When someone famous dies, I don’t grieve. Some fans do. I wish I could. I just retweet as many things on them as I can and watch all the tributes pour in on Youtube. It makes me a bigger fan, but I don’t grieve. Chris Cornell’s death had a bigger impact on me than Prince’s or David Bowie’s, not because I’m arguing that he’s more important in terms of his influence on the world. It had a more profound impact on me because he was part of the subculture that I’ve carved out and tried to build an identity around. And he’s still only as real as he could ever be to me.
Sometimes it’s harder to figure out what’s gone than to look at what the dead have left behind. What can we never get back from him? When we go through a dead person’s belongings, we have everything the person liked, everyything they built an identity upon, everything they consciously chose as a reflection of themselves. We’re left with a stamp of their personality. We grieve, but what do we grieve? Could this have been all we ever had to make sense of this person, all along? These questions are much harder to answer when the dead person’s famous. Chris attained immortality through fame. He left an indelible but inanimate mark on the culture. He was able to manifest one of our deepest, most lizard-brained desires: to never be forgotten.
Chris Cornell’s death unearths the unreachability of fame. One of the best compliments you can give to an artist is that you identify with their art. That’s the whole point of it. That the artist can connect with an audience. But the songwriter will never know you, and they will never know your pain. Famous people open up to the public about things most of us would consider private business. Is this because they can’t even fathom the amount of attention they’re getting until the public morphs into one, inhuman thing to them? The personal messages that the artists send out can be so profound that they become viral among people. Ironically, as people make these artists bigger and bigger, they grow further removed, until even the most personal of songs and experiences have reached millions. The only thing they can give is their love for the product that’s made out of us, our peers, and their music: an audience.
Fame and death bring up the same questions. Fame is a futile attempt to cling to this world. It’s a way to make sense out of death. Through this unreachability of fame, a different kind of communication is born. In the aftermath of his death, I’ve enjoyed listening to interviews with Chris while I’ve been doing chores around my apartment. I’ve heard him talk about learning how to sing at Soundgarden band practices. I’ve heard him talk about working at fisheries, washing dishes, and doing construction. I’ve been able to process his experiences in a way I can’t with someone I know. The thing about fame is he’s been able to be there for me privately. Maybe this is one of the sad facts about human intimacy. Famous people can open themselves up to millions of people in a way that most regular people can’t do to each other. There are too many necessary hurtles. Barriers need to be between us so we don’t abuse each other with personal information. On some levels, this can be deeply unsatisfying. He, or anyone else I’m a fan of, will never know my private, true self. But on one level, I’m able to engage with what Marcel Proust called “that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude” with him. And maybe this is one of the few virtues of fame. Chris Cornell’s ability to reach people in their privacy will never die.