Ignore the think pieces. Mass mourning over celebrity deaths is not just a current-generation phenomenon – the Internet and social media only accelerate and amplify how fans process profound, visceral sorrow.
Years from now, the most earnest, intensely felt remembrances on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – the ones reacting to an untimely, unexpected passing of an icon like Chris Cornell, Prince, Amy Winehouse or Whitney Houston – will serve as yellowed newspaper clippings once did: They’ll take us back to that historic, shared moment of gut-punching, breathtaking shock and sudden loss.
Who did you text when Michael Jackson died? Where were you when John Lennon was shot? Did you, like many devastated fans, flock to the Dakota on Manhattan’s Upper West Side after you heard? Which Nirvana song did you play over and over again after Kurt Cobain’s body was found? Do you (or a parent) have a story about Elvis’ last day?
Revisiting these memories again and again (and we do) can feel traumatic, and the most sensational details still shock decades later. But there’s a more expansive, alternate history component at work, too, imagining what these legends might have created had they lived, and how their absence has shaped the music and popular culture that followed. Most cliches begin as essential truths: Yes, the artists featured and remembered here are gone – but they’re never forgotten.