#LukePerry and Grieving Celebrities

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
Meanjin /
March 5, 2019 /

Click here to view original /

I’d just read Ian Ziering’s tweet mourning the death of his colleague Luke Perry. Tender sentiments, sure, but the cynic in me is always confused by messages written to dead people. As though the writer is somehow anticipating that wherever our corpse ends up, we’ll find ourselves within arms-reach of a smart phone to keep tabs on just how vigorously we’re being grieved.

I recognise that such tweets—along with old-school newspaper death notices—make their own kind of contribution to the remembrance process, but I’ve nonetheless always felt a little affronted by the open letter style so many take. As though true depth of feeling can only ever be conveyed when a message is directed to the dead person and then broadcast to our 100k social media followers.

When Whitney Houston died in 2012, I wrote about the performance of public grief encouraged by social media. I expressed cynicism about declarations of love for folks whose use for such adulation has well and truly waned. Years on, my feelings have shifted a little. I still tread an odd path of being sickeningly sentimental on one hand, but on the other mostly donning narrowed eyes and a slight head tilt when it comes to the inevitable ‘outpouring’ of grief following a celebrity death. But I’m trying harder to understand it. In part, this is motivated by how oddly impacted I was by the death of Anthony Bourdain last year, and partly I think I’ve just become increasingly obsessed with understanding the befuddling.

Recently I’ve been thinking and writing about the 2016 Ghostbusters—the sex-swapped remake of the 1984 film—and trying to understand all the misogyny and trolling that ensued. Here were grown men claiming that the mere existence of the new film was somehow ruining their childhoods.

Initially I approached the backlash with the kind incredulity I often exhibit—as though these men had no concept of time nor of how a new film actually can’t perform a kind of Eternal Sunshine reprogramming to negate fond memories of yore. Delving deeper into their objections though, I’d come across a psychological concept called the reminiscence bump.

The reminiscence bump provides a way of thinking about how the music, the movies, the TV shows that we consumed as children and into our adolescence comes to have disproportionate impact on our formation of self. Such pop culture gets woven into moments and emotions that we experienced for the first time and thus is bound up with a past that is—as nostalgia dictates—fondly reflected on as easier, better, and more passionate.

I’m fascinated by this idea. It helps me to make sense of why so many men in their 40s cared about the remade Ghostbusters, but it also enables me to navigate the outpouring of grief flooding my social media feed for Luke Perry—and, also, incidentally for Keith Flint—from people who, like me, came of age in the 1990s and are seemingly feeling this much more than I am.

Beverly Hills, 90210 started airing in 1990. I was 10. It wasn’t a show I was particularly interested in—even at 10 I preferred dead bodies and unhinged detectives demanding answers—but nonetheless, I was aware of the primary school mandate to pledge allegiance to either Brandon or Dylan. I, of course, chose Dylan because the most messed-up option is always my catnip.

For those of us who came of age in the 90s, celebrities like Luke Perry were a fixture of our pop culture lives. His rise to stardom is inextricably bound up with our vicarious experiences of adulthood obtained through the TV. His life is, therefore, important ours because he was ‘with us’ for so many of our firsts—the imagined and then the also real—and thus is part of the tale of our lives from that time.

I’m not having a little cry about Luke Perry nor am I unfurrowing my brows as I reread the Ziering tweet, but I at least understand the public grief a little better. Just as the mere existence of the new Ghostbusters was, perhaps illogically, perceived as taking a little away from the old, for some of us a piece of our 90s’ personal history now feels a little altered now. And I absolutely understand melancholy born from change. After all, somethingmust explain the odd gloom I feel whenever I smell a new season in the air.

© Lauren Rosewarne 2019