A few grumpy tweets by Times journalist Camilla Long, who once tweeted about crying over Michael Jackson’s death but said Bowie fans doing the same should get over it, prompted an article on “grief police” at The Atlantic which led to a Metafilter thread on the whole subject of public grieving, and whether that’s even the right word for it. I pitched in a few thoughts, reproduced in edited form below for the benefit of the all-consuming daily-posting schedule.
Last Friday I caught PM on BBC Radio 4 at the point where they discuss reader feedback on the week’s programming, which unsurprisingly was full of complaints about Bowie-saturation of the airwaves from disgruntled non-fans. I wondered (or rather, snarked loudly at the radio to nobody else in the room) what deaths of public figures they would consider worthy of more than a passing mention in a single day’s news bulletins? Because I can’t think of many. When the Queen dies we’ll witness an extended period of public mourning and endless analysis, even more than we did when her mother died in 2002, and if David Cameron died tomorrow we’d see the same. But David Bowie was far more significant than David Cameron. A hundred years from now, Bowie’s best work will endure, while Cameron’s name will be a footnote known only to historians. We remember Edward Elgar, not Herbert Asquith. I would personally see Bowie as a more significant figure than the Queen, come to that, and I say that having carried her face around in my pocket every day since I was a child, stamped onto small round metal discs. Her face might be everywhere (if you live in the Commonwealth), but she hasn’t made stuff.
But there will be plenty of public expressions of grief when the Queen dies, and I won’t think the people who take part are “insincere”, whatever being “sincere” in this context is supposed to mean. If you feel moved enough to express your shock, I’ll assume you’re sincere about it. Especially if we're talking about Twitter—it’s not as if it takes more than a moment to tweet your feelings.
I haven’t been moved by other celebrity deaths to quite the same extent as this one, but there are plenty of artists I mourn, even though I wasn’t there to experience the collective response to their deaths. I was 12 when Lennon died, and too young to get it, but a few years later became a Beatles fan, and had plenty of cause to feel sad that he was gone. When I got into Sibelius, I felt sad that he died without completing his 8th symphony, and even some sense of loss about that, yet he died in 1957 at the age of 91, a decade before I was born. But those were private reactions, with no outlet for public expression that I could take part in, because the collective moment had long passed.
The scale of this reaction wasn’t just because of who Bowie was and what he represented. Long and other “grief police” are overlooking the impact of the circumstances surrounding Bowie’s death, probably because they weren’t paying attention themselves. I was never a Total Fan the way some are (though I’m fast becoming one), but was enough of one that I’d bought his comeback album in 2013 and had his new release on my buy-soon list. I’d been paying attention to the birthday celebration articles that had been appearing in the press only a few days before, and reading reviews of Blackstar. When I switched on the radio that Monday morning and heard his name, I thought at first that it was about that (and thought it a little odd, as his birthday had passed), which heightened the shock when I realised it wasn’t. If Bowie hadn’t been in this late flurry of activity, but instead had died in 2012, the collective response might have felt quite different; his death still would have had an impact, but without that same sense of losing an artist who still had more to give. In that way, it had something in common with Lennon’s, which happened while he too was promoting a comeback album after years of silence.
Even though Long expressed dread about what will happen on social media when Paul McCartney dies, I suspect it’s going to feel a bit different, and I say that as a bigger Beatles fan than Bowie fan. McCartney spent a chunk of the 1990s going back over the archives, which did some of the work of preparing us for the inevitable. Bowie in his late sixties made one of his most startling new albums in years; and then blindsided us all by dying two days after its release. There aren’t many precedents for that in the history of popular culture, and if that isn’t worthy of comment then not much is.