I meant to write an article remembering Les Paul — rock and roll pioneer, solid-body inventor, someone for whom hokey grandiose terms like “icon” and “legend” hardly begin to suffice in description. After all, this was a man who still played a gig every Monday night in New York well into his 90s. What I didn’t mean (read: want) to do was talk about Michael Jackson. But the King of Pop has gone to sleep, and while the media is doing their best to puppeteer his post-mortem circus, the reality is he’s not waking up, and that’s a troublesome spoonful to swallow for many of us.
The incongruity between infamy and the affliction of being mortal is no news. There’s been screaming for years about “[our] idols being dead,” and while some of them may have left a legacy of literature, art, music, or what have you, the simple fact is that no one can ever really live on.
People love and hate untimely celebrity deaths because they are both spectacular and incredibly uncomfortable. Death is really the one event that brings cultural superstars back down to our playing field. As a result, we’re reminded of what French critic Charles du Bos called le réveil mortel, a concept that I think is well-described by author Julian Barnes as a “wake-up call to mortality.” Now, if you’re like me, you experience this sensation at least once a day. Thankfully, the majority of pop-culture consuming population is not, and while there is a sort of reminder in some allusive lyrics or on elaborate TV hospital dramas, those points of reference are so filtered and far removed from reality that they generally lack any ability to cull a true reminder of the inevitable end. So, when one of the largest stars falls from the proverbial celebrity sky, regardless of any bizarre circumstances or sensational rumors, there’s no denying the fact that that person is dead, as dead as all of us will someday be.
Our hope is, of course, that “someday” is later rather than sooner. Les Paul died, and while he was an incredibly famous and genius musician (etc.), his death came at a perfectly acceptable time. It’s Michael Jackson’s death that inspires that réveil mortel because he was only fifty, because he was about to do a massive tour, and because, frankly, the world wasn’t done with him yet. And that’s the same sort of unexpected “but my work’s not done here...” sort of injustice that inspires our collective fear of death. We all have our own respective sold-out tours and untouched warehouses of wardrobe. It’s just that, in the end, we are afforded one thing no superstar can have: the courtesy of being able to slip out quietly.