Christina Grimmie and the Nature of Fame

The past weeks have been eventful in the way of celebrity deaths. Two in particular catch the headlines: Muhammad Ali’s death presumably from the medical complications of old age and Christina Grimmie’s murder by a ‘fan’ after a concert in Orlando. The latter is this article’s principal consideration, but both are important in scoping out the nature of fame and its relation to the media.

On the 3rd of June, 2016, Muhammad Ali, boxing icon whose renown was arguably attributable to his activism, passed away. The cause of death was identified as septic shock. His death was a cause for much reflection on the greatness of the life he lived, the impact of the words he said and the inspiration of the roads he traveled. The death of he who was at one point called ‘Cassius Clay’, a name abandoned for its connotations of slavery and impotence as alleged by Ali, garnered widespread attention in the form of many documentaries, programs and social media coverage shared on the internet and on international television. From politicians to celebrities, rich to poor, public personalities to anonymous figures, all shared an overriding sense of loss at the passing of the man. The familiar narrative of a ‘larger-than-life’ figure replayed endlessly on international television (courtesy of BBC and CNN) drew sharp contrasts with the silence of the preceding years leading to his death. Thus, we come to the crux of the matter, in which the media is played to target certain times and situations in an effort to sensationalize, and by extension monetize, the attention of the masses. It is by no means morally reprehensible, for such acts are characteristic of the profit-motive – and it does not hurt to remember a figure worth his salt for the deeds he accomplished throughout an illustrious career. Yet it behooves every responsible man to understand that the profit motive underlies this industry which so affects and influences society – while it cannot be said to be detestable for it is merely the function of capitalism, it is far from being an occasion of particularly true or objective reflection for most people.

The very idea of reflection is inward-looking. It is in many ways at odds with media sensationalism, with its propensity for exaggeration, aggrandizement and advertisement apropos of the invariably emotive side of stories. The nature of fame and power lies in the ability to play the media and publicity for all it is worth, but its achievement must never be mistaken for the ability for self-reflection. Self-reflection implies a personal reconciliation of the contradictions that exist in our lives: we want but will not strive, we own but bear no responsibility, and we give but without trace of altruism. Media publicity on the other hand is the extreme of exposure that always pushes for the bigger, more salacious, more popular stories to cater to the lurid tastes of the public. The idea is to push for high viewership; the solitary route of internal reflection is the very antithesis of the influence of popular media.

Another media-grabbing event occurred on the 11th of June: the murder of Christina Grimmie, originally a contestant on NBC’s ‘The Voice’. A quick perusal of the news articles on this subject reveals much personal backstory to this tragedy. And a tragedy it is, for such a young singer with so much natural potential to be cut down at what was possibly the beginning of a long and successful (and very lucrative) career. We are treated to heartrending stories of her intimate relationship with friend and supposed confidante Selena Gomez, herself a celebrity. We are told that her innate gift and natural talent for singing made her a treasure to popular culture. All these are probably true, but again, our primary concern is the way her death has been played for all its worth by emphasizing the pathos of her death and the pathology of her killer.

The motive of her killer is likewise unimportant as far as we are concerned. It is clear that investigations will proceed, urged on by outraged supporters who have become incensed as much by the reality and horror of the situation as by the constant stream of articles who feed their emotions. The popularity of the story will be stoked for some time by eyewitness accounts, trial proceedings – and perhaps a situation where other concerns like women’s rights for example supervene on the situation. But if the public loses interest, then coverage will stop, as when there is limited possibility of profit there is a corresponding dearth of incentive.

It is important to note that there is nothing morally wrong with feeling strongly about certain horrific crimes. It is characteristic of civilized men and women. Yet the issue here is when such feelings become the function of the media. Such influence gives it power over you. Matters of moral concern abound the world over, and it is clearly the result of media publicity that only some cause great public outcry. The hypocrisy of the situation was never clearer when Western observers reacted with shock and horror at the uncovering of a plot in August 2006 hatched by British Muslims to simultaneously destroy several passenger aircraft mid-flight with explosives, potentially killing hundreds of transatlantic passengers. This contrasted starkly with their silence and indifference at the actual loss of life in Lebanon in the previous three weeks. In a way this might partly be the result of media publicity: far easier to generate emotions by playing up stories of terrorist threats close to home (either by proximity or ideology), than by getting people to care about death far away. When Western observers care about death in the Middle-East, it is usually through the lens of American soldiers or UN peacekeepers (see American Sniper).

The selective nature of mainstream media is narrow and parochial in that it panders to the interests of a certain public and a certain viewership. Such is the case in Western media, as it is in Middle-Eastern or Japanese media, and in places where there is enough freedom of the press for media to flourish. It seems an innate human tendency to identify with only like-minded groups and sympathetic views. It is also an example of balkanization and is toxic to intellectual progress. The death of Christina Grimmie should not be an occasion to forsake one’s objectivism and learning for the rousing rhetoric of mass media.