While blasting my “Shower Swag” playlist in the bathroom the other morning (sorry, housemates), Amy Winehouse’s upbeat version of “Valerie” came up on shuffle. As the sound of running water and the singer’s sultry contralto began to drown out my crackly morning voice, my shampoo-covered head began to flood itself with questions. Why won’t Valerie just come on over already? Why can’t my shower voice sound more like that? And why did this incredible talent have to die so young?
As I began to contemplate the recent, untimely death of this beehived, tattoo-covered wild child, I was taken back to that hot day in July when the numerous Facebook statuses revealing her death started cropping up. Some were mournful, some surprised and some indifferent, while others were simply mocking. My eyes still roll when I recall all the posts that played on the lyrics of “Rehab.” Despite the tragic nature of the event — a fellow human being had lost her life — many Facebookers, Tweeters and bloggers saw it as an opportunity to make a pathetic joke.
However, while these statuses infuriated me at the time, I have to admit that they were at least honest reactions. Regardless of your feelings towards the troubled songstress, you can’t deny that it was difficult to have a genuine reaction to her death and the controversy surrounding it. Especially given the role that social networks and the media play in our everyday lives, it’s virtually impossible to say that your response to her death was not, in some way, swayed by another’s.
Call me Moaning Myrtle, but death seems to be on my mind a lot lately. A recent visit to the National Gallery’s Warhol: Headlines exhibit — a fascinating look at the prolific artist’s works surrounding tabloid news — got me thinking a great deal about the media’s role in creating a collective memory after the death of a public figure. One piece in particular concerning the media coverage surrounding JFK’s assassination and funeral stuck with me. In the piece, Warhol uses newspaper clippings, images from the moments before and after the president’s death and typical American imagery to create this giant, multi-colored graphic collage.
At first, his colorful, almost playful treatment of such a tragic subject seems akin to the “Rehab” statuses in terms of sensitivity level; however, the event of the death itself is not the subject of this piece. Instead, the artist creates a commentary on the notion of the media’s ability to “program” our emotions and shape the way we remember such events as a community. Something many people — myself included — aren’t aware of is that Kennedy’s approval ratings were at their lowest in the months leading up to the assassination. With network news broadcasted to living rooms around the country each night, the American public could see irrefutable evidence of how poorly the president was handling the mounting racial tension and violence that the country was experiencing. However, the news of his death — the full-page headlines, the repeated airings of the assassination, the images of a mourning, widowed Jackie — played a vital role in shaping the way Kennedy was remembered in the eyes of the public. In an instant, the nation’s discontent turned to grief.
This memory editing is understandable in the wake of a great tragedy or loss, but perhaps it’s less about how we’d like to remember the person and more about how we’d like to see ourselves. Chuck Klosterman raises a great point in his book Eating the Dinosaur when discussing his own memories of Kurt Cobain’s death. The noted pop-culture essayist remembers how people who had been ruthlessly criticizing Nirvana’s then-new album In Utero seemed to have a sudden change of heart after news of the front man’s death went public; in the minds of America’s youth, Cobain went from “self-absorbed complainer” to the man who “made culture.” In retroactively mourning his death along with everyone else, one could gain credibility, depth and a sensitive side that may not have been there before. For them, Cobain was “that popular-yet-unpopular kid who died for the sins of your personality.”
With Halloween just around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to get in touch with our inner emo kids and consider the way we choose to handle death. Where is the line between remembering someone at their best and altering the way we always saw them once they’re gone? How much do we allow the reactions we’re given by our peers and the media shape the way we choose to remember someone? And how much do our own selfish interests influence the memory-editing process?
Chew on that as you search for this year’s slutty [insert noun here] costume.
Clare Donnelly is a senior in the College. She can be reached at [email protected]. LEAP INTO THE VOID appears every other Friday in the guide.