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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Death Steals Show at MTV Music Awards

NEW YORK -- The specter of death hung over the MTV Video Music Awards last week at Radio City Music Hall. On and off camera, celebrities made frequent mention of those among their ranks who had died of unnatural causes since last year's awards show, from royalty (the Princess of Wales) to rappers (Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.) to those made famous by blood and marriage (Ennis Cosby and Dr. Betty Shabazz).

Oddly, there was no mention of Gianni Versace, although musicians close to him, like Elton John and Madonna, spoke of Diana.

Part of what gives celebrities their status over the many nobodies of the world is that they are preserved eternally in magazines, newspapers, CDs, films and other cultural artifacts.

When fans meet celebrities, they try to take a piece of that eternity with them, whether it be through a picture, an autograph or a piece of clothing or lock of hair. But this year celebrities and their fans are learning (as they do every few years) that despite the eternity that the word star implies, stars are flesh and blood like everyone else.

This has been a year in which the biggest single to date is a memorial, "I'll Be Missing You'' (Puff Daddy's tribute to Notorious B.I.G.), and the death of a celebrity has become a ritualized commodity, whether it be through the selling of photos depicting the tragedy or the release of posthumous albums.

"Tell me the truth,'' the award show's host, Chris Rock, asked the crew of MTV News backstage when the cameras were off. "You guys like it when somebody dies, don't you?'' Nobody laughed or spoke a word in response.

In some ways, the MTV Video Music Awards were reminiscent of the Academy Awards last year when the Hollywood audience sobbed and applauded after a speech by Christopher Reeve. Some were crying in pity and admiration. Others were crying for their own mortality. His wheelchair was a reminder: "Yes, it can even happen to you when you least expect it, no matter how safe and cautious you are.''

The difference was that, unlike Reeve's fall from a horse, the deaths of Diana, Versace, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur (who was strutting around, cocky and unassailable, at the MTV awards show party last year) were largely due to their status as public figures.

Madonna, in her speech, felt that we were all to blame. "It's time for us to take responsibility for our own insatiable need to run after gossip and scandals and lies and rumors,'' she said, speaking as one who has fled her share of paparazzi.

For perhaps the first time at the MTV Video Music Awards (typically more a celebration of celebrity than an actual awards show), a cynical eye was cast on fame. Speaking as if celebrities were an addiction like alcohol or drugs, Fiona Apple encouraged viewers not to base their lives on those of their entertainment idols.

Backstage, Will Smith took the sentiment even further, warning that "more tragedies can happen if you base your lives on knowing what other people are doing.'' Different musicians expressed grief in ways appropriate to their music.

The Spice Girls did it with vapidity, eulogizing Diana thus: "I think we're really about what Lady Diana had, she had real girl power,'' referring to the Spice Girls catch phrase telling female fans they have the power to accept the status quo.

The band Sublime, whose singer, Bradley Nowell, died of a heroin overdose last year, made a punk statement about the many pointless deaths. And Puffy Combs paid tribute to Notorious B.I.G. with a show of force and community, with Combs, his entourage and their relatives all wearing shirts with a picture of Notorious B.I.G. and the word "Remember.''

In the night's most moving moment, Notorious B.I.G.'s mother, Voletta Wallace, accepted the award for best rap video for her son, trying to speak the slang he would have used.

But just as the heroin-related suicide of Kurt Cobain didn't keep more than a half-dozen musicians from overdosing the next year, Thursday night's message about respecting the rights of public figures to live like ordinary human beings didn't keep the wolves at bay. Celebrities walked a gauntlet of screaming fans outside to get to the press area, where the media fought and clamored to film and photograph them.

After the awards show, as stars went to exclusive parties at hotels, photographers and cameramen lay in wait outside, shouting at each recognizable face. If a celebrity didn't stop for photographs, the paparazzi began hissing and in one case throwing things at them.

"How about giving me some of the money you make from my photographs,'' one musician yelled back as he sped away from the Four Seasons in his limousine, reflecting the increased contempt some stars have for the paparazzi since Diana's death.

Unfortunately, it will take a lot more than high-profile deaths and a sympathetic awards show to keep stardom from being the most envied and coveted 24-hour job in the Western world.