Before we start talking about dead celebrities, let's get one thing straight. There are two kinds. There are people that happened to be celebrities and then died because they were old – like Jimmy Saville. And then, there are people who did great things and died right in their prime (although they may not necessarily have been famous before their death.) It is this latter sort that we tend to admire. The ones who died young, in their prime.
For us looking at them is a case of never selling out, compromising or changing. Ian Curtis and Bob Marley only ever made good music. Che Guevara died standing up for what he believed in. Jeff Buckley and Amy Winehouse, well they were too beautiful for this world. And Sid Vicious, he was the most punk rock bro that there has ever been.
We love them for their integrity, we mourn them for leaving us too soon. When they die, tributes surge forth: televised funerals, endless radio play. And always, always, 'best of' releases, biographies and picture anthologies. For months, sometimes a year afterwards, we are constantly reminded of their existence. Their deaths become events in themselves. Do you remember where you were when Michel Jackson died? (I was up a cherry tree in West Virginia).
There are those who died before we knew who they were, often before we were born. Che Guevara, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain. These men, or rather their images became shorthand for rebellion and refusal to compromise. And often, when we are young (and stupid) we choose them to represent us, unaware that many of our parents still own their albums or once had a poster of them too. In a way, these pure and noble people exist as a cultural shorthand for something that is unattainable, consistently cool and rebellious.
So let's take Sting as a counter-example. If I'm honest, and I am, The Police are actually alright. Additionally, you can look at all the films that Sting was in in the late seventies and early eighties. He was king of the mods in Quadrophenia, henchman in David Lynch's Dune, and beatnik musician in new wave classic Radio On. On paper, early Sting was pretty cool and rebellious and it's not hard to imagine - had he thrown himself under a bus in 1981, Sting would be remembered with the same blind adoration as James Dean, Jimmy, Che, and Kurt. Emo kids would be wearing hoodies with his gorgeous Geordie mug on them whilst painting their nails black listening to 'Message in a Bottle'. He didn't though; Sting hung around and wrote songs about world peace and tea. Now the only people who blindly adore him are ladies like my Auntie Nora. We can safely assume that if Cobain had stuck around he would probably be releasing his equivalent to 'Desert Rose' in the next couple of years.
Ben Dunmore is a writer for arts magazine Article