The celebrity death hoax is like life’s encore

Rock'n'roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis was prematurely declared dead yesterday; at least he's appreciated during his time

There’s a new great ball of fire in the firmament tonight as Jerry Lee Lewis departs this mortal coil to stomp forever along the keyboard of God’s flaming piano and – what’s that? Reports of Lewis’s death at his Memphis home aged 87 have been greatly exaggerated? Indeed, when TMZ broke the “news” of Lewis’s passing yesterday, it appears it was the victim of a hoax from someone claiming to be the rock’n’roll pioneer’s official representative. Which smacks somewhat of Moe Szyslak shouting around the bar for Anita Quickcasket.

It’s not the first time Jerry Lee has apparently croaked before his time. In 2017, a CNN obituary for actor and comedian Jerry Lewis mistakenly used Jerry Lee’s name in the headline, convincing Google’s search engine, at least, that JLL was a goner. And Lewis wasn’t the first biologically active celebrity to be prematurely pronounced deceased. A vast array of names from Ernest Hemingway to Mark E Smith have been declared carked ahead of the fact; Paul McCartney, for instance, has been very publicly undead since 1969.

And it’s a growing craze. In 2015 #RIPBeyonce circulated on Twitter following fake reports of Bea’s death in a car crash, a fate that, apparently, had previously befallen Miley Cyrus, Kanye West, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. The following year hackers of Jack Black’s Twitter account announced that Black had devil-horned his last. When Margaret Thatcher died the hashtag #nowthatchersdead had many people wondering as to the wellbeing of Cher, and when Axl Rose reportedly snuffed it in 2014 he was quick to check online if he still had to pay his tax bill.

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That TMZ ran this prank Jerry Lee story without confirming it through official channels though, and that the lie spread around the world before the truth could slick up its corkscrew curl, says worrying things about the modern mindset. In the pre-internet days, when no Glastonbury ever went by without Cliff Richard having reportedly reached his Saviour’s day, there was a certain incredulity around unconfirmed celebrity death rumours. Today, though, it takes nothing more than David Attenborough – or any other national treasure of a certain age – trending to get us throwing ourselves before their virtual funeral cortege, reminiscing mournfully about the time we once used a urinal next to them at a Mumford & Sons gig in Carlisle. And the clicks involved with being first to break the news, and provide the link-to obituary, appear to have begun to supersede the common practice of waiting to hear if they’ve even unplugged the ventilator yet.

Our fascination with such tragic news, and our eagerness to engage with it, is not a sign that we’ve grown particularly ghoulish – although the death of a celebrity comes wrapped within the terrible truth that even the most rich, blessed lives can come a-cropper of unchecked cholesterol. It’s testament to the fundamental lack of online empathy and connection. The internet, most days, is a swarming hive of horror, conflict and depressing Kanye shit, but like the passing of a hearse in the street, mourning a pop culture legend is one of the few moments that social media stops for a second, rediscovers the concept of respect and, for the briefest instant, feels in any way unified. Then its straight back to the existential and political despair, performative offence and rows about ‘The Car’.

You can potentially understand, then, the mentality of creating such a hoax. These are deeply sad and lonely people, disguised as gibbering stoner idiots, craving a spark of true emotion in their lives. The sort of people who want to show you things on a night bus, or who follow Darren Grimes just to feel something. Like lobbing a Pot Noodle at a Basquiat, they dream of creating a global rush of human unity and they don’t care how creepy and vindictive they look doing it.

In many ways, I welcome the (crucially unthreatening) celebrity death hoax. Jerry Lee might not be the best example, given all that marrying-his-13-year-old-cousin stuff in the ‘50s, but by and large they give us that brief moment of appreciation, that elbowing reminder of an influential talent that sends us racing back to their music again, minus the actual grief. I’ve always thought there’s something a little cruel and overprotective about saving our outpourings of love for artists until the very second they’re not around to hear them, as if to spare them the knowledge of their own mortality that has been written all over their pancreas X-rays for months. At least this way the act in question gets a real glimpse of the esteem they’re held in before the reaper guests on the final number. It’s like an encore on life itself, and long may they push back the curfew.

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