The End of the Road: Digital Mourning in 2012
At the Houston Press office, I am usually the first person who finds out when a celebrity or musician dies, usually from a wire or, these days, the fine folks at TMZ. Hell, sometimes even when I am away from my desk I have to be the bearer of bad tidings, like when Adam Yauch passed on a few weeks ago. The "Breaking News" alert app on my phone brings me a lot of bad news, even on the toilet in a hotel in New Orleans.
In the office, I usually take out my earbuds and say, "So-and-So just died," wait for a somber response or a sad groan, and put my buds back in and attempt to get the ball rolling on a blog. When Michael Jackson's last day unfolded, I gave everyone here the play-by-play sequence that went from home to hospital to morgue.
Blame it on my needle-to-the vein addiction to social media and my undying allegiance to being "the first." It's in the job description, I suppose.
But here in the social-media age, the phenomenon of digital mourning brings new facets to a well-known person's death, things that didn't exist a decade or so ago. A mass of eulogies comes almost immediately, from a variety of news outlets, all saying wonderful things, glossing over the shitty albums, the arrests, the drugs.
The story is now steered not by the journalists, though, but by the common people. They take the news where they want it to go.
Most times if we know that you are dying or living life on the edge, we journalists write copy celebrating your existence on Earth before you are even pronounced dead. The New York Times writer who wrote a flowery obituary for actress Elizabeth Taylor died six years before she did.
Then fellow celebrities begin weighing in, offering heartfelt messages of love that their PR people type for them or they dictate. Even if you didn't know the dead person beyond a handshake at an industry mixer, you say that you had a warm rapport with the stiff. Maybe that you wanted to collaborate one day. Mostly lies.
When Amy Winehouse died last year, even the dude from 311 had something to say.
For civilians, responding to a death comes in many ways. You post the standard "RIP Etta James" on your Twitter feed and your obligation as a member of the social-media peanut gallery is fulfilled, lest you look like an uncaring asshole. If you are, then you make sure people know it by reminding everyone that you think they still suck. When Ronnie James Dio died, someone on Twitter said that his voice was grating. I don't miss hearing about their cats or dumb, ugly baby.
If you are lazy, you retweet a reputable news source's tweet. Hopefully Rocks Off's, since death announcements equal Web hits. Wink.
On Facebook, you post a video of your favorite song from the artist, or a fun interview clip of them. Your friends all do the same, maybe even using the same YouTube vid, or they comment on your post with a frowny face, their own recollection of the dead, or a funny one-liner to alleviate the pressure.
That's the next hurdle, coming up with witty shit to say when a big-time celeb dies. How do you approach it? With stealthy humor, or joke-rage? Something that will make people chuckle, but not make you sound like you are pissing on their freshly dug grave.
"The Bee Gees are making a mockery of their song 'Stayin' Alive.'"
Somewhere in this chain of events, one of us makes a Top 10 list of the best of whatever it was that the newly croaked did well. The best guitar solos, the best photos, the best B-sides, the best ex-wives. This is to keep you engaged, and to prove that we were paying attention the whole time.
A side effect of social media is that we all get to see just how lame-dick dumb some of our fellow humans are. Remember at Grammy time when high-schoolers didn't know who Paul McCartney was?
I can almost forgive younger people not knowing who Don Cornelius or Dick Clark were. It's not like they were big media fixtures at the very end.
But, ya know, you can Google and should Google before opening your fat fingers to the entire World Wide Web.
So no doubt that when Bob Dylan shuffles and mumbles off the side of this mortal coil, there will be a gaggle of kids and adults who will ask, "Who the fuck is Bob Dillon?" out loud on Twitter, and your head will frickin' explode.
Maybe I should pre-emptively write a series of "This Is Who (Fill in the Blank)" Was" before big-time musicians die so the "Who the Fuck Is....?" tweets don't kill me. Let's celebrate these lives before they end. Dead people don't care about a bunch of grainy YouTube clips.
A great side effect of celeb deaths -- follow me on this -- is that it works to educate fans on the life that just ended, or what ended it. With Helm, Donna Summer and Gibb, we all saw the toll that cancer takes on a life. This can lead to more money being donated to research of whatever disease plucked the star from circulation.
Or it can at least serve as a great cautionary tale, like Jackass's Ryan Dunn's car crash or Winehouse's chemical addictions. Don't do stupid shit or you will die, or something like that. Don't die a punch line.
I can't even fathom the days that my heroes like Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Lemmy Kilmister die. How will I intimate into words what "Ace of Spades" meant to me, or what Keef did for the art of cool?
Back when Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer left the planet, there was not a strong social-media spiderweb to mourn from, so all I could do was play their music nonstop until I felt better, which took months. When Willie Nelson goes, can't we just shut down Texas for a week and just chill out and cry?
There was nowhere to scream, "THIS PERSON DIED AND THEY MEANT A LOT TO ME AND I AM SAD AS HELL!" but now there is. When John Lennon was assassinated, throngs of mourners showed up at his apartment building in New York City to just bawl their eyes out and hug someone, anyone.
Social media speeds up that process now. Yauch's death saturated the Web with Beastie Boys clips, lyrics and anything else you could imagine. Within a week or so, it still stung that the Beastie was deceased, but at least I had a few million people to cry with.
Maybe it gets us ready for when the celebrities in our own families and circles of friends die, the heroes that never recorded an album or made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.