In June 2009 the Revolution Social Aid and Pleasure Club led a memorial parade to honor Michael Jackson on St. Bernard Avenue. More recently, there was a spectacular memorial parade for the late rock star David Bowie in the French Quarter on Jan. 16, 2016. Then a massive purple procession for recently deceased rock star Prince took place in the Treme on April 25. And last week, on Dec. 30, actor Carrie Fisher, of Star Wars fame, was honored with a rambling Bywater memorial parade.
In just 11 months, a nascent New Orleans custom seems to have snow balled with momentum.
On one hand, the evolution of the old-fashioned funeral parade seems perfectly natural. How else would New Orleans send off beloved pop icons? Yet the phenomenon seems a bit alien too. Traditionally speaking, when did we ever take to the streets to march in memory of folks who had no particular connection to Bienville's boggy burg?
The thousands of Jackson/Bowie/Prince/Fisher parade-goers, with their portrait placards, lightning bolt makeup, purple wigs, and defiantly raised plastic light sabers, obviously welcomed the new custom. But some onlookers perceived the parades as yet another anxiety-producing example of cultural appropriation and dilution.
"You are celebrating someone who never performed in New Orleans," wrote an apparently aggrieved NOLA.com commenter known as oldmetairie6, referring to Fisher.
"Is there a requirement for someone to have a connection to the city to be celebrated with a second line," retorted a NOLA.com commenter known as coe.
"What I love about NOLA most is that it doesn't usually destroy what came before; it supplements it. That's shockingly unique," wrote comment stream pundit otterswims.
NOLA.com commenter justmaybe01 said that he or she has seen the sort of celebrity veneration expressed (particularly) by Chewbacchus once before, almost 50 years back. Justmaybe01 recalled that in 1969 the popularity of the counterculture cinema classic "Easy Rider," which was shot in part in the Crescent City, inspired wandering hippies from across the nation to find their way to New Orleans public areas during Carnival.
"I myself vividly remember seeing groups of them camping in Audubon Park, wandering around carrying backpacks, as seen from the backseat of our family car, as a child," he or she wrote.
"It wasn't anything to do with anything about New Orleans, but a vague idea that was brought here by Hollywood celebrities and popularized by outsiders, and attached onto the existing Mardi Gras with no regard for whether it was a good fit or not."
A NOLA.com commenter called Thundercourage believed that the sometimes strident social media criticism of the Carrie Fisher parade included a measure of sexual bias.
"In New Orleans we celebrate a life well lived? No?," he or she wrote. "Carrie Fisher's life impacted far more people than all these haters combined. I think this is just more thinly veiled misogyny. No one seemed so furious about the Prince or David Bowie second lines."
Actually, criticism of the celebrity memorial parade phenomenon simmered from the start.
New Orleans music scene observer Alex Rawls posted a story titled "Second thoughts about David Bowie's second line: The local culture cops took issue ... Do they have a point?" on his "My Spilt Milk" website on Jan 18, 2016. The story outlined the debate about the first celebrity memorial march.
A My Spilt Milk commenter named Allan Linker immediately saw the upside of the first parade. He wrote: "I'm a native and was feeling depressed about the loss of Bowie all week. This was a great outlet for me and lots of other people who feel the same. It gave fans of the man a way to memorialize a hero who transcended cities and states. Some people may feel a culture plundering or whatever you want to call it, but they got it right."
In the aftermath of the Bowie parade My Spilt Milk reader Kim Bergeron asserted that New Orleans may be the natural home for parades marking the passage of pop music icons, regardless of where they hailed from.
As she wrote in January 2016: "The Big Easy is a city that has music running through its veins, (music is) the very essence of its being. The city and its people, and the many who visit, embrace all genres, from traditional to unique, from societal 'norms' to the excessively weird, and everything in between. I can think of no other city in the world that could have, or should have, embraced this tribute event other than the melting pot of a city celebrated worldwide for its culture."
Whether we approve or not, celebrity memorial parades have become a part of New Orleans' recent history. The question is: Are Bowie/Prince/Carrie Fisher-style celebrity memorial parades a custom that's here to stay? Or do you think the custom has run its course?
And here's a companion question: Why do you suppose some celebrities have received or will receive parades while others have not or will not?
The Bowie parade was conceived by members of the rock group Arcade Fire (with the help of the management of Preservation Hall) as a tribute to one of their greatest art-rock influences. Carrie Fisher, as Princess Leia, was one of the principal models for the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus. The Prince parade was reportedly planned by Loyola music business student Martha Alguera, trumpeter James Andrews and Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar owner Judy Hill, simply to express grief over the music world loss.
Will criteria spring up in the future, or will New Orleans select its heroes in the moment with its collective emotional compass?
Note: I updated this story on January 5 to include the 2009 Michael Jackson parade, which I had forgotten. Be sure to read Chelsea Brasted's story "Carrie Fisher parade sparks public conversation about second-lines, New Orleans culture."