I can’t tell you where I was when Lennon was shot. It’s not a memory lapse or a lack of historical awareness, but a simple biological phenomenon: I wasn’t alive. And I wouldn’t be until three years later, to the day, on December 8, 1983.
It’s an interesting thing, growing up my entire life with my birthday lingering in the shadow of another person’s death. Every year gone by for me is also another anniversary for him. Really, you can say that about anyone, but being born on Lennon’s death day is different than if I were born the day Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, or even Michael Jackson died. Those three were famous, insanely famous, but “Lennon” might as well have been pop culture’s codeword for “legend,” and in death more than life, he cemented the prototype of what it means to become a modern celebrity.
No one before him, and to an artistic extent, no one after him ever blurred the line between art and life like he did. From the moment he left Liverpool to perform for the first time in the US, all Lennon ever did was either performance or performative. An artist and an un-artist at the same time, he lived a parallel life where his stage performances are measured with success and his performative life is an intangible fog of public support.
In a recent Newsweek article, Andrew Romano wrote:
Lennon’s iconic predecessors- Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley- played the parts the culture had cast them in. Lennon broke character so often that you could no longer ignore the distance between the person and the persona. He was the first meta-celebrity.
Lennon himself was very much aware of his fame, although he always treated it on the record with disengaged distance. Off the record, it was his most powerful tool for political and humanitarian causes. In 1968, he talked about his celebrity status, not as a reward, but as an actual functioning entity:
We’ve got this machine, and we’ll try and make use of it, for good, and not just to have a machine.
In many ways, John Lennon was the crux, or even turning point, of celebrity activism. Before him, celebrity activists were mostly dissident writers, and they played a role in society by pointing out its wrongs and offering up solutions.
Lennon started in that vein when he publicly criticized the Vietnam War, then privately hounded Nixon’s administration and the FBI. He never claimed to be an expert on war in the same way celebrities today present themselves as tenured faculty in their causes; he just knew it was wrong and that it needed to end.
As much as he tried to use his fame for political good, he also fought against it and eventually lost, because it is not so much his actions that immortalized him, but his celebrity status and persona.
Now, 30 years after Lennon’s death, celebrity activism is everywhere, but it’s not the same. Today, celebrities take on unanimously-approved causes, such as fighting cancer, HIV/AIDS, and genocide.
Don’t get me wrong, all of these causes constantly need attention and advocacy, but they’re also easy ones for the rich and famous to take on because they’re politically correct. You can’t morally argue against the need for cancer and AIDS cures, but many argued against Lennon when he protested against war and violence because he threatened the foundation that the United States’ fight against Communism was founded on. And yet he didn’t care.
Public opinion be damned; he agitated for answers before Vietnam protests became cool. More than an activist, he was a dissident. As William Easterly put it in The Washington Post,
The celebrity desire to gain political power and social approval breeds intellectual conformity, precisely the opposite of what we need to achieve real changes. Politicians, intellectuals and the public can fall prey to groupthink and need dissidents to shake them out of it.
Current celebrity activism seeks to remind us of the need for change while Lennon’s activism sought to ask for it.
In the end, it was Lennon’s celebrity persona that killed him. Mark David Chapman, otherwise known as the deranged fan who shot Lennon, said in a parole hearing in September, “I felt that by killing John Lennon, I would become somebody.”
“He was seeking ‘instant notoriety,’” wrote Newsweek, “one of his victim’s major innovations.”
And so it goes. For many, Lennon lives on through his words and music. Those who remember his death came of age during the era of the rock star where immortality is a given if you move people enough.
For those born after his death, we came of age during the era of the celebrity, which is far more fleeting and less timeless than rock stars. To post-death generations, Lennon lives on also as a bridge: in life, he was a rock star; in death, a celebrity.
So we listen to his words, imagining with a sense of unanchored nostalgia for a life that ended before we began, which I swear sometimes I can remember, but like any dead artist, I only know him preserved.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Pearce via Flickr