It was one of those waves. David Bowie died on a Sunday. Seven days later, it was Dale “Buffin” Griffin from Mott the Hoople and proto-rapper Clarence “Blowfly” Reid. Then Glenn Frey of the Eagles the day after that. And here’s the thing about waves: Some are bigger than others, but they never stop coming.
So now, with an entire generation of rock boomers approaching the twilight, our society braces for a new era of mourning, a situation that’s as dizzying as it is inevitable. Our heroes are about to vanish in great numbers, and our grief is about to become more frequent, more communal, more intense.
Is it wrong to hope that it might become more enriching, too? In our highly networked lives, a massive outpouring of grief quickly transforms into a massive outpouring of information. We rush to fill the voids that our icons leave behind with a profusion of tributes, assessments, remembrances and rebukes.
And has humanity ever known David Bowie as intimately as it does at this moment? His death triggered a non-stop gush of writing that attempted to examine every dimension of his identity, his humanity, his craft and his impact — good and bad, high and low, far and wide.
In a way, that gush felt formative. Instead of dutifully memorializing a profound loss, we now plunge ourselves into a more complete comprehension of it.
This will be how we mourn rock-and-roll in the information age.
If pop death seems to hit us harder than other iterations of celebrity death, it’s because we’re always mourning more than just the pop star.
When our rock-and-rollers disappear, we mourn their youth, their vitality and the sense of possibility that their entire generation represented. We mourn the beautiful futures that they promised us — and we calculate our role in the failure of those futures to materialize.
We mourn what didn’t unfold. The album that never got made. The concert we didn’t buy a ticket for.
And for the wild ones who made themselves legends by cheating death as if it were a matter of routine, we mourn the illusion of their invincibility. There’s such a profound dissonance between the immortality of music and the mortality of the human body, and we mourn that, too.
But through all of this, we’re fundamentally mourning a loss of self. We forge our identities through our favorite pop stars, so when they die, we grieve the passage of time in our own lives, as well as the loss of whatever pieces of ourselves we’ve attached to the objects of our admiration.
We also mourn musicians as a community. Significantly, the death of a pop star pulls death itself back into the public view, providing us with a shared space to examine and express our interior struggles with loss.
That’s especially valuable in America, where mourning is widely regarded as a private, linear process exclusive to one’s own isolated mind space. We hide the act of dying inside our hospitals. Expressing profound grief in public can be seen as discomfiting, even distasteful.
In previous centuries, we probably wouldn’t have felt so alone. As Philippe Aries explains in his renowned book “The Hour of Our Death,” Western mourning used to be very social stuff: “It was not only an individual who was disappearing, but society itself that had been wounded and that had to be healed.”
As music fans, we feel those wounds together. We felt them on a global scale when John Lennon was shot in 1980, and again when Michael Jackson died in 2009. In each case, cynics thought they were witnessing an eruption of mass hysteria over the sudden death of a distant celebrity. But many fans, whether they were aware of it or not, were participating in a mass expression of grief — one that gave them social permission to fully register the loss and project onto it personal losses of their own.
And isn’t that how pop works at its most essential level? A song, whether it’s about heartbreak or social strife, invites us into an accessible space where we can untangle our own personal knots involving heartbreak or social strife.
In life and in death, pop stars give us opportunities to process.
How did death become so taboo? Anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer came up with a widely cited hypothesis as to why public displays of grief became marginalized in his native Britain: The sheer numbers of those killed in the First World War made communal mourning impossibly demanding.
And while we’re currently preparing ourselves to say goodbye to an entire rock-and-roll generation, we’re also preparing to say goodbye to the even bigger generations that follow. How do we avoid being steamrolled by our grief?
Social media will either help us with this, or it won’t. Our digital culture encourages us to indulge our reactions instead of suppressing them — and because grieving shouldn’t be done in isolation, that’s a good thing.
But is sharing our sorrow over the death of Amy Winehouse less intrusive on Facebook than it is at the grocery store simply because we never really know who’s listening to us online?
In that light, it’s hard to know whether our digital citizenship helps us better comprehend death, or simply allows us to more efficiently compartmentalize it. Obviously, when it comes to personal loss, clicking a “like” button on Facebook is less emotionally demanding than looking someone in the eye and telling them you’re sorry for their loss. But is a “like” better than nothing?
And what does it mean if we’ve spent more time clicking on links about Bowie than we’ve spent talking about him with friends? Does a robust digital dialogue help us get any closer to mourning together on the physical plane where death actually occurs?
After Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, a grieving crowd staged a vigil near Seattle’s Space Needle. After Notorious B.I.G. was slain in 1997, fans gathered to watch his funeral procession weave through the streets of Brooklyn. But when Whitney Houston died in 2012, and when Lou Reed died in 2013, and when B.B. King died in 2015, mourners rallied most visibly in digital spaces. Death itself always takes place in three dimensions, but mourning doesn’t have to.
Whether we choose to sing with strangers in a public park or quarantine our grief to our computer worlds, tomorrow’s pop mourning will ultimately be demanding.
But if we don’t let the process defeat us, the Internet’s impeccable memory might help nudge us back toward the pre-modern idea that mourning is something we never truly finish in our lifetimes. And that seems to run parallel to the way we’ve always mourned musicians in modernity. We always have the songs.
Through listening, we practice mourning without allowing our grief to consume us — and in learning that balance, we continue learning how to live.