Casey Johnson and Brittany Murphy: Obit Crit in the Age of Celebrity

By the time they’d Made It, they were already dead.


Casey Johnson may have been a dazzling firecracker of a socialite, and Brittany Murphy a talented, popular actress, both of them rich, attractive, and famous, but there is nothing they achieved in their short, glamorous lives that could have brought them anything approaching the level of fame they reached in death. Once they had fame, they had cultural significance, and in this age of iNarcissism cultural significance is nothing more nor less than the opportunity to examine ourselves.

Brittany Murphy: 18,400,000 Google hits, but only 9,630,000 if you remove results with “Dead” or “Death.”

Casey Johnson: 5,460,000, or 4,930,000 if you remove the ones with “Dead” and “Death,” but she’s gaining on Brittany. She moves fast, for a necronaut.

“Just noticed that @caseyjonsonJnJ gained roughly 3000 followers since dying. She’s dead you idiots! Thus, she won’t be tweeting anymore.”

TheCajunBoy on Twitter

Some people will do anything for attention. And boy howdy, do they ever get it.

It’s so boring to do nothing. Believe me, I’ve tried it. It’s, like, how many days a week can you actually go shopping? You get burned out. And you feel like shit. You think, What have I ever done to alter this world? What will people say? ‘Oh, she had a lot of shoes’?”
Casey Johnson, September 24, 1979 – January 4 (estimated), 2010

Well, now we know what people will say. They will say, in fact, nearly anything, as long as it skews strongly toward the poles of vicious snark or pie-eyed sanctimony. Both offer the warm embrace of community. In the orthodoxy of the church of celebrity, one is either a Gonzo Heretic or a True Believer, and there is no room in the commentariat for sweetly becoming discretion or Victorian scruples. The Silent Majority remains aloof, silent and safely out of the fray, betraying themseleves only by a faint phosphor trail as they page quickly past the comments. It’s mutual. We don’t want their kind ‘round here.

A quick glance through the comments on gossip blogs leads one to conclude the mainstream news sites have been smarter or at least luckier than blogs, free as most of them are from the yawning, existential abyss of the comment box and the braided streams of saccharine toxicity in the trailing threads, dangling off the posts like a comic villain’s seemingly-endless, sputtering bomb fuse.

On the one hand:

OH the pathos of having too much.

OOOOHHHHHH the pathos.

and

[S]he was raised to do one thing: spend money. She had no other contribution to offer the world. […] She was raised as veal with a black Amex.

Her life was a dollar sign and a camera flash.

And on the other:

I know, I know, but Brittany Murphy had diabetes. It turns out, diabetes is a perfectly manageable health condition today. It becomes considerably less manageable when you’re doing lines all day. [] [E]veryone I talk to seems so shocked that Brittany Murphy could have actually died of a drug overdose. It’s all I’ve heard all day: “She was so pretty! She was so cute! I loved her in Clueless! She couldn’t have really died from drugs.”

And, yes,

[…] [O]ut of respect I wouldn’t rant about her being a cocaine addict. I love King of the Hill and she is the voice of Luanne. I love Brittany Murphy, she was so talented. I find it so shocking that she is dead. As weird as her marriage seemed, I thought that she would end up living a happy life with her husband.”

And why did you think these things, my friend? Because you need to think them. We need to think them.

Depending on who we think we are, if we care at all about the The Celebrity-Industrial Complex even recreationally, we need to believe:

a) that celebrities are out there living beautiful lives that give us hope that somewhere Prince Charming and whichever Disney Princess he ended up with (wasn’t that all of them?) are living happily ever after, probably in Brad and Jen’s old house in Beverly Hills

or

b) that celebrities are out there, lolling, dazed, on Charon’s yacht, being serviced by fifteen pox-ridden Gucci models while chopping Marie Antoinette’s tiara into glittery white lines and snorting them up a straw made of their own hollowed-out femurs.

As a lifelong and semiprofessional Snarketarian, I’d love to smugly conclude that the dividing line between the two groups is an IQ of 100, with the snarksters on the plus side, but unfortunately for my ego that’s just not it. One of the most intelligent men on the internet is Stephen Fry, and he’s notoriously gentlemanly, even to professional vulgarian Jade Goody, who could hardly have been said to have deserved it.

Jade lived life under a magnifying glass. Magnifying glasses magnify (obviously) but they distort and they burn.”

That they do. And if you look at them just right, they also reflect.

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