For me, it was River Phoenix, particularly of the Stand By Me days. The other day I put that movie on while I was sorting laundry, and I admit, I am still a little proud of my tweenage self for that crush. Twenty years on, he’s still a really good actor, stormily romantic even before that sky broke open. I still remember the twist in my stomach when I heard he’d overdosed on a sidewalk, the first edition of a feeling I’d come to understand is just a part of paying attention to celebrities at all.
And, you know, his was a different sort of fame, and he was a different sort of actor, but there are a lot of teenagers in America who felt that twist over the weekend about Cory Monteith. The star of Glee, if you haven’t heard, was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room over the weekend. He turned 31 a couple of months ago, around the time he went to rehab for a drug habit he’d said in interviews had been plaguing him since he was 13. Rumors are it’s an overdose.
What distinguished Monteith from a Phoenix, or Kurt Cobain, or James Dean, is foremost that he wasn’t the kind of celebrity who had a target painted on his back. No one was saying of him, in the tabloids, that it was only a “matter of time.” And it wasn’t just a matter of how he lived his life, it was his image, too. One TV critic called his is character on Glee, the football-player-turned-Gleek named Finn, “the heart and emotional anchor of the show.” He did not cut the figure of the kid living dangerously. For someone who starred in a show about outcasts, to go by the teenage classic The Outsiders, he had styled himself more of a Soc than a greaser. By all available accounts he was beloved by co-stars and had a mild, friendly, sweet personality not all that far from his lovable character’s. In other words, he wore the burden of his addiction quietly. In recent pictures he looks, well, just fine.
Probably in the coming months a more complicated story will emerge, but in the short term it accounts for the shock. As you get older, you learn that you can’t always spot the person who is suffering in the crowd. It stops surprising you that it’s just as often the person you thought was doing great as the one stumbling around glassy-eyed, in torn clothing. But couple the novelty of learning that with youthful feelings of immortality, and you get the prostrations and the tears that always come with deaths like these. And even grown-ups, even the ones who don’t watch Glee, can, I think, remember what that feels like.
Where once there were in-person vigils to accommodate this, now teenagers are creating them online. There are, at last count, more than 700,000 members of the “R.I.P. Cory Monteith” Facebook page. Twitter is awash in a #prayforLea hashtag. (Lea Michele, another Glee star, was dating Monteith in real life at the time of his death.) His costars, to whom he was reportedly close, have mostly remained silent, except for one, who tweeted a single “no.” On Tumblr, where Glee was a big hit because of its band-of-misfits premise, I keep seeing this picture go by, which mashes a picture of Michele and Monteith, the latter holding a card reading “we’re getting married” (reflecting rampant rumors that the two were engaged) with another of a woman greeting a casket draped in an American flag.
That bit of iconography feels strange, particularly since the other bit of news convulsing social media this weekend and into this week is a debate about the value of a young black man’s life. The circumstances are entirely different, of course, and the comparison somewhat unfair. But Glee always took pride in the diversity of its cast, and whatever the show’s own faults in practice, there was always something rather encouraging about the way teenagers flocked, specifically, to that. Monteith’s Finn reached down from the best position of power high school offers, the football team, and insisted that outcasts were worth knowing. And in a weekend of unquestionably bad news for teenagers in America, black or otherwise, maybe the only hopeful thing to take away is that at least in this one case the adulation and fandom actually stood for something beyond his beauty or “hotness” or even his talent.