The Soundtrack of Our Lives and Why We Grieve For People We Have Never Met

As music sales of Michael Jackson‘s music soar following his untimely death (25/06/09) at the age of 50,  I was asked by various radio programmes to comment on why celebrity death affects us the way it does. Why do people leave tributes or rush out to buy CDs? Other media requests have been about Michael Jacksons private life or mental state, which it is unethical for me, as a psychologist, to comment on. However, this is about how it affects our emotions and our mental states.

Emotions and Memories
Music
has a powerful affect on our emotions. We talk about our favourite songs as being ‘the soundtrack to our lives‘.  Some songs evoke happy memories and others help nurse us through heartbreak, such as the break up of a relationship or the loss of a loved one. Couples have ‘our song’, favourite songs are played at weddings and funerals.  We connect with music on a primal level so that we can use it to change our emotions too. Sometimes it just makes us want to dance.

Identity and Relationships
Some  radio presenters have commented that in the case of Michael Jackson, he had followed Jackson’s career and grown up with his music so felt it was like they had lost an old friend.  This is indeed true for many people who usually get really interested in music around puberty. Becoming a fan is also a low-threat way of exploring  emotional connections in virtual relationships. We find out about this person through their music and interviews and assess what we have in common and what we identify with. It is about making important another person in our lives. Music taste and allegiance to particular performers becomes part of personal identity, especially as many artists have very distinct style, such as Michael Jackson, Marilyn Manson, Madonna and so on. Some music can be described as ‘values driven‘, certainly in the case of Marilyn Manson.  The same probably applies to Michael Jackson, for many people. So often, music is not just about what we enjoy to listen to, it is a statement of who we are. Being a fan and enjoying music establishes a common ground for meeting other like-minded souls.

Living Vicariously
With the cult of celebrity and indeed our near obsession with reality TV, it has never been easier to live vicariously through the lives of others. Why bother doing anything ourselves when we can avidly consume the glories, trials, tribulations and mistakes of others?

Some fans are feel devastated at the death of their idol simply because the focus of their own lives has been to follow the life of another. Often people take personally any sleight against their idol and rigorously defend them, in much the same way as people follow sports teams in an almost religious way. The idol (or team) is something we care passionately about. It becomes an achievement in itself to be the best fan one can be. People often refer to themselves as someone’s ‘Number One Fan‘. Thus an idolised person dies, it takes away a life’s focus, leaving the avid fan feeling very empty. However, it’s not just the avid fan who is affected.

Intimations of Mortality
The sudden death of someone famous also strikes a chord for people who are not avid fans. There are undoubtedly people affected across the world in their 40s and 50s who are thinking about their own mortality and probably reviewing what they have achieved in their own lives. ‘It was such a shock, it just goes to show it can happen to anyone, it could happen at any time, it could happen to me’.

No Such Thing As Bad Publicity. . .
Although not strictly true, some forms of publicity can damage a career, there is no doubt that when some of the calibre of Michael Jackson dies, suddenly and prematurely, it is bound to generate an enormous amount of publicity, as indeed it has. Every news channel has led with the story, it has been the headline on front page of every newspaper (across the world), Jackson songs have dominated radio play lists, TV stations have hastily created tribute programmes and in some cases have even suspended normal programming. Music stores have been playing Jackson music and created displays front of store. Online stores have created dedications on homepages and linked to back catalogue. It would be impossible to calculate the value of this free publicity, so of course sales have increased. It would be surprising if they hadn’t. It’s also interesting that prior to his death, Michael Jackson CDs were often seen in sales promotions, and now the prices have increased following the demand. Never underestimate the will of some people to exploit a tragedy (although not on the same scale), just as we saw people selling postcards at Ground Zero (after (11/09/01), so we see hastily printed tee-shirts being hawked outside places of tribute for Michael Jackson. There’s no business like show business, and the show must go on, another day another dollar.

Buying Into The Moment
When faced with a shock or a sense of helplessness we often feel that ‘we should do something’. We see people creating makeshift tributes at the side of the road when total strangers are killed in accidents. It just seems the right thing to do.There’s also the, almost superstitious, thing of showing respect at death so we don’t jinx our own lives, and because maybe that’s what you would want people to do for you. We all want to be remembered, that’s why we make the effort to remember others, in times such as these, even strangers.

