David Bowie. Photo credit: www.rollingstone.com
I'm not one of those people who can wake to the strains of an alarm first thing in the morning and bounce out of bed, bright and breezy (I'm good at alliteration; early mornings, not so much...). Consequently, I have something of a routine, when I wake up. I set my alarm for fifteen minutes before I need to get up, then, when it goes off, I reach for my phone, read Twitter for 10 minutes and Facebook for 5, before finally stumbling out of bed and staggering to the shower, usually swearing under my breath about how it should be illegal to be up so early (like I said, I'm really not a morning person). The purpose of this routine is to somehow bring myself into the world before I face getting out of bed. By checking social media whilst I'm still under the covers, I know what news stories people are talking about, I how my friends are feeling and what the weather's up to. It makes me feel like I'm back in the land of the living, even though I'm still longing to be asleep.
Sadly, every now and then, my tried and tested routine causes me to stumble upon a news story that's difficult to process, first thing in the morning. Sometimes, I read something that I know would be hard to take in at any time of day. That was the case when I woke up, yesterday,
It started off like any other morning's trip through Twitter; pictures of cats, someone obsessively tweeting their celebrity crush in the hope of being their first @-reply of the day, a pun so bad it was brilliant... You know the drill. Then, someone tweeted: "I hope this is a hoax. David Bowie can't be dead."
Given that it was before 7am and I'm about as cheerful first thing in the morning as a deflated balloon, my instinct was to be annoyed. "What a sick thing to do," I ranted to myself. "What kind of idiot thinks it's funny to try to start a rumour on social media about a celebrity's death?!"
And then I read more tweets. Soon, as I lay beneath my duvet, squinting at the screen, it became clear that there had been no hoax. David Bowie, musical genius, Goblin King and possible alien, was dead. The more I thought about it, the sadder I felt. By the time I got up to have a shower, I had already messaged one of my closest friends (for whom Bowie was something of an idol) to see if she was okay and had joined in with the tributes pouring onto Twitter and Facebook.
Social media usually moves pretty fast, but every now and then, there's something that captures the public imagination - be it good news or bad - and that subject remains the number one topic of conversation all day. Sure enough, when I checked my phone during my lunch break yesterday, I'd hazard a guess that 90% of the tweets I was seeing on my timeline were from people discussing David Bowie.
But, like the sun rising in the East, some things are inevitable. And soon enough, I stumbled upon the first "Grief Police" tweet. You know the type...
Okay, I made this one up, but you know what I mean.
As the hours following the announcement of David Bowie's death ticked by, more and more "Grief Police" tweets appeared. The wording was different each time, but the sentiment seemed to remain constant: It's pathetic to mourn the passing of someone you didn't know. It's selfish to feel sorrow, when the person's family and friends have it far worse. It's somehow akin to showing off, if you get involved in posting tributes, because you're apparently making it about yourself. Perhaps you're trying to get in on the act. Maybe you're a grief tourist. Either way, shut up and stop feeling sad, you idiot.
The more I read those tweets, the angrier I got. Because my initial reaction to the news of David Bowie's death had been sadness. Sadness that I continued to feel, throughout the day. And, apparently, that's not allowed.
The trouble is, what right is it of anyone to tell others how to feel? What right does anyone have to dictate how we choose to express those feelings?
My feelings of sadness at the passing of a man whose music I enjoyed didn't mean that I was somehow placing myself above his family or friends in the "grief stakes." I wasn't tweeting about him because he was that day's hot topic and I wanted to gain followers. I wasn't claiming to be heartbroken beyond help, or so struck with devastation that I demanded sympathy. I just felt sad. So did many thousands - probably millions - of others. And why shouldn't people express that sadness?
We don't live in the 1940s, anymore. I may be British, but I don't feel the need to maintain a stiff upper lip. Feeling something and expressing it is one of the most natural things in the world and I would much rather be part of a society that feels able to say "hey, this has happened and I feel lousy about it and that's okay," than to feel suppressed into keeping my mouth shut and never expressing an emotion, for fear of ridicule.
Social media has given us all a way of quickly expressing ourselves and, drunken Facebook messages aside, that's a good thing. It fosters a sense of community; we don't have to feel that we're experiencing something alone, when there are literally thousands of tweets posted online from people saying they're going through the exact same thing. And let's face facts: at the most basic level, nobody has the right to tell others what they can and can't post on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or any other corner of the Internet (we might grumble about over-sharing, or text speak, or whatever else grinds our gears, but essentially, that's what the "mute" or "unfollow" button is for).
But on another level entirely, who can genuinely claim that they have never been affected or moved by a song, a film or a piece of literature? Because if you can claim that, I can only hope we never meet.
