I was at my friend Jon’s house when Matt Brigham called with the news that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. We were stunned and we turned on MTV to watch the coverage. About a year and a half later, I was driving down Monroe Avenue in Rochester, NY when I saw a kid with a cardboard sign that said, “Honk for Jerry, He’s Gone.” It wasn’t until I got home later that day that my mother told me that “Jerry” was Jerry Garcia.
Both of these artists meant more to my friends and classmates than they did to me but what I really remember is that most of the talk about these two deaths happened in real life. It was the age before social media.
In The “Rule of 3” Is Over author Nico Lang says that basically we have entered an era of constant mourning. Death is no longer private and, in fact, has become a way to get clicks. Posting about a death – just like everything else on social media – can be a form of image creation. Announcing whose death you are sad about says something about you. (Announcing which deaths you think are primed for jokes says something too. If hair metal disasters in Rhode Island and missing southeast Asian airplanes are any indication, deaths are tolerable when numerous, anonymous, and relatively far away.)
So, I need to get something out of the way and I’m not saying this to be provocative or mean spirited or to try to cultivate my own image as a contrarian. I’m saying it so you know where I’m coming from. Ready? Here we go. I never cared about David Bowie. I liked it when “Let’s Dance” came on in the bowling alley during my league games. I also love “Under Pressure.” But, well, that’s about it. I never got him. And, to be fair, I never got Lou Reed, either. I bought my first Bob Dylan album in my late twenties and, though I like it just fine, his music doesn’t speak to me the way it clearly does to other people. (The book Positively Fourth Street kind of ruined ole Bobby Zimmerman for me but I digress.)
The outpouring of mourning for David Bowie seemed almost total, from the viewpoint of my facebook feed anyway. It seemed that everyone had been a huge fan and not only a fan but truly touched by his art. I didn’t get it. Like I said, he wasn’t my guy. I thought it was a little over the top but it wasn’t my place to say so because I thought about a recent death that did move me. It was Robin Williams.
Unlike Bowie fans, for me, music wasn’t my salvation from loneliness, it was comedy. Robin Williams was the second comedian who got to me (the first was Bill Cosby but, well, let’s just not). I had Robin Williams: Live at the Met on cassette and on VHS and I watched it and listened to it over and over. I was at a storytelling open mike when I got a text from my girlfriend that he had died. I looked it up on my phone. Not only had he died, he’d killed himself. Some people in the room started crying as they heard the whispers – there was a show going on – or received texts themselves.
Over the next few days, facebook blew up. People paid tribute to Robin Williams the way people do with death – through stories. People posted about how much his comedy meant to them throughout their lives and how talented he was. Others posted personal stories of actually meeting him that reached me and my friends through being shared and shared again through social media. Chris Gethard from the UCB posted a great story of the time he dropped in to do their weekly Sunday improv show Asssscat.
I posted some of my favorite jokes of his from Live at the Met. Among them, “What’s your name, beautiful? What’s your name, gorgeous? Fuck off? Really. Are you Russian?”
And then Will Leitch posted an article called Saint Robin which called people out for over praising Robin. Would you have called him your favorite comedian the day before he died? No, the day before he died, he was still our modern conception of Robin Williams who had become a borderline joke because of Patch Adams and other movies like it.
That article pissed me off. But rereading that article now, I see Leitch’s point. With Bowie, I was able to watch the praise unfold with more detachment. People posted about how much he meant to them and how he made them feel okay in their own skin. People posted his songs (though, conveniently forgetting “Dancing In The Streets” from the Bowie era lambasted in Velvet Goldmine). That was nice. Then a few articles started showing up more and more. David Bowie rips into MTV for not featuring black artists. Okay. I didn’t know that he did that in 1983. That’s cool. Then people started praising him for his gender fluidity, also a good thing.
Now both of those things are great but let’s not forget that David Bowie remained a white male with all of the privileges that affords and, unless I missed the links, said little about race relations in the thirty-three years hence. And it’s important for people who eschew gender norms to have a role model but he was a cis-gendered male who married two women, one of whom was a model. (Incidentally, you could use that very same description for Ric Ocasek. And Billy Joel if it was 1995.)
And then I read another article discussing his history with statutory rape and I knew that we had gone full Internet on Bowie. If you can make someone a champion of race relations and gender equality, while simultaneously condemning their complicity in rape culture all within the span of twenty-four hours, you’re not really talking about that person anymore. You’re using that person as a lens through which to look at the modern world. (Mercifully, David Bowie never weighed in publicly on gun control or Bernie Sanders.)
What is it about mourning on social media that just doesn’t sit well with me?
We had gone over the top and then, a few days later, Alan Rickman died. Tributes to him poured in and then, as was inevitable, the backlash started. I myself posted this article: Tasteless Ways to Make the Next Celebrity Death About You. Several posts like this hastened the backlash to the backlash with people posting things like, “why can’t I just sincerely pay tribute to someone? What’s wrong with that?”
And that got me thinking. What is it about mourning on social media that just doesn’t sit well with me? I mean a facebook status or tweet is just that – a status or a tweet. It serves as a placeholder or a signpost of an actual feeling but it’s not an actual feeling. In other words, don’t sign the sympathy card in the break room and then pretend that you were at the funeral.
When my parents died, I swore that I wouldn’t post a facebook status about it. I just don’t think the place where I promote my improv shows and bitch about sports is the same space in which I should talk about the death of loved ones. I also thought my parents – well, my mom – would have found it tacky.
But there are two things to mention here.
The first is that, while I didn’t do it, posting about the death or sickness of a loved one is a non intrusive way to let the people in your life know that you’re going through something, saving you the trouble of phone calls or a mass email (which is not much different than a facebook post). And second, while I never used a facebook status to talk about my parents while it was happening, I’ve written articles and several blog posts about them in the past few years and posted those links as statuses. So, is it a fine line for me or a meaningless distinction that I use to absolve myself of hypocrisy?
The day after I heard about Bowie, a co-worker said to me, first thing in the morning, “It’s so sad about David Bowie, isn’t it?” Then, later at my weekly storytelling open mike I overheard someone say, “I’ve been crying all day.” Almost a week later another co-worker played a Bowie album in the office because he could finally listen to it without crying. That’s when I got it. Other people are truly mourning this guy. I’m not but it’s not about me so maybe I should keep my mouth shut.
So, I finally got it, but, frankly, I really needed to hear it in real life.