When the song came across my favorite German radio station this morning, my eyes rolled with the familiar lyrics: "Your candle burned out long before your legend ever will." Still, with today's 20-year anniversary of the death of Lady Di, Elton John's prediction is holding up strong.
Princess Diana's "death by media" was a watershed moment, one of the defining events where many remember where they were when they heard the news (though, given the technology of the time, it was likely to be near a radio or TV). As such, it also provides a reference point to assess the changes society has undergone over the past two decades.
In 2017, the paparazzi who denied Lady Di her privacy (and whom some blame for the Paris car accident that killed her) haven't gone away, but social media have arguably made them much less relevant. Take the example of Beyoncé, whom we can consider music royalty. A singing superstar and business mogul with over 100 million followers on social media — her fans even call her their "Queen Bey." But whereas Lady Di and her charity work were dependent on the same media she both needed and despised, Beyoncé, through her Instagram, is able to take complete control of her image, ensuring the world sees only what she wants it to see. She simultaneously offers up her life for consumption and strictly controls access to it.
This past February, Beyoncé took to Instagram to announce she was pregnant with twins, posting photos from an elaborate and floral maternity photoshoot. By breaking the news of her pregnancy first, Bey scooped the paparazzi at their own game. She cut out the need for any speculation, any observations about her body or her weight, and instead made room for immediate celebration among her fans. And again, after the twins were born this summer, Beyoncé was the first (and only) person to release photos of them.
Princess Diana's "death by media" was a watershed moment.
When she posts a photo, Beyoncé gives the public the same thing as the paparazzi: fuel for our celebrity obsession. But by sharing the photos herself, ahead of the tabloids, Bey liberates herself from the pressure of having the media constantly breathing down her neck, something Lady Di was unable to do, up until her dying moment.
Of course, for celebrities as well as for any individual, there's a fine line between cherry picking the important things you want to share (for both business and private reasons) and feeding your entire life to what French psychoanalyst and philosopher Clotilde Leguil calls "the online Other." In a piece penned for Le Monde, and exclusively translated by Worldcrunch, Leguil warns that the "mass narcissism" of our time "eventually diverts everybody from their own existence," and calls for a rethink of psychoanalysis' role and place in our hyper-connected digital world.
We'll never know whether social media could have saved Lady Di's life. But judging by our Facebook and Twitter feeds today, it's fair to say that the candle is still burning.