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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