainment besides the death of Jackson, Fawcett, and other humans like them – non-fiction television (aka reality shows) certainly fit the bill. But so does an awful lot of “news”.


In our Hardcore Dharma class, we’ve talked about the precepts surrounding right speech, and the issue has been brought up “when does news become gossip or “idle chatter”?” I.e. when do we cross the line from being informed to being distracted, using news and information as a way to tune out from the present moment.

I am throwing the prayer flag of dis-attention and saying that right now, as a culture we are using the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson to distract us from present moment awareness. Duh. But why?

Is it that by talking endlessly about these stars, their sickness, their finances, their legacies, we somehow hope to forget about our own mortality for a moment? Over 140,000 other people died the same day as Michael and Farrah, yet very few of them made the news.  Does our obsession with celebrity death speak to a false sense of connection we make to these people? Not that we are not connected to people who achieve fame – they are part of the same web of interdependence that we are all stuck in – but our connection to them is no greater than (or discrete than) our connection to the other 140,000 who died on June 25th 2009. 


Someone who made a part of your mobile phone may have died on June 25th. Someone whose life was touched by a student whose life you changed may have died on June 25th.  Someone you spent a weekend with in Paris on a college vacation, then lost touch with, may have died June 25th. Someone you know even more directly may have died that day.

I believe that our obsession with celebrity death culture speaks directly to the Buddhist concept of shunyata, or emptiness.  Celebrity does not exist; it is a concept created from the void by the attention of media, corporate entertainment conglomerates, and people eager to project their own fantasies and failures onto an-other. It is a profit making egomachine that milks us of our dissatisfaction and then feeds it back to us in concentraed sticky-syrupy form.  Deepak Chopra’s lovely tribute to Michael is the only thing I’ve read that begins to get at the fact that a loving, living, breathing human being named Michael Jackson passed away suddenly on June 25th 2009.


We see these celebrities as having perfect lives that we’ll never have; or we see them as having imperfect lives and thank god we are “normal”.  All of this misses the point that we have absolutely no idea what it is like to be another human being. We don’t know what their life feels like, or what they really do 24/7; celebrity or not, all we know is that we all suffer and deserve compassion.  With celebrities in particular, our projections that create “celebrity” totally obscure the massive pillar of interdependence that it takes to create a “celebrity” – the film and music projects, the stylists, the media, the relationships. We believe that what we see is “real”, but we are the only one seeing exactly what we see – because what we see does not exist and our perception of it is totally based on what  we need to project.  Shunyata refers to the fact that things only have identity in relation to each other, and I can think of no more apt description of celebrity death culture than that.


In my line of work I frequently deal with those media conglomerates, publicists, and celebrities that are responsible for creating celebrity; I try to swim these waters mindfully but it is not always so easy. I was thinking about writing this piece yesterday while I was waiting to meet a “famous person” who is a friend of mine for coffee.  Sitting with this person, watching as people did a double-take of recognition, or even came up to tell this person what they meant to their lives, I was struck by the fact that most people were relating to this person I was having coffee with as if they were a friend.   But none of them really had my friend quite right – they only knew their work, or their public persona, and so all of their interactions were necessarily limited and frankly quite simliar.


And then I thought, do I really know this person either? Isn’t my realtionship – like all my relationships – based on my perception, based on what they present, based on a series of filters and mirrors and prisms that keep us always guessing and flitting at this idea of “shunyata” – the emptiness that is the basis of everything – the overwhelming brilliance and sameness of what lies beneath.

Rest in peace Michael and Farrah and everyone else. Live in Peace, the rest of us.

Comments read comments(14)
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Patrick Groneman

posted July 1, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Can we approach culture with mindfulness?

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posted July 1, 2009 at 3:18 pm

The true face of another can only be seen once we have glimpsed our own. That image won’t be found in a tabloid or on TMZ.

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Ona K

posted July 1, 2009 at 3:29 pm

I agree. And only wish we could get as caught up in the living breathing real lives of people around the world.
Can we talk about what is happening in Latin America? The right wing coup? What about the Israeli Navi seizing an humanitarian ship carrying medical supplies, toys and rebuilding kits for the people of Gaza?
This shit makes me sad.

