The first few months of 2016 has seen a steep number of high profile deaths, many of which have been mourned online as well as out there in the real world.
Last week saw a particularly gut-punching blow, with the news that Prince would no longer be around to crank up the energy in the universe after dying at his home in Minneapolis.
While plenty took to their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to express how much The Purple One’s life and music meant to them, there was some who had decided enough was enough when it came to grieving those we didn’t even know:
and…. time to temporarily divorce twitter. Celebrity-Death-Mourning Internet is the worst of all Internets…
— ElizabethNolanBrown (@enbrown) April 21, 2016
Some equate the outpouring of emotion to a chance to turn a celebrity death into something selfish (“look how much this affects me!”), or argue that it’s just a case of hopping on a bandwagon.
There’s also the idea that people can’t really grieve for someone they never met based on owning a few records, liking a few songs or watching them on the telly.
It’s a valid argument. But it doesn’t get to the core reason of why people feel the need to express their sadness at a celebrity’s passing.
If you feel like expressing your sadness in 140 characters, then go ahead. Here’s why we back your right to get weepy on your keyboard.
Fan mourning is nothing new
When Elvis passed away, fans grieved. When John Lennon was tragically killed, Beatles lovers were united in their outrage.
You only have to take it back seven years to find a world where social media was still in something of its infancy. When the news broke that ‘King of Pop’ Michael Jackson died, it was mainly students on Facebook sharing disbelief or teens putting out a MySpace bulletin as they cried into their alcopops.
The only difference between then and now is that fans took their outcry of mourning on the street – congregating outside their superstar’s residence or in public parks. If you couldn’t be there, then you were limited to battling it alone. The internet didn’t create fan culture – it just made it far more accessible and unrestricted.
Something utterly human in the digital age
The sheer noise and pace of the internet can often mean a huge story can break, spawn a trending hashtag, gain a conspiracy theory and be the the source of an ironic joke in the space of 24 hours. And while the death of famous people does feed into this rolling news cycle, it almost feels like a collective full-stop – a few moments for everyone to reflect on what someone like Victoria Wood or David Bowie gave the world before leaving.
Online mourning is about reflecting on the past, rather than being completely centred on the present.
A chance to rediscover something you loved
Another criticism railed against the online grievers is the classic: “Right, when was the last time you thought about Prince before he died?”
But one of the bitter-sweet aspects of the death of a beloved artist is that it can reawaken the feelings you had forgotten. No doubt in the days after the news of Prince’s passing, people dug out a copy of Purple Rain and Sign ‘O’ The Times for another reflection – probably listening closer than they had done since the first time.
Times change and musical tastes evolve, but that doesn’t mean you’ve given up on what was one truly sacred to you.
You can find out things you never knew
Once I was in a club w Prince in LA. When 2am came, he kicked all the dudes out, it was just us & the women. Then he read from the Bible.
— Talib Kweli Greene (@TalibKweli) April 21, 2016
Did you know David Bowie once did impressions of Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits whilst in the recording studio? Or that he called out MTV for not embracing black artists? How about that Prince had custom-built roller skates which he carried around in a briefcase?
When an important artist passes, those who knew them honour and toast their memory with stories. With no online mourning, we wouldn’t get this access to fascinating stories or under-appreciated gems.
It introduces new fans
While it shouldn’t take someone’s death to appreciate their work, younger fans who missed the hoop-la surrounding the likes of Prince, Bowie or Lemmy when they first broke on to the scene are suddenly presented with this figure right in front of them – with people saying how their music changed their life. Is there a more powerful recruitment tool for getting younger generations to discover great music?
For the first quarter of 2016, six of the top 40 best selling records were by David Bowie. Of course, some of that will be driven by previous fans – but you can guarantee there was also young teenagers reflected there, taking that journey for the first time.
Pop culture is how we find out who we are
Those who think the emotion is ‘fake’ have never let art, music, comedy or films reach them fully. Pop culture and the things we choose to watch, listen to, love and hate help us form our personalities in those years when we’re still figuring it all out.
Friendships have been made on the mutual love of a good film, albums have guided us through bad break-ups and comedy has united generations of the same family around the television, bonding in their uncontrollable laughter.
How could we not celebrate the people who have that power?
Main image: Getty