The art that we consume - whether visual, aural or written down - has the power to shape us. From falling in "love" with a popstar in our teens, to reading a book that changes the way we view the world around ourselves, art has genuine life-altering properties that cannot be overlooked. It's no surprise, then, that the people responsible for creating the art that has affected or moved us over the years, have a special place in our affections. Whether it's the actor who moved us to tears in that film, or the singer whose songs got us through a hard period in our life, it's completely understandable that whilst we may never have met that person, their death may cause us to feel genuine emotion. Why? Because even though we were never in their lives, they - or their art - were a big part of ours.
How I spent my evening, last night.
Music, in particular, has a strong connection to our lives. It's the soundtrack to the moments that make us who we are. The song we cry to, the song that makes us want to dance, the song that we feel could have been written about us... Music is a thread that winds itself through every part of the tapestry of our lives. It's no wonder that we feel in some way connected to the people who write the music that soundtracks our lives; where would we be without it?
Sometimes it's not necessarily a form of art that we admire a celebrity for. It might be that we respect a person in the public eye, due to their impassioned speeches on subjects we share an interest in. It could be their moral outlook, or their political views that causes us to identify with them. We may find that a celebrity, by speaking openly about their sexuality or their mental health issues, has made us feel less stigmatised when coming to terms with our own. We might simply hold a celebrity in high regard because the way they dress, speak or carry themselves in the public eye, makes us feel like it's okay to be the odd-one-out in our daily lives. Some famous people make being different seem incredibly cool, rather than something to be laughed at, and when you feel somewhat isolated by the fact that you don't "fit in," it's easy for that person, regardless of the fact that they're famous and you don't really know them, to have a large - and often positive - affect on your life. For many, David Bowie was one such person.
And that's the thing that the "Grief Police" don't seem to understand. We may not have met a celebrity, but their art might have touched our lives in a massive way. Their soundbites, their persona or their visual appeal might have changed the way we think. Not because we're mindless sheep, but because we all allow different things to influence us in different ways. We explore the creative and cultural world as we travel through life, taking influence from the music we listen to, the books we read and the films we watch. We let art in and we allow it to change us, even in a small way, as a result.
But there's an even more basic point that the "Grief Police" are missing. Beyond the creative output of some celebrities, there remains the fact that famous people are just that: people. Strip away the paparazzi flashbulbs, the awards, the money and the magazine front covers and you're left with a person whose heart beats the same way as yours or mine. A person who, just like anyone else, has hopes, fears, dreams and desires. A human, with a family and friends of their own.
When a person dies, feeling sorrow is completely and utterly natural. Many of the fans mourning David Bowie's passing yesterday were expressing huge sympathy for the family and friends he left behind, rather than, as the "Grief Police" insinuated, believing that their loss was as great as those who really knew the man behind the music.
But those fans are allowed to feel sad, too. They're allowed to write about it on Facebook and Twitter. They're allowed to mourn. They're allowed to cry. Doing so doesn't make them ghoulish, selfish or strange. It shows that they're human and in touch with their feelings. To those people, writing about their loss (and it is theirs), David Bowie wasn't just a celebrity they'd never met. He was the man who taught them that it was okay to be different. He was the writer of the songs that changed their world. He was the artist who inspired them.
When Robin Williams died in August 2014, I was awake most of the night, reading news stories and tributes, sharing memories with fellow fans and trying - and probably failing - to put my shock and sadness into words. To me, he wasn't some famous actor that I'd never met and who'd had no impact on my life whatsoever. He was Peter Pan. He was the star of all those films from my childhood that I still treasured so much as an adult. He was the one who made me laugh without fail, every single time. And he was a person. A man with family and friends. A man who'd struggled with his own issues and eventually taken his own life. It was tragic and I don't feel silly or wrong for having cried at the news of his death.
Or Stephen Gately's untimely passing in 2009, for that matter.
Life can be exceptionally beautiful, but it can also be incredibly mundane. Often, it's music, film, art or literature that lifts and inspires us. Sometimes it takes a person in the public eye to encourage us to change direction, open our minds to something new, or even just make us realise that it's okay to be ourselves. When that happens, it's a big deal. That person, no matter how famous and disconnected from us they may be in reality, has just become a part of our lives, however small. The loss of that person will trigger a reaction, even if we don't expect it to. And that's okay.
If you're reading this and thinking that no celebrity - no musician, writer, actor, artist or activist - has ever moved or inspired you enough to be saddened by their death, then I pity you. Go and read more books, listen to more albums, watch more films and engage more with the cultural world. And once you're doing that, perhaps you'll be too busy to find time to troll social media, criticising others for expressing sadness at the loss of someone who changed their world - even if they never knew it.