Celebrity death as programming

Repetitive TV tributes to singer Aaliyah come to seem like soap operas or, worse, reruns, and grief is lost in an endless loop of images.

Observations

September 02, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

Like many other fans of R&B singer Aaliyah, I awoke last Sunday to a shock: the news of a plane crash that had killed her the night before.

I felt disbelief, horror and sadness. I'd been a fan since her first hit, 1994's sultry Back and Forth, and had liked her more as she churned out hits like Try Again, won Grammy nominations and starred in last year's Romeo Must Die.

But as the day dragged on and I listened to Aaliyah sporadically playing on the radio, my sorrow gradually subsided. I began to feel the first smatterings of acceptance. I felt good again, ready to face a world without Aaliyah.

And then I turned on the television.

MTV was airing a rerun of an episode of its series Diary, a half-hour show that offers a close look at a celebrity's daily life, focused on Aaliyah. It would be just one of several times in the ensuing days that the music network would run the Aaliyah episode of Diary, along with many repeats of an hour-long retrospective of the artist and her work. And all of this was in addition to the numerous television news reports of the crash and Aaliyah tribute specials on networks from E! to BET.

With each airing of shows on Aaliyah, I found myself glued to the television, going through the motions of grieving, healing and accepting again. And again. And again.

Apparently, this is how we grieve our dead celebrities today -- sitting through what seems like an endless television cycle of tributes and retrospectives that can pull us back into the throes of sorrow over and over.

Celebrities' lives and their deaths always have captivated ordinary folk. But these days, especially on television, there is so much more of them to see. Numerous cable channels devote more airtime than ever to "intimate" looks at celebrities' lives, with shows like A&E's Biography and VH-1's Behind the Music. So perhaps it's natural that celebrity deaths are a programming staple as well.

The barrage of media attention focused on Aaliyah also suggests that a celebrity doesn't have to be as universally or internationally known and loved as, say, Princess Diana to warrant television tributes.

Few years, much footage

Professor Chuck Kleinhans, a Northwestern University associate professor who teaches radio, TV and film, calls the celebrity death aftermath "an endless media construct."

It's "feeding-frenzy and follow-the-leader pack journalism," he said. "It's absurd that [National Public Radio] ran two short and one long feature on successive days on Aaliyah. They never paid any attention to her earlier, although she was some eight years into a very successful career."

In Aaliyah's case, part of the public's fascination probably has to do with her youth and her sudden death. The singer already has been compared to deceased stars like Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Dandridge in some media tributes.

"When you die young, you're automatically given a few points in terms of importance," said Rini Cobbey, an assistant professor of communication arts at Gordon College in Massachusetts who is writing a book on the role of celebrity death in culture.

"There is the idea of good death vs. bad death," she added. "You're going to get a lot of media coverage of a celebrity like Mother Teresa, who was good and lived [a long] life. But that will die out more quickly than an unexpected death, something you haven't had the chance to prepare for and the time to process it."

But it's also likely that the many Aaliyah specials are due to the fact that videotape of the 22-year-old, who has been in the limelight for eight years, is so readily available. She came into fame as part of the MTV generation, where the camera is focused more than ever on celebrities and their personal lives.

Not only do we know Aaliyah through her hits, we also have caught glimpses of her acting as an MTV co-host and allowing camera crews to follow her around for a peek at her life on Diary. So, when she suddenly dies, there is a wealth of footage -- beyond the many music videos -- to use in cobbling together a tribute special.

Unfortunately, though, these tributes can feel more like soap operas -- complete with the sort of tragic ending that couldn't have been better scripted.

Effective, the first time

In the case of Aaliyah, we saw her in her bathrobe, starting to get prepped for the MTV Movie Awards in June. There she was in a Giorgio Armani boutique trying on outfits. And there she was on MTV's Total Request Live, giggling as she shocked host Carson Daly with a snake.

Then there was the eerie footage of her on an amusement park ride, the camera lens squared on her face as she screamed while hurtling through the air. And the BET behind-the-scenes images from her final hours before the plane crash, dancing on the beach in the Bahamas for her new music video. And finally, a clip from a recent MTV interview perfect for bringing "closure."

"I have to honestly say that everything is worth it," Aaliyah tells the camera. "The hard work, the times that you're tired, the times when you're a bit sad, the times that you're on stage performing in front of thousands of people. In the end, it's all worth it because it really makes me happy, and I wouldn't trade it for anything else in the world."

It's a fine ending, indeed -- the first time we see it. The problem with TV's never-ending grieving process is that after so many showings, a talented young woman's life and death begins to have all the impact of a summer rerun.

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