Social media grieving’s cheap, unlike the real thing
When I get a call on my cellphone late at night or early in the morning these days, it’s usually because the death of some rock star has just been announced. The call comes from a producer on some radio or TV current affairs show wanting me to come on and comment.
Actually they don’t particularly want me to comment. They just want an excuse to give over five minutes of their programme to some subject that a lot of people might want to hear about. They haven’t got a clue what they want you to talk about. I was recently asked to go on to a major TV show 48 hours after the death of a star to talk about their “influence”. I made my excuses because, apart from anything else, I couldn’t actually see what influence they had had. But TV abhors an empty sofa and they soldier on regardless.
TV producers like to feel that the stories they’re doing have some significance, that they’re taking the stories forward in some way when all in fact they’re doing is orchestrating some large scale water cooler moment in which the whole world pauses in its daily round to say “what about so-and-so then?” and then carry on doing what they were going to do anyway.
Over the last couple of decades, I’ve witnessed the gradual broadening of the category of people they are prepared to consider “stars”. These days, I am sometimes asked to come on and talk about people that even I don’t know a great deal about. The producer however, intoxicated by that heady combination of death and stardust, their broadcaster’s instincts thrilled by the possibility of being able to play some old pop record after their dull item on the Euro referendum, are often in the position of talking up someone they’re frankly too young to know very much about.
If we’re to believe the chat, the deaths are arriving thicker and faster these days as the baby boom generation, out of whom came a disproportionate number of names that even younger people know were significant, are gathered. Add to those the people, like Prince, who seemed to die particularly untimely deaths, and the odd rumour that turned out to be unfounded such as the premature passing of Little Richard, which flickered recently on social media. That rumour may have started because somebody probably believed that it surely can’t be the case that the four giants of fifties rock & roll - Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry - are all still with us, despite having lived lives that were far from blameless.
And then there’s Keith Richards, who, as some long lost hack once wrote, didn’t so much burn the candle at both ends as apply a blow torch to the middle, who will, I’m convinced, not turn his toes up until he’s sure that everybody else who shared the bill on the NME Poll Winners concert of 1965 has gone before. Keith it was who said the wisest words ever spoken by a rock star - “the older you get, the older you want to get”.
“It’s all too easy to hog a bit of the spotlight cast by somebody’s death.”
A matter of timing
Like everything else in show business, death is a matter of timing. Chuck Berry is as old as the Queen. When he does finally hand in his lunch pail, he will sadly be remembered more because he “influenced” Keith Richards than because of what he stood for in his own right. That’s the only downside of joining the choir invisible long after your fans have relinquished control of the machinery of the media. Not so Prince, whose timing was sadly perfect in this respect.
I am something of a student of rock star deaths and their effect on the media. When Elvis Presley died in 1977, he wasn’t put on the cover of People, the magazine of America’s heartland, because the editor didn’t believe that he was quite big enough. I know what he meant. Elvis seemed like a person whose moment had passed. What the editor didn’t realise is what became clear when John Lennon died in 1980, that rock stars become bigger in death than they could ever be in life. When Lennon died, the affection he enjoyed among the generation who had grown up with the Beatles, was supplemented by that of the people who were both older and younger who didn’t wish to be left out.
Media grieving used to take the form of buying lovingly compiled tribute issues and poster magazines, often for months after the death. These days, it’s instant and its main conduit is social media as people rush to the digital town square to show their respects and in some cases beat their breasts and rend their garments in a way that suggests the deceased was a member of their immediate family and not somebody whose records they bought and who they one glimpsed on a giant screen at the Milton Keynes Bowl.
I’ve got very limited sympathy for this. When a rock star dies, the real loss is felt by their family and friends. For the rest of us, it’s sad. We ought to be grown up enough to recognise the difference. With a star, we’re called upon to show affection and respect at a bit of a distance. If some of the intemperate public responses to the deaths of David Bowie and Prince are anything to go by, a lot of people would not be equipped to deal with the passing of anybody they actually knew.
Kevin Hand, 1951-2016The manner of mourning on social media tells us more about the latter than the former. It’s a medium that people use to advertise what they see as their virtues. Their virtues are those personal qualities and attitudes that they see as being most likely to be applauded by the people who follow them. It’s a “claptrap”, which was the 18th century term for anything which had no other purpose than to elicit applause.
It’s all too easy to hog a bit of the spotlight cast by somebody’s death to say just how this has personally affected you more than anyone else. Performers take to the stage and say they would like to start by playing a tune by the recently deceased. Where does this stop being “a tribute” and start being a cheap way to ride on the coat tails of a major media event?
The difference between the social media mourning space and the real thing was brought home to me recently when Kevin Hand died. I worked with Kevin at EMAP during the 80s and 90s and came to know him pretty well. The best part of a week elapsed between my being rung up to be told this shocking news and the news being spread via social media. The majority of his old colleagues, in the UK and all over the world, knew about it during this time but all clearly felt it would be somehow disrespectful to go on social media and spread the news any further beyond. This pause recognised the fact that there’s a world of difference between social media mourning and the real thing. It recognised that while we all might be able to feel some of the shock, the actual loss is somebody else’s and it’s unseemly for the rest of us to try and do anything more than sympathise.
“There’s a world of difference between social media mourning and the real thing.”
In the process of promoting my book, I learned a lot. It’s now an impulse business. Whereas once upon a time you would hear about a book, maybe make a note to look for it when next you went into a book shop and, in the event that they didn’t have it, order it, nowadays people point and click the second they are told about something that sounds appealing. That’s why radio and TV are regarded as the best places to do your promotion. There are three things that sell books, I was told: Breakfast TV, the Today Programme and Simon Mayo. If you’re fortunate enough to be on any of them, your publishers can actually watch the orders going into Amazon. It’s a business that moves as fast as hit singles formerly did.
I was sent out to the wilds of Suffolk to the printers to sign copies of my book that were going to a major retailer. The driver who picked me up at the station asked what I was doing. “I’m here to sign 500 copies of my book,” I said, rather bumptiously. “We had Michael Palin here not long ago,” he countered. “He signed 5,000. Three thousand one day and the rest the following day."
That put me in my place.