Aladdin Insane: Bowie, RBG, and the New Media Stages of Grief

RBG’s death on social media feels kinda like Bowie on steroids.

The outpouring of grief on social media over Bowie’s passing felt like a first, in order of magnitude, for its time, at least, and took some unexpected turns. The recent tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman was also a cultural moment, his final tweet breaking the twitter record for the most “liked” of all time. Boseman was universally celebrated in social media, the public mourning of his death the very model of decorum, reflecting the decency and dignity with which he conducted himself in life. Bowie was, by contrast, a rather more contested figure, partly due to a longer life, and his playful chameleonlike public personae over decades in the public eye. Like Boseman, he seemed symbolic of culture itself, but a career of nearly half a century is bound to provide plenty of bloopers. Boseman’s life and work seemed to lend itself to current cultural and political aspirations; Bowie was more of a fixture of our collective unconscious. His death brought out our social Id.

I don’t mean to diminish Justice Ginsberg by these comparisons to pop-culture figures, but there is overlap here in her reception and elevation in the culture-at-large as a folk hero and repository of hope in a time of tribulation. Artists can serve in this role, and often do. It is actually much rarer, and harder, for a government functionary to. There was good reason for lionizing Ginsberg. She was the real deal. And she lived into her well-deserved celebrity in her later years, but, as one commenter eloquently put it, she was also:

a very old and extremely sick woman living with the burden of having to find some way to stay alive despite a failing body, to protect others from dire consequences. Imagine waking up every day and living with that.

Her death, like those of Bowie, Boseman, and countless other beloved public figures in the last few years, was a blow. But it was also big news. And big news means big views on social media. And so the procession of public mourning began within minutes of the sad news breaking. And almost as quickly came the critiques. One popular tweet reminded those posting “RIP” that this was not appropriate for a “PROUD Jew.” The social media universe was put on notice: “Respect her in death.” This was among the earlier, more innocuous criticisms, and a good reminder of how social media conventions (where “#rip” is a common secular hashtag) can provide memeable moments.

Just as when Bowie died every social media expression of grief was dissected, we reached that stage of social media grief with RBG within a few hours of her death. The “corrective” discourse does two things: it has a subtle insider/outsider flavor, and it subtly (or not-so-subtly) questions the motives and sincerity of the person posting. The “RIP” critique asks: if you don’t understand RBG’s Judaism are you really qualified to grieve for her? (I’m getting a kind of a “do you even grieve, bro?” vibe.) This sets up a very current discourse around privilege and power, which can be fruitful if people are willing to engage the scold on a deeper level.

But there is a competitive aspect to it that is equally intriguing. That grieving is the setting for this should probably surprise no one. Professional, performative and competitive grieving are not new things; they have been around ever since humans came up with death rites. Paid mourners are still common in some parts of the world. In the US, with its gig culture, we basically do it for free (there should be an app for it, if there’s not already). But social media allows us to exploit the death of a beloved public figure for that all-important social capital we crave: likes and retweets. Indeed, this kind of currency can translate into real cash over time. Even when it doesn’t, the underlying motive is there, if implicit.

So the social media grief doulas aren’t just knee-jerking it. There is an underlying, mostly subliminal impulse at work that recognizes the value of public expressions of mourning to whatever your brand is. With Bowie, who, to my mind, was the first mega huge social media death artist…

…as soon as spontaneous expressions of grief began pouring out, the backlash began. There is definitely a logic to this. There is a sense that those “first on the scene” with the news in their feed can claim the mantle of “influencers.” There is a built-in competitive aspect to “breaking a story” on twitter or facebook. Those who are obsessed with “followers” obviously want to lead the charge. 

But the first never has the last word on social media, and once the news goes viral, simply retweeting loses its sting. With Bowie, latecomers to the news dissected the expressions of grief and attacked those who had eagerly retweeted tributes along generational lines. Some brought in the street cred of having seen the artist live in concert (some even at Live-Aid, holy smokes!) or recollecting hearing a Bowie hit on FM radio when it first came out. Because there were so many Bowies to choose from, acrid debate over the Best Bowie soon broke out. Within 24 hours there were those joining the fray who, ignoring polite society’s old prohibition on speaking ill of the dead, questioned Bowie’s legacy and criticized the adulation, often bringing in his checkered sexual history. Stinging age, race, gender and class “critiques” followed. All before the body was cold.

Bowie was not an explicitly political figure. When we add that piece, as with Justice Ginsberg, things get even more contentious. And not just on the right-left spectrum. The reaction on the right was more or less as expected:

(It might be added here that this fairly characteristic reaction on the right could be seen as a more or less mirror image of the reaction of the left to RBGS’s friend and fellow opera-lover Justice Scalia’s death in 2016.)

What is different with the cultural and political “left” is that the impulse to close ranks is not a thing on the left. The dissection of the reactions of those who identify as liberal or left by those who identify as liberal or left has really impressive nuance, and it demonstrates that the left (or the not-right) in the US is a fundamentally different thing than the right. Beyond the “gentle” correctives that serve as more anodyne examples of competitive grief, you’ll find sophisticated (for social media) critiques of modes of grieving from feminist, queer and Marxist perspectives, with a tang of call-out and cancel culture thrown in for good measure.

One of the more thoughtful critiques I have seen so far from the left is that “doom and gloom” posts from liberals are invariably from a place of privilege. Along those lines was a post calling out “straight, non-disabled white guys who are posting ‘RIP America’ and ‘Here comes Gilead’ and otherwise rolling over and playing dead tonight.” This is a deeeeep cut, especially given that it came a mere five hours after the death of RBG was announced. The post goes on to ask “what’s it like to be so fucking weak?” The writer doesn’t wait for an answer (all questions are rhetorical on social media), but goes on: “I wouldn’t know, because like most women and POC, I wouldn’t have so much as made it out of high school if I allowed myself to be half as helpless in the face of adversity as you’re acting.”

There are two points here that intrigue me: the first is the put-down as exhortation. This is the hard truth of allyship in 2020. The other is this immediate calling out of the political nature of public grieving. The use of grief for social action was a common theme in my feed yesterday: “What you’re feeling today? Use it for social change!” Lament is almost always political; this is something we intuit, and that people are saying out loud now. It could have a world-changing impact.

None of this is the wrong way to grieve a beloved public figure who represented for many the best of our social and political values. Indeed, there is no wrong way to grieve. Our grief, the way it is enacted, is always a sign of the times. We live in contested times, when control of the narrative is a commodity. Grief tells a story, and that story has social value, and that social value can be monetized. That’s where we’re living. And no one of the voices in the great cacophony of the virtual universe will have the last word. As with everything on social media and arguably in social life in general, grief is a mirror. This may be why we cover them to keep the focus on the one who has just passed. It would be useless to suggest a similar covering of the mirror of social media in the immediate aftermath. This — all of this — is life going on. And it’s for the living.

Judaism recognizes this. It is a tradition more deeply embedded in life than any other I know of. This great cacophony of voices, a mixture of lament and cries for justice, of grief and calls to action, even the occasional #riprbg, is a very fitting tribute. “According to Jewish tradition, a person who dies on Rosh Hashanah, which began tonight, is a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness,” book critic Ruth Franklin tweeted soon after the news of Ginsburg’s death broke.

May her memory be a revolution.

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