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posted July 1, 2009 at 3:38 pm

I like Guy DeBord’s Society of the Spectacle on this stuff, tho’ every biography I read of him makes him sound like a total (fill in the blank “if you —– a balloon with a pin, it’ll pop)
I like to look at history a bit, and it seems to me the growth of the media celebrity death cult had a coupla major turning points.
Q Victoria’s death cult of Prince Albert in the 19th c. coinciding w/the growth of mass media, advertising, and photographic reproduction.
Death of Rudolph Valentino
Death of Princess Diana
The real turning point I would opine, came with Valentino’s death, after moving pictures. As technology advances, it makes more and more convincing simulcra, objects of projection, as it were, that are almost as utterly convincing to us as our everyday projections–on our own experience of living people. Like you said of your friend; the public knows one projection, you just have another one.
William Gibson has written some good stuff on celebrity too, esp in the books he wrote right after Neuromancer.

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posted July 1, 2009 at 4:40 pm

I think our interest has to do with feeling part of something shared. Like it or not, these people are a part of our cultural fabric, heritage if you will, and when something as momentous happens as with death, it is a way for us to collectively share something. Think about how remarkable it is that the whole world was touched by Micheal Jackson’s passing. He was a tortured soul (abused child) whose music and dance moved people. I don’t feel the need to know every detail of his demise, but I can feel the interconnectedness of global community by listening to his music with a fresh ear, smile when i see others appreciating the “je ne sais quoi” that was the MJ phenomenon, or even now share a moment with fellow San Franciscans at the passing of Karl Malden, my favorite cop, whose passing at the ripe old age of 97 is hardly remarkable or tragic.

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posted July 1, 2009 at 5:13 pm

I think you are partially right about sharing experience, however I think that stops at an edge that isn’t actually stopped at in real life. I share moments with folks all day long – laughs, things that happen at work, cool things we see – without all of the gawkink of celebrity death culture. I think it’s easy to let ourselves off the hook by calling it sharing when so much of what is being shared is actually better called wallowing. Not that you are personally doing that, but there’s a huge aspect of that to celebrity death culture.
Ellen, I love what you say about simulacrums. Almost like the images became so real as films got more technologically advanced that we’ve unwittingly mistaken moving shadows of mechanical light and sound for the real thing.
I love Guy De Bord and had no idea he was considered such an >>>>? Hakim Bey is another good one to turn to for writing about the intersection of perception and culture, I think he and Guy Debord were somehow affiliated but I’m not sure how. Bey is pretty extreme in his excoriation of “lite” culture and manages to hit the nail on the head and make me squirm more than once in his writings.
Hakim Bey:
“The obsessive replication of Death-imagery (& its reproduction or even commodification) gets in the way of this project just as obstructively as censorship or media- brainwashing. It sets up negative feedback loops–it is bad juju. It helps no one conquer fear of death, but merely inculcates a morbid fear in place of the healthy fear all sentient creatures feel at the smell of their own mortality.
This is not to absolve the world of its ugliness, or to deny that truly fearful things exist in it. But some of these things can be overcome–on the condition that we build an aesthetic on the overcoming rather than the fear.
Even if I’d given up all hope in art, however, all expectation of exaltation, I would still refuse to put up with art that merely exacerbates my misery, or indulges in schadenfreude, “delight in the misery of others.” I turn away from certain art as a dog would turn away howling from the corpse of its companion. I’d like to renounce the sophistication which would permit me to sniff it with detached curiosity as yet another example of post-industrial decomposition.”

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mary ashby

posted July 1, 2009 at 5:14 pm

I think you are missing the point, i.e.: “We see these celebrities as having perfect lives that we’ll never have; or we see them as having imperfect lives and thank god we are ‘normal'”; and that our adoration of celebrities has to do with our own “emptiness.” Michael Jackson gave so incredibly much to our society in terms of music, dance, and culture. Like all visionaries and artists, there was a humanity in his work that deeply resonated with people across the world; through him, we felt, as you say, the “brilliance and sameness” and union of being part of something larger than ourselves. By losing him, we have a right to feel like we lost a piece of the art and the power that is also part of us, too. We are allowed to mourn that relationship.

