The coronavirus is not the first pandemic of the Twitter age, but it will be the most remembered. Even though almost 12,500 Americans lost their lives to H1N1 during the Spring of 2009, March was still mad. Kobe was still alive and winning championships. Baba-Booey was still throwing out horrible first pitches. America, for the most part, stayed open. Today H1N1 is mostly a stick pundits use to measure both our government's reaction to the coronavirus and the media's coverage of that reaction. H1N1 and Twitter shared time together on the planet (still do), but COVID-19 is the first #pandemic. It will take years for us to come to terms with the swiftness with which it blew through our houses and slammed our doors shut.
Even though we've been forced to retreat behind closed doors and makeshift masks we are, in some ways, more connected in the face of COVID-19 than we've ever been. Because of Zoom, my wife currently spends more time with some of her co-workers than she did when they shared the same building. Even though venues are closed, concerts are common because social distancing doesn't apply to social media. Until an equally potent virus infects our devices, the way we cope with and relate to this new kind of isolation is something we can share and others can consume, which brings me to the next song on my COVID-19 soundtrack:
"ISOLATION" - JOHN LENNON
"People say we got it made. Don't they know we're so afraid?"
John Lennon made and released "Isolation" during a time of great personal and professional upheaval. It's the fifth track on his first official solo record, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, a starkly raw record that was a sharp left-turn away from the gloss and polish of The Beatles (despite their attempt to get back to basics with Let it Be). With each song, Lennon gives the audience a glimpse into what it's like to simultaneously quit drugs and The Beatles cold turkey. He sonically and lyrically lays his grief bare on "Mother" and wonders, now that he's stepped away from being a Beatle, "who am I supposed to be?" on "Look at Me."
This album is a good example of the dichotomy of celebrity. For Lennon, and probably for most famous people, fame and popularity can make you feel alone in a way that seems inconsistent and out of place when there's a version of you plastered here, there, and everywhere (thanks, Paul). At the height of Beatlemania, John, Paul, George, and Ringo found solace in one another's company by hanging out in their hotel room bathroom because that was the only place where they could be themselves on their own terms. Celebrities become wealthy by producing a version of themselves for our consumption. In that trade-off, they get trapped by the expectations that come from being who we think they are. For fans, it's easy to forget that there is an actual, feeling human being behind the pictures in the TMZ stories. With "Isolation" Lennon presents that humanity like an open wound.
Since the world cocooned, many of us have been contending with who we are. We go through familiar routines that, despite their sameness, are different from what we're used to. Shopping remains a necessary pastime. We have to eat and have toilet paper. Lots, and lots of toilet paper. Other constants aren't required, but not surprising in their constancy, like our obsession with celebrity. Almost 40 years after Lennon died, the world is still enamored with the concept that he helped create, came to hate, and was ultimately murdered by. We still consume the famous, even under quarantine. Want proof? For a lot of us, the threat of the coronavirus didn't become real until Tom Hanks -- America's Dad -- got it (you can check out his wife's quarantine playlist here). But we still want celebrity on our terms, which was never fair, perhaps even less so now. For example, BuzzFeed wants you to know that celebrities are pandemic shopping just like the rest of us. There's even pictures of Miley in a mask! Yet, that same media outlet laments that celebrity nonsense is at an all-time high, while The Nation explains how the coronavirus reveals that the stars are not like us (perhaps not even Forest Gump).
I disagree with The Nation's headline. Stars are like us, they just don't live like us. Yet it's as if there's a certain degree of worry, fear, suffering, and foolishness that isn't allowed celebrities, even though their world -- which admittedly is drastically different from ours -- has changed just as much. Vanessa Hudgens saying, “Yeah, people are gonna die. which is terrible. But like, inevitable” on Instagram is similar to Glen Menard Nordal saying "None if us are getting out of this world alive...virus or no virus....it's fear mongering at its best" on Facebook. The only difference is Hudgens has 38.8 million followers on Instagram and Nordal has 32 followers on Facebook. Not 32 thousand. Just 32. Insensitivity is another constant... virus or no virus.
Our continued consumption of celebrity quarantine culture is hypocritical and unfair. Even as we deny the rich and famous the right to fear and frustration, we still expect them to assuage ours. Hudgens was forgiven for her coronavirus faux pas as soon as it was announced that she would be participating in a High School Musical cast reunion singalong (add "We're All in this Together" to your quarantine playlist). Our how could they! during quarantine incredulousness moved onto Justin Timberlake and his public frustration with the demands of 24-hour parenting, even though social media was filled with things like this from "normal" people, once quarantine closed schools and remote learning ensued:
Neither of these pictures look like they were taken on a Montana ranch. I don't know Cara Biddings but her Twitter profile says she lives in Maine, and she seems nice. Yet, I see the same thread running through her and Timberlake's comments. They're both just humans. Victims of the insane situation we all are in.
Two years before "Isolation" was released, Lennon shouted "I'm lonely! Want to die!" on "Yer Blues." I'm definitely not there, but I am adapting to a new sort of loneliness. I'm thankful for my wife and my pups. I appreciate the virtual connectedness I have with others, but it is a pale substitute for the physical, human interactions I didn't know I'd miss until they were gone, like Thursday night trivia at my local dive bar. I want to stand outside my classroom between bells again, share the Jeopardy Clue of the Day with my colleagues, and joke with my students. The free and easy exchanges of "please" and "thank you" that occurred in restaurants and shops are either gone or given a new and tangible weight in today's circumstances, where buying groceries can be deadly.
When this is all over, I'd love to spend time in the Grenadines on David Geffen's 400 million dollar superyacht. But I wouldn't want to be stuck on it while the rest of my life was put on hold. For now, all of us still shop, celebrities in nicer stores, with a new distance that can't be measured in arm-lengths. The situation, not the setting, is what makes "Isolation" so heavy.