Co-parented by popular culture: why celebrity deaths affect us so deeply

Courtesy of | By Michael Hann | Originally Published 09.17.2017 | Posted 10.10.2017

If you mourned Prince, Diana or Harry Dean Stanton as deeply as you did your grandparents. that’s because grieving for strangers is now a family matter.

Another week, another pair of deaths of popular-culture figures – the actor Harry Dean Stanton and the musician Grant Hart, once of the band Hüsker Dü – and another wave of public grief for their loss. Once again my social media feeds have been filled with mourning and heartfelt testimonials to the effect these men had on the lives of so many, through films, TV shows, records, concerts.

It’s often suggested that the death of Diana, a shade over 20 years ago, is what triggered the public willingness to mourn complete strangers who had never been more than a presence on the screen in the corner of the living room. Perhaps, though, there’s another reason for the grief: people are mourning something closer to home.

Modern popular culture was an invention of the 1950s, refined in the 1960s, and expanded in every decade since. Rock’n’roll music and television exploded hand in hand in the 1950s. In January 1956, the first year for which figures are available, 5.7m UK households owned a television; by January 1960 that figure had almost doubled, to 11m. By January 1970 16.9m out of 18.4m UK households owned a television. In the US, 9% of households owned a TV in 1950; by 1960 it had reached 87.1%.

It didn’t take long for television to become not just a presence in the household, but part of household life. As early as 1958, an LSE study led by Hilde Himmelweit found children were watching an average of 11 to 13 hours of TV per week. And it turned out that TV and pop music were made for each other: by 1958 the US pop music show American Bandstand was drawing 40 million viewers a week, and was being serenaded in song: “They’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand, in Philadelphia PA,” sang Chuck Berry on Sweet Little Sixteen.

Bruce Springsteen in 1985
As Bruce Springsteen put it in No Surrender, we “learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school”. Photograph: Bob Riha Jr/WireImage

At the same time, the structure of the home was changing. In 1955, 45.9% of UK women of working age were in the workforce in one way or another, and 38.3% of US women. In 1965 those figures had risen to 51% and 44.4%. Another decade on and they were 55.1% and 53.2%. The parents weren’t at home, but the kids were, and the TV and the radio and the record player were.

In effect, those born in the 1950s and 1960s were the first generations to be co-parented by popular culture. They were the people, who as Bruce Springsteen put it in No Surrender, “learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school”. They drew life lessons not from fireside chats with parents, but from David Bowie or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. They were entertained not by parlour games, but by The Generation Game. When they wanted to understand why they felt as they did during adolescence, they didn’t speak to their families, they listened to the Smiths, or whoever answered their particular need.

They did so in homes in which, often, both parents were absent much of the time. Millions of kids spent more time with pop stars and film stars and TV stars than with their parents. (Not for nothing were the children’s TV presenters of the 1960s and 1970s usually presented as surrogate parents, like John Noakes, Peter Purves and Lesley Judd on Blue Peter, rather than the matey older siblings of the late 1980s and onwards) They were also the first generations for whom adulthood was deferred, by the expansion of education, by the postponement of marriage. There was no pressure on them to loosen their bonds with the people they had grown up listening to or watching.

Maybe, then, when people seem unusually grief-stricken at the death of an entertainer, they are mourning not that star, but something closer. They are, perhaps, connecting that loss with the death of a parent, or subconsciously preparing for a death yet to come. They have lost part of their family. One friend said of her reaction to Bowie’s death: “I knew it was to do with him really being a strong father/godfather figure, a constant kind, creative voice in my head.”

Another said of Prince: “I felt a bit embarrassed at how Prince’s passing touched me. I really felt that I’d been on a journey with him from my early teens. It made me think of my mum a lot; she really couldn’t stand him.”

And one more: “People of our generation were first to ‘know’ TV celebrities. I grieved for Eric Morecambe as much as I did my grandparents. Sad to report.”

In a celebrity death, I think, what many of us see is not the end of a career, or even a life. We are seeing the impermanence of our own certainties, our own families. We are reminded how fragile is the edifice on which our life and identity are built.

 Michael Hann is a former music editor of the Guardian

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