Bowie, Grief And The Internet
Following the death of musician and actor David Bowie, Grace explores how we deal with the death of celebrities in the digital age.
The death of anyone is a shock. Whether you know it’s coming or if it blindsides you, the onset of grief means that you can never be fully prepared. On Monday, the world woke up to the news that musician; actor, artist and philanthropist David Bowie had passed away after an alleged 18-month battle with cancer. As the news plays out online, I realised a few things about how we deal with the death:
- 1. People Aren’t Immortal, But Their Work Is
When a famous person dies, the shock is the same but the reaction is different. We’re never prepared because somehow we think they’re immortal. ‘Mindy Project’ creator Mindy Kaling tweeted, ‘If I’m being honest, the scariest thing about David Bowie dying is that I secretly think talent should allow you to escape death’. For the celebrities that have had a culture-changing impact, and even those haven’t, the idea that they won’t create or produce work for us to consume or admire seems impossible because they’ve given so much. When a public figure has been around for as long as some people have alive, it can feel as though their existence is perfectly tied to ours; that we know them, even if they didn’t know us. They’re not just their own, but everyone’s and that can’t just go away. And they never really do. This digital age means nothing is lost or forgotten.
2. ‘A Digital Body Is Harder To Get Rid Of Than A Real One’ – Nikesh Shukla
Social media raises problems. What do we do with the digital footprint? Today, Bowie’s Facebook page reads like a condolence book as fans clamour to comment on what he meant to them. His other accounts and the overall content on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are the same. To an extent, Bowie is one of the rare few who aimed to take control of his persona before his death. His final album, released days ago, makes direct reference to his impending passing. His music and videos gave him some control over his persona in death, but his social media is already a shrine. Though he never used his accounts personally, what will happen to them? Should they be left? Should they be deleted? Who decides how long his legacy (via social media) should continue?
3. There’s A Difference Between Private And Public Grieving
When someone close to us passes, it can be an isolating experience. We desire space and time to think and grieve in peace and freedom from people who offer one too many condolences. ‘Please respect our privacy,’ is the statement we’re used to hearing from the families of celebrities and we can imagine this process happening right now in the lives of his loved ones. But on the outside, publications are digging up archive footage, playlists are made, iconic photos are circulated and social media goes into overdrive. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it has changed.
I was three when Princess Diana died and back then, public grieving meant pouring over looped footage of the last time she was seen and watching the funeral on TV. Now, social media offers the opportunity to be actively involved and everyone wants to be. Every third post resembles another because how can they really be different? None of us knew him. A colleague, Holly, who has had a recent bereavement, commented on the flood of tributes on her news feed: ‘Just before Christmas, two friends of mine died in a tragic car crash. Tributes and commiserations poured from my Facebook, each post making the reality truer and sadder…. I quickly realised [Bowie’s death] wasn’t going to feel the same. Undeniably monumental in his influence, David Bowie was an icon. But he wasn’t someone I knew. And had I not experienced a recent bereavement, I’m sure I too, would have reacted in the same way.’
4. Not Even Fame Makes You Perfect
Death makes us reflect and just as they would with their loved ones, people have begun to bring up the challenging and generous things Bowie had done. MTV released this archive footage of an interview where Bowie challenged them on the lack of black musicians in their programming. Others praised his gender-bending persona, which inspired many in the queer and trans community, while his dedication to humanitarian work has been applauded. If you asked half of the internet, Bowie would be next in line to receive a sainthood, which he’d probably reject, because after all, he’s David Bowie.
Reflecting on the deceased is strange because you automatically dwell on the good. Surely doing the opposite just makes you heartless and bitter, yes? Well, perfect beings don’t exist and the other half of the internet isn’t afraid of that. Criticisms come just as soon as the praise lands. Knowledge of his accused rape and his sexual relationships with underage girls generated discussion on The Complexity of Mourning a Celebrity Accused of Sexual Abuse. Yes, he was a great musician and performer, but does that mean we should forget about the problematic things he did? People may ignore the questionable behaviour of celebrities for a time, but as in the case of Bill Cosby, it will always come up.
5. All Publicity Is Good Publicity
I’ll make an admission: I have never actively listened to David Bowie. I know his hits because I’ve watched a reasonable amount of X Factor but here I am writing about him because his death is very relevant. If you think I’m using his death for my gain, I’d agree, but I’d have to point you to the thousands of other news outlets, journalists but also likely businesses, artists and musicians who are saying, ‘Bowie just died – here’s my product’ first. People are intelligent enough to recognise what is relevant and heartfelt, but it’s important to remember that aside from a rare few, people are not opposed to using whatever they can find to push their agenda.
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