Whose death would stun the Western World?

A month ago I asked readers What is the most misunderstood idea of all time?Image

My next big (slightly morbid) question is Whose death would stun the Western World?

A few years ago when Michael Jackson unexpectedly died, it felt like the world sort of skipped a few beats. I was in South Korea at the time. I tended to go to foreigner bars that catered to Canadians, Americans, Brits, Aussies and New Zealanders. My main bar was essentially running a several day long Michael Jackson marathon. He may well have been the most famous person in the world.

ImageOn a smaller but still huge scale, Kurt Cobain‘s untimely death in the 90s deeply affected a certain Western youth subculture. Indeed, suicide rates among teenagers and young adults spiked a little bit in the immediate period following Cobain’s passing.jfk

A few years later the world was stunned by the tragic death of Princess Diana.  A few generations prior to that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy took the 220px-Princessdiworld by storm.

I don’t think that Kurt Cobain’s death was as big of a deal to the Western World as a whole as those of MJ, Di, and JFK.

Who, if they were to die tomorrow, would be the next MJ, Di or JFK in terms of the cultural impact of their passing? Alternatively, whose death would have the greatest impact on the Western World if it were to happen tomorrow?

I will offer a few nominations (in order of impact; NOTE: My listing is VERY North America centric):

1. Barack Obama. Any currently serving American President.

2. Oprah Winfrey

3. Michelle Obama

Barack Obama and Winfrey would be in a shared class of their own. I don’t know that anyone else would stand beside them in terms of cultural impact of death. Except maybe Michelle Obama. A lot of people just seem to love her. Part of me wonders if perhaps Oprah should be #1.

3. Hilary Clinton

4. Bill Clinton

5. The Pope. Any Pope.

6. Stephen Colbert

7. Jon Stewart

Colbert and Stewart? They’re just political comedians! They’re also among the leading voices of a growing, and increasingly frustrated segment of Americans. What is more, they’ve affected the culture. Often times, it used to be said, the jester can get away with saying things to the powerful that no one else can. They’ve been able to get away with subversion that actual news anchors almost never engage in. Really, when it comes to informing the people and holding the powerful accountable on a grand scale, one would be hard pressed to find others that measure up to these two.

8. Rush Limbaugh

9. Bill O’Reilly

From my left-leaning perspective, these appear to be the two biggest and, definitely in the case of Limbaugh, most polarizing figures on the American Right.

A close call:

10. Elton John

Elton John has been a trans-generational musical superstar, cultural icon, and gay rights icon. He has left a mark on the culture.

Honourable Mention:

11. Eminem

Marshall Mathers, Slim Shady, or Eminem, has been a subversive, category-challenging, censor-defying, voice for several millions of Westerners. He came on by storm because he an extremely talented white black-talking rapper. He had bleached hair and a young face, but a vicious scowl, a piercing voice and even more piercing lyrics. He put out smash hit albums one after the other. A major movie success. Puff Daddy was right when he said “10 years from now we’ll still be on top”. Slim has lasted even longer.


Have I missed anyone? Do you disagree with my ordering? Give your two cents in the comment section. If you think this is an interesting question, share it and like it 🙂

UPDATE: Feel free to call me out on how unbelievably America-centric my offerings were. Two major oversights that have already been pointed out to me: Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger.


8 thoughts on “Whose death would stun the Western World?

  1. Speaking as a provincial non-expat American, I have to say that you rely too much on overrated singers. In America, Jackson’s death basically inaugurated a 3-day period in which his name was no longer used as an automatic punchline for a joke, and that was about it. McCartney is not an automatic punchline, but his death would be of extremely minor note, except for Baby Boomers who haven’t moved on since their teenage years. McJagger is of similar stature: who cares, other than his immediate circle?

    The Clintons fall in the same category. Bill was a disappointingly stupid man as president (“gee, every single Republican in the country is gunning for me and looking for any possible excuse to get in my way, I think I’ll go commit adultery in the oval office — oh, but first, let’s deregulate wall street”), and Hillary is a power-hungry establishment drone who somehow manages to convince some people that she’s not a right-winger. (She’s one of the most bought-and-paid-for-by-the-banks Democratic politicians right now.) Only her partisans would be stunned if she died. Quite a lot of the rest of the U.S. — both left and right; I think you underestimate how tired a lot of us on the left are of her — would breathe a sigh of relief. And the only people outside the country who would care are her ultra-rich buddies (who are 1% of the 1%) and maybe the citizens of the various countries she has hypocritically threatened and cajoled over the last few years, who would be glad to see the back of her. (Bill is similar, only since he isn’t as explicitly active on the political stage only his buddies would be stunned.)

    I think a lot depends on the manner of death as well. It would not stun me, or I think most people, to hear of Queen Elizabeth II or the Pope dying of natural causes sometime in the not-all-that-distant future, because they’re old enough that that’s a possibility. But if they were shot or poisoned or died in some spectacularly scandalous way, then it would be a big deal. (The same could be said of Ronald Reagan when he was president; he underwent surgery and was clearly worn out — not to say senile, which I still think is plausible despite the frenzied denials by his doctors — by the end of his second term. It would have severely shaken up the US politically if he had died, but nobody would have been stunned, exactly.)

  2. Lots of good points in the comments.

    Perhaps Glenn Beck would be up there. And Bono – DEFINITELY. I don’t know if Ahmadinejad would be in the same general cultural impact stratosphere as the others here.

    The Queen, I guess I underestimated that one. I was figuring “well, she’s really old and mainly ornamental”. But still, the Western world would stop and take notice.

    And definitely manner of death would be huge. If the Queen or the Pope were to be assassinated or die in some Princess Di-esque manner, it would be a much bigger deal than if they simply and understandably died of natural causes in their respective advanced ages.

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