the curious case of dying publicly

David Bowie died last night. I saw it and was surprised that I had someone been one of the first people I knew to see it announced online. Of course, this assumes that everyone who learns of news must share it [more on that later].

I didn’t post anything then because I almost never do when famous people die. It’s just not in me, generally, even when I’m a fan of what they did. But I think the whole thing has kind of grown in an uncomfortable way for me. The way we discuss Death and dying. The way we grapple with it publicly and make a show of our grappling.

The last time I wrote about a celebrity dying, actually, was when Robin Williams died. It could be argued that that’s less about Robin Williams and more about suicide and how it’s discussed and perceived and what it means to commit suicide publicly, which is the only way for a celebrity to do it, unfortunately.

I’ve been thinking about today, though. How every post on social media seems to be about David Bowie. I find it interesting and kind of bizarre, because even in the age of ubiquitous oversharing and grandstanding, you tend to get a wide spread of people who simply don’t care and so they post about their every day life, since, to them, this is just another day.

Too, what’s surprising is the way that these posts are almost uniformly positive. and strangest yet, how these posts are all deeply personal and mostly mournful.

I have no strong attachments to David Bowie. I didn’t grow up with his music or Labyrinth. I’ll always have fond feelings for him because of what he did for Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, but David Bowie has always been more a force of nature for me than anything else. He’s this embodiment of the oddity that’s possible in popular culture. It’s more like a gale than a human to me, and I love the way he played with gender and sexuality, opening gates for decades of men, women, and other to explore and accept that which doesn’t conform.

But, at the same time, I don’t feel much about his absence. Partly because the music I enjoyed by him came out–at the latest–around thirty years ago. Because I had no early life attachments or associations to him and all of his music that I’ve enjoyed came out before I was born, he’s mostly been this mythic figure of pop, this living legend.

His absence doesn’t reduce that. He is still David Bowie. His albums still exist and maybe even one day I’ll listen to all the many albums I never explored by him.

But he had little direct impact on my life.

That’s not to say that he didn’t influence others greatly.

Obviously he has.

I wonder, at times like this, if the absence of emotion for the Death of the famous says something about me. Because, in general, I feel very little for them.

That’s nothing personal against them, mind, but it’s simply that, to me, they’re more like trivia than they are people.

But then I think of Mark Linkous and how astonishingly powerful his Death was for me. I feel it every year, but only because his music impacted me so strongly. It still does. And he had so many years ahead of him.

I think of someone like Tom Waits. If he were to die today, it would gut me, but I would still know that I had hundreds of songs to hold onto. To live inside.

I think I would mostly feel happiness and nostalgia. Not for his Death, but for his life. I would miss him the way I would miss Thom Yorke or Bjork or whoever, but his Death wouldn’t leave an absence, because he already gave us so much.

The same could be said of David Bowie. I don’t even know how many albums he made, but he’s been making them for what seems like forever. Sometimes prolifically.

His Death is not the end, because he gave us decades of his life to hold onto, to love. He shaped us and he will continue to shape us because he opened his life to all of humanity.

But Mark Linkous?

Tragically little remains of him. That beautiful and delicate genius.

And I think of Elliott Smith and how I cried the day he died, even though I had only recently discovered his music. Since his Death, he has come to shape much of my life.

So we’re allowed our grief and our mourning, but remember, at times like this, that people like Bowie gave so much to fill our lives with. He didn’t leave us with an absence. His life wasn’t cut tragically short.

He lived long and large. He lived loudly and beautifully.

And I could even argue that he lived for all of us.

I can tell Bowie was different than the Death of many other celebrities because of how overwhelmingly present it was. When most with fame die, many post a simple missive of inanity. They talk about how they loved such and such a book or film or song.

And then come all the posts about how you should care more about whatever else.

And then come all the posts about how such and such people aren’t real fans.

None of that interests me.

But I do find it distasteful how we occupy and consume the Death of those with fame. How we determine their life’s meaning. How there’s almost this social pressure to declare who someone is, how they influenced you, and why you’re allowed to take part in the narrative of their Death.

My point, if there is one, is that Death is a private thing, despite the public nature of being famous.

Bowie’s Death is not our tragedy.

It’s not ours at all.

It doesn’t belong to me or you or anyone we know.

It belongs to his family and friends.

So while I appreciate how present he is in people’s lives, I find the outpouring a shockingly distasteful display of public consumption.

That view is probably controversial and most will disagree with me, but I think it cheapens who and what and how and why people are.

But this has maybe more to do with the nature of social media and how it skews and contorts the worldview of the average human than it does with anyone.

I mean, after saying all this, who am I to tell you what to feel, how to feel it, or how to express it?

Maybe it’s because I value silence and contemplation more than I do extravagant declarations of feeling. Maybe it’s because I’m a Minnesotan. A cold northern man descended from the cold northern blood of the Prussians and the Irish.

But I tend to disagree with those kinds of definitions as well.

Anycase, if nothing else, remember that Bowie lived well and he lived large. His work exists ever after. His son continues to make some of the most interesting art being filmed.

And then there are the millions of artists he influenced over the decades and all the millions he will influence in the future.

David Bowie is forever.

But he doesn’t belong to you or me and our words will only try to tame his legacy, his humanity.

So let him lie in peace. Dead but never gone.

Because you cannot kill the starlight or the stardust.

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