We had just arrived at my brother’s house, and all the cousins were gathered around the dinner table, each person locked onto their phones. Paul Walker died. Was it a hoax? Was it legit? My Facebook feed quickly filled with R.I.P. quotes and sad faces (the kinds with the teardrops) and links to articles that confirmed Paul Walker’s death. I looked around the room and the reaction was split: some of us, including me, were making crass jokes, others appeared completely distraught, as though someone really close to them had passed away. This was before we knew about his teenage daughter; this was before we heard the way those who knew him spoke about how humble and real he was; this was before a song was written about him. At that moment, all we knew was that he had appeared in movies we enjoyed, he was 40 years old, and he was gone.
Why did I make that joke? It was inappropriate and ill-timed and just not funny. But I said it. It came out of my mouth. And why did people cry? You might say it was because he’s so young, or you might say that this is the way all people deal with death – they make jokes to forget and they cry because they can’t. We’re humans and when humans die, we deal with it the way we can. But random young people die every day; you see them on the news and you might think about how sad it is, but you’re probably not wiping your eyes or making a clever remark or posting beautiful words on Facebook. Why does the emotion come ten-fold with a celebrity, a person none of us ever really knew?
Is it because of what a professor once said, that we believe that the celebrity knows something about culture, sexuality, style, happiness, etc. that we don’t? He argued that we make celebrities experts about the way we should lead our lives. We read Star Magazine and People and Us Weekly in the hope we will learn something about their secrets. We watch their movies, their games, listen to their music and interviews, and after a while we begin to feel connected to them. When you got dumped, maybe a Beyonce song lifted you out of your funk. When you lost your job, maybe Joe Montana in the Super Bowl made you forget. After a while, it almost feels like you know them. When asked why Michael Jackson’s death made you so sad, you might say, “Because I grew up with him.” With the advent of Twitter and a million cable channels and instant information, the celebrity is more powerful (even if they are an unwilling participant); they are not only in our homes now, they’re at work, in our cars, at our bedside – they live in our pockets and on our nightstands. Even if you’re the anti-celebrity, someone who likes when celebrities fail, someone who wants to make examples of say, Miley Cyrus’ twerking, the fact you are making an example of them proves the point: Celebrities are worthy of making an example of – celebrities are somehow greater than the rest of us.
After Cory Monteith died, Patty and I sat silently on our couch and watched the Glee episode dedicated to his character, Finn Hudson. Neither of us are avid Glee followers any more, but in the beginning of our relationship, we were. We DVR’d episodes and dedicated an hour every week to sit and watch and laugh and sometimes even sing with each other. We were amazed at the impact it had in our country in terms of acceptance, amazed that we lived in a world where Glee could be cool enough to be a top rated show. Glee, and Cory Monteith, had, in a way, become part of our relationship. In that tribute episode, as Monteith’s co-stars sang and acted (though you can tell they weren’t acting), we just sat there as we did early in our relationship, this time tears coating our eyes, just being sad together. For days I tried to figure out why I had that reaction, but it wasn’t until I saw my cousins react to Paul Walker’s death that I realized why I had been that emotional over Cory Monteith – it felt like something that had been a part of my early relationship with Patty was gone, poof, just like that.
Paul Walker had become a part of my cousins’ lives. We all loved The Fast and Furious movies; some of the cousins routinely spit lines from the six films in the franchise. We watch them together when they come on cable TV. We didn’t know the guy – of course – but our relationships with each other were made stronger by him. I think this is what makes the death of a celebrity so difficult. Celebrities can bring people together – people dancing to a Lady Gaga song in a club, or watching LeBron in an arena, or watching Paul Walker in a movie theater, or debating the latest Lindsay Lohan drama on an internet comment board – celebrities help forge relationships, they encourage conversations (did you see the VMAs?????), and hell, when you’re sitting at a concert or at a football stadium, just look around and remember that they help foster communities, too.
I’m the first person to tell you the way we commoditize our celebrities, the way we value them more than those in our own lives, is wrong. And yes, there is something to be said about driving too fast and doing drugs. But I’ll leave that to the rest of you. For now, I just wanted to say that Paul Walker and Cory Monteith, I thought you both were cool. I liked your movies and your TV show. I liked that you always seemed genuine. But more than that, I wanted to thank both of you for, above all else, helping to bring people together.