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posted July 1, 2009 at 5:39 pm

We would still engage in this behavior even if weren’t hook on media.
We would entertain ourselves with the death of the local pariah or our group scapegoat; If we don’t do it already?
The media is just another medium in which we project our confusion. Just like money, sex……….
The only difference is that we are now in a large collective.

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posted July 2, 2009 at 6:37 am

I think YOU are missing the point. The mourning you speak of is a respectful, joyous celebration of what this person brought us. But how does that explain the maudlin search for Michael Jackson photos, the breathless news reports on his finances, etc.? Do you really think that our cultures relationship to celebrity , and their deaths is healthy? If so you should try beginning a meditation practice to get some clarity.

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posted July 2, 2009 at 9:32 am

I am torn on the MJ phenomenon.
On the one hand, I like everyone else have been listening to his music this week, and the man was an amazing talent. The gift of music is an amazing one, and to give that gift to so many is wonderful. Then there’s the compassion knowing how many problems he had in life, and those problems started very early on with a very difficult situation for a kid.
Then…there’s the media circus. It feeds off itself and consumes everything it thinks a consumer might like to overdose on. I have many thoughts on the media. But it is a distinct aspect from Michael’s music or personal problems.

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posted July 2, 2009 at 11:57 am

It is interesting to note that images of celebrity culture, living or dead, supersaturate us. Ethan and Jerry both chose images of MJ in his youth to accompany their posts on his death. Worth reflecting on that choice perhaps….
In both the east and the west, the power of images to become reality has long been recognized. This power is best characterized as the power to erase or suspend the distinction between original and image (copy). In the west, this power was interpreted as a moral threat to the real, as an essentially demonic force. Thus, from Plato on, there has been a sustained attempt to domesticate the image as copy. But is the image so easily domesticated? In some sense, Ethan’s and Jerry’s representational choice is an attempt to domesticate the more freakish MJ. A recent article from the Guardian, which, remarkably enough, appeared just before his death, is titled “Who stole the soul of the boy from Indiana?” (available here:, and reminds us of the demonic soul-destroying power of images, as well as our counterattempt to domesticate them.
So, celebrity death culture is but one way to domesticate the image’s demonic power. Thus the search for a pic of Sanford’s mistress, for a pic of Jackson’s body, and so on.

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posted July 2, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Jerry, thanks for the tip on Bey – haven’t read him. Yet. (OMG, I am so freakin’ acquisitive. Nibble, nibble, nibble.)
Ethan, thanks for a very cogent disambiguation of the discussion. There are def two strands to it, and I def have compassion for MJ as another suffering human being, as well as awe and gratitude for the talent.
The media circus on the other hand, I just wonder HOW and WHY did we make this? cuz we did.

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posted July 4, 2009 at 6:05 pm

People are endlessly trolling for information because they’re grieving. That’s simple enough. If Michael’s death is a distraction it’s probably a welcome one for those who control the media. Those who control governments, etc. We are able to switch off if we choose and this is a blessing.
However, it is lovely to know that people somehow saw Michael as he was. They may not have known him personally but many people loved him. Everyone is psychic and so they can pick up information about people for themselves.
Hey, I still miss Elvis and I feel sorry for the struggles he had in life. We are allowed to feel things whether it’s distracting or not, people need time to grieve.
The world is a very scary place for many people and maybe they have an innate sense of grief and they don’t know why. Maybe it’s helpful for them to grieve like this.
Speculation over these things is fun but perhaps a little counter-productive? Are we right in what we personally think? According to ourselves we are. Rest in Peace all those people who enjoyed celebrity for a while and then somehow died in the process.
It’s also useful to remember that not everyone has the same awareness of life and death and all that is or will be.

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posted July 9, 2009 at 10:26 pm

of all the things said about Michael, I found this blog to be the sanest.

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