Originally published in the Glasgow Guardian, Issue 4 2015/2016
As the news of David Bowie’s death from cancer broke last Monday morning, the inevitable social media storm ensued within minutes. Celebrity death has always been an industry in itself, and the internet has only intensified the trend. Within hours of the announcement of Bowie’s untimely death, his records were shooting up the charts. Bookshops proudly displayed Bowie biographies in their windows whilst movies and documentaries featuring the late rock star trended on Netflix. I have no doubt that in the months to come Bowie merchandise and tribute albums will appear in abundance. Mass mourning has become as inevitable as celebrity death itself. However this attracts controversy too, from accusations of mourners jumping on the bandwagon to questions around the validity of grief for an individual we didn’t really know.
The mass media reaction to celebrity illness and death may go some way to explaining Bowie’s silence around his illness. As he avoided public spectacle in his final months, the release of his latest album the week before his death provided him with a rare opportunity. Blackstar allowed him to bow out on his own terms. Whilst Bowie was entirely in control of his own goodbye, his fans were in control of the aftermath. By hiding his terminal illness from traditional media, Bowie ensured that the fans had the first word. As journalists rushed to meet their deadlines for feature pieces on his death, the ordinary people had already set the tone of mourning through social media.
It is rare for me to be genuinely affected by a celebrity death. With the exception of the death of Robin Williams last year, my feelings do not tend to go beyond a vague sense of sadness for the deceased’s family and loved ones. So the feelings that hit me as I opened facebook on the morning of Bowie’s death, still tired and bleary eyed, were entirely unfamiliar. Plenty of celebrities have died in my lifetime, from Princess Diana to Michael Jackson. But as I saw the Bowie tributes filling up my news feed I felt a sense of shock and sadness which went beyond the norm.
Like most children of the eighties and early nineties, my first experience of Bowie was as the menacing yet enchanting Jareth the Goblin King in fantasy hit Labyrinth. It was not until years later, as I sat in my Dads living room watching the twentieth anniversary coverage of Live Aid that I truly began to appreciate his work. I was thirteen, an age few remember as anything but awkward. At the time I was an acne ridden teenager living in a small town, suffering from the all too common problem of high school bullying. As I watched the crowds sing along to Heroes, I felt an unfamiliar sense of hope. In the years that followed I delved deeper into Bowie’s back catalogue, from Hunky Dory to Ziggy Stardust to the eighties hits that had drawn me in to his music in the first place. Whether I was listening to Suffragette city on my portable cd player whilst walking the halls of my high school or dancing around to Magic Dance with my equally socially ostracised best friend. I began to feel a little less alone in the world. It was ok to be a little bit weird. It was ok to care about the bigger issues in the world, and to be passionate and idealistic.
As I listened to the radio on the day of Bowie’s death, I cried not just for the man himself but for all he meant to his fans. Stories flooded in from people of all ages, but some resonated more than others. A young man requested Kooks, Bowie’s ode to his young son, as his late father used to sing it to him when he was a child. Countless gay men spoke of how watching Bowie perform as Ziggy on Top of the Pops in the 1970’s made them realise they were not alone. That there was nothing wrong with not conforming to strict gender norms and heteronormative standards. With the advancement of LGBT rights in recent years, it is easy for my generation to forget how much more difficult life was for our parents’ generation.
Considering this, criticism of the strong feelings around Bowie’s death confuse me. After all, what is the point of art if it does not make us feel? Whether it comes in the form of music, film, theatre or poetry, the purpose of art is to give voice to complex human emotion. It is hardly surprising that we react strongly to the death of someone who created something which helped us to make sense of the world. It is truly amazing that we live in an age where an artist can transcend generations, being mourned by parents and their children alike. Of course, mass public grief will never compare to the grief of those who knew Bowie behind the stage persona. We grieve not necessarily for the person, but for what they represented, whether that is a relationship, an era of our lives or our own personal development. It is inevitable that the death of an artist will evoke the feelings and memories we associate with their work. So before you roll your eyes at yet another tribute, why not give it a read and consider the emotion behind it. After all, that is what art is for.