When Michael Jackson passed away in 2009, I was captivated by the outpouring of grief that I both witnessed and felt. Yet again I was intrigued four months ago by the expressions of sorrow after the passing of Cory Monteith from a drug overdose during what seemed to be a successful Glee summer hiatus (during which he filmed two movies.)
Of course, one cannot compare the breadth and depth of Michael Jackson’s career, which spanned forty-something years, to that of Cory Monteith’s, which had just begun. But a fan is a fan; whatever one thinks of the artist, one cannot deny a fan his or her grief.
Which brings me to the main question at hand: why does the death of a person they have never met affect fans so much? While it is sad that both Michael Jackson and Cory Monteith passed away at relatively young ages, death is a part of life, and marks the transition to a better place.
Similarly, why does the grief of individuals we have never met affect us so much? Just like the Jackson children, many lost their parents and still grew up to be healthy, well rounded adults; and many individuals, after having lost their partner just like Lea Michele, were able to lead healthy lives, some of them even able to find another partner after a certain amount of time.
Empathy has a large part to play, of course. One cannot watch little Paris proclaiming her love for her Dad, or Lea’s promise to Cory’s fans, without feeling sad for the pain they are going through.
When it comes to performers, selfishness might also have a part to play (hopefully a very small one!) For fans who were looking forward to the This Is It concert, for those anticipating how Rachel and Finn’s story would end, the passing of Michael Jackson and Cory Monteith marked a drastic shift from expected ending to reality.
But what we witnessed felt like more than mere disappointment. Could it be that, to some extent, the depth of fans’ grief has to do with the special connection between artists and those they share their art with? Michael Jackson wrote songs that touched hearts, such as Man in the Mirror, Earth Song, and Lost Children, to name but a few. Cory Monteith was the face of Finn Hudson, the popular quarterback who defends the rights of nerdy glee club members. No doubt both artists influenced millions of people, by making them think about issues affecting both their personal development and their contribution to the betterment of society. So of course one would feel a sort of grief over their passing.
It might also be the effect stars can have on our lives as a collective. Here we are, millions of people who, for the most part, do not know each other, and yet we are connected through our relationship with these artists that touched our hearts. Social media helped us form a bond over shared experiences like listening to Michael Jackson’s songs or following Finn Hudson’s struggles and successes. Some of these bonds have transformed into friendships, which can last for years.
There is something hopeful, almost innocently so, about such connections. I think it just might be because of the glimpses they offer us of the beauty of what unity can look like, when such a large mass of people agree wholeheartedly on their appreciation for an artist. We also saw a form of harmony, when all these fans came together to celebrate the lives of these artists that touched their lives. This unity and this harmony, however brief, fleeting, weak, and superficial, are incredibly beautiful. And for the many of us working to contribute to a peaceful, united world, this glimpse, however imperfect, into what unity can look like, is breathtaking.
What, then, is the responsibility of artists?
Image credit: Chad Mauger