When a famous person dies, we may feel like we want to acknowledge the part they have played in our lives. We may be near to a tribute site and so may just want to talk with other people. Fans go because that’s what fans are supposed to do, especially number one fans. Some go along because they caught up in the oceanic feeling and the spirit of the moment. It just feels like the right thing to do. Others maybe turn up that they recognise the significance of the event (as with Princess Diana) and just want to be a part of a history. Yet others just hope that they’ll get on TV.

The death of a major music artist also causes us to review their body of work basically because we have no choice but to listen to it again. We say the same thing happen with Elvis Presley and John Lennon, although probably not on the same scale as Jackson. But then again, communication technologies are more advanced now. Following an artist’s death, we rediscover favourites or realize that we never did buy that classic album, and make an emotional purchase. This is often fuelled by panic buying off the back of the publicity.  So, the CDs lying in the rack only a few days ago, now seem more significant, more rare. They may sell out. It’s now or never. There’s also the fact that buying a CD or downloading at this time helps to create history, as the charts are dominated by Michael Jackson music. With downloading it’s easy to pick and choose favourite songs and you don’t have to leave home to buy into the moment, and relive the memories that those songs evoke.

Pause For Thought
The sudden and premature death of a famous person should also give us pause for thought so that we ask the important questions in life:

How will I be remembered? What  contribution have I made? Have I made the most of my talents? And, perhaps, most importantly, do I let the significant people in my life know what they mean to me?

Finally, if you had to compile a soundtrack of your life, right now, what would it be? What would you like it to be?

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Stress, Damned Stress & Perceptions of Stress

Participating in a phone-in this morning (BBC Five Live with Nicky Campbell) on stress I was struck by the enormous range in capacity that people have when coping with stressful lives. This is perhaps not surprising since all human abilities show a complete spectrum of skill level. It’s also true that perception plays an important part in how we cope.

Inevitably, an discussion on stress becomes like a poker game of the  ‘I’ll see your disaster and raise you a catastrophe‘ variety. However, stress is not a level playing field. Our ways of reacting to stress and coping with stress depend to a great extent on learning, such as how parents, family and friends cope with stress and whether we have inherited a pessimistic or optimistic outlook on life. It’s also our unique pattern of life events has also pre-disposed us to view stress in different ways.

The main thing that emerged from the phone-in was that sometimes it only look a brief respite from overwhelming stress to make things seem more manageable. It’s often the little things in life that make us happy and make difficult times more bearable. So, people might say that they need a ‘bloody good holiday’ when sometimes a cup of tea and a chat would do the trick.

It’s important to recognise that we all need a bit of stress in our lives to get us performing at our best. The good stress is called eustress.  We talk about an ‘adrenaline rush’ that carries us through difficult times. The problem is that there is a tipping point. A little bit of stress improves performance but high levels of stress have a detrimental effect. The ‘bad’ stress is distress.

One of the things that we can do for ourselves is to build in little breaks throughout the day and take time out (away from our stressors) and just take some long, slow deep breaths. This cuts against the stress cycle and can take the edge off things. We instinctively do it every time we brace ourselves for a difficult task and ‘take a deep breath’. We do this to take the edge of our stress and get it back with in productive limits.

One thing we can do for others is to listen without feeling the need to trump their stress with tales of your own. Sometimes people just want to be heard. So do something nice for someone and just listen for a few minutes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fighter pilot listening to someone talk about a difficult boss. Just because you have experienced more stress than they can possibly imagine, that doesn’t take anything away from their own distress. In fact, there’s nothing worse than being told ‘you problems are nothing’. It only adds to the stress.

Sometimes people feel guilty for feeling tired and stressed out especially when others are depending on them. However, it’s not self-centred to need a break: it’s human and it makes good sense. Think of aeroplane emergencies. People are told to put on their own masks before they help their children. In short, you look after yourself first so that you are better equipped to take care of others.

Overall, the thing about stress is that we can learn to cope in ways that are more productive and that starts with taking a more strategic approach and building in relaxation to your schedule (however brief) whether or not you think you need it. So practising a few breathing exercises, getting some fresh air, having a cop of tea and a chat.  The secret is to work out what works for you (and your circumstances) and then practice it, almost religiously, everyday. The more we practice the more deeply conditioned the response becomes. In short, these little safety valves become habits. Getting into the habit of improving your response to stress on a day-to-day basis can automatically help you be better prepared when faced with tough situations.

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Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It