The music industry experienced two significant deaths in the last couple weeks. First, of country music legend George Jones, who died on April 26 at 81, and second, of Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who died May 2 at the age of 49 of liver failure.
I’m not one for mourning celebrities—I’ve “felt” three famous deaths in my time; George Harrison, Layne Staley and Ronnie James Dio—and I generally think that being surprised when someone dies is like being surprised when the sun rises, but if you listen to country or you listen to metal, chances are one of these deaths has at very least occupied some of your attention these last weeks.
And the other one? Not at all.
Being selfish is a basic human condition, but if you ever wanted proof for the theory of relativity, look no further than situations like this, in which alternate and in many cases opposing subcultures can both go into mourning with no concern or even awareness of the other doing essentially the same thing. I’m willing to wager the majority of Slayer fans don’t know or care who George Jones was—obviously there will be exceptions—and that most of those who followed Jones have correspondingly little interest in “Raining Blood,” which was just one of the many pivotal thrash metal classics Hanneman wrote.
Both of these men were raging alcoholics for most of their lives, and both were wildly influential within their stated sphere. But that’s what happens with genre. You get locked into it and there’s no getting out. So even for these two figures, whose praises have been liberally sung in the wake of their passing, their reach hasn’t proved great enough to affect each other’s fanbase.
That’s amazing to me, but you see it everywhere. What matters to someone doesn’t matter to someone else. It can be music or other media, or culture, or even human lives. A building used for garment factories in Bangladesh collapses April 24 and the death toll—at press time, because they’re still counting—is over 650. Three people die in the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15. Which do we care more about? The Boston Marathon bombing, if you go by the sheer amount of media coverage. Why? It’s local and it’s what matters to us as Americans.
Similarly, if you care about country music, then doubtless the news of Jones’ passing was a shock and a cause for mourning, and if you care about metal, Hanneman’s death will likely have made an impact on you. But both men were human beings, both lives had value in the contributions they made, so what is it that makes them matter to some and not to others? Is it a basic capacity we have as a species for grief? What if we mourned every death equally? I mean everyone.
What if we felt the effect as deeply for the loss of an Afghani life as for an American life? Would we still kill each other? Would we still need religion? Sometimes willingly and sometimes just by accident of birth, we separate into these teams—by nationality, by religion, by gender, by cultural preferences, etc.—and when someone on our team dies, it means more to us than when someone on another team dies. We call it nature. What if it was the other way?
I guess it would be a much different world, maybe better, maybe not. In any case, if you find yourself grieving for either of these men, you have my condolences for your loss.