Spectator columnist Julie Burchill is ordering her readers: “Please spare us the sob signaling over David Bowie.” Burchill never explicitly states what people are trying to signal with their sobbing, but she seems to despise it generally because it’s memelike, which is to say lemming-like, and expresses – or affects – an emotion out of all reasonable proportion to its object. She despises it particularly in writers because it affords them yet another chance to take money in exchange for writing schlock. As she puts it, “Hearse-chasing is such a bad look.”
As for the hearse-chasing – well, everyone has to make a living. But Burchill’s indictment of sob-signaling deserves lengthier consideration. I am not sure whether she coined the term herself, or, if she did, whether she took her inspiration from fellow Spectator columnist James Bartholomew, whose own original coinage “virtue-signaling” became an instant fad. In any case, it testifies to the fact that social media has turned us all into amateur socio-linguists. Between selfies and status updates, so many people are saying so many things about themselves that decoding them has become a form of punditry more honorable than, say, eulogizing dead pop stars.
So what personal qualities could people be advertising when they turn on the virtual waterworks for the former Thin White Duke? Eternal youth demonstrated through eternally youthful taste in music? Approval of the gender-fluidity that Bowie is said to have pioneered, if not actually perfected? Membership in a generation convinced the ones behind it can’t match its creative genius? Any of these might be annoying in its own way – the first because it’s self-deluding bunk, the second and third because they’re textbook vainglory. Admiring Bowie for rocking the glitter – or for rocking, period – is fine. Trying to siphon off some of his hard-earned prestige through ostentatious fanhood is just silly.
Seeing so many people grandly proclaiming the same thing at the same time and apparently feeling quite pleased with themselves over it, is bound to get on the nerves of any rugged individualist. But it’s worth bearing in mind that originality need not be as important to the average schmo is it is, say, to writers. For many, if not most people, taking part in communal experiences is an honorable end in itself. The Catholic Church pretty much takes this for granted, or it would mail out the consecrated Host to each communicant individually.
One frequent complaint that would seem at first to have a lot of validity is that these communal emotions enable people to feel things without having to do anything substantial. This isn’t always something to mourn. Can you imagine what would happen if every online mass-emoting gave birth to a collective real-life action? We’d have flash mobs rioting on every street. It would be fair to complain if these approved reactions left little room for dissent or defied attempts at rational analysis, but in fact this is far from true.
Wherever there be grounds for substantial controversy, e.g. “Je suis Charlie,” we see opposing camps sloganeering in antiphon. If you happen to be a last-of-the-Roman type, you can find plenty of work extracting the truth from both sides’ claims, or at least explaining everyone to each other. When the issue is something less pressing, like the death of a renowned pop singer, plenty of mileage can be wrung from playing the wise turd in the punchbowl, as Julie Burchill demonstrates.
No, the only time online mass emoting becomes truly sinister is when it converts itself into activism of a low-risk sort that has no other effect than to destroy a human target’s life or livelihood. The people who play that game are truly the scum of the earth. People who Instagram photos of themselves in David Bowie face paint are not in their league. The world will survive if they get to show off their sweet sorrow.
Anyway, Julie Burchill, who very gamely admits she hasn’t really liked David Bowie since her teen years, may be underestimating the effect that pop singers can have on the lives of average people, and even on their sense of national identity. As historian and UK Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley wrote on his personal blog, “When Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney go, some of the best things about being British will go with them. The past will shut down; a bit of history will end. Bowie carried that kind of significance.”
I haven’t felt Bowie’s passing in my gut. It pays tribute to the brilliance of his showmanship that I could never quite believe he was human. But Michael Jackson’s death? That hit hard. Growing up, I never even owned a copy of Thriller. It was dance music and I’ve always been a regular Baptist on the dance floor. Only after the singer was gone did I realize his songs had served as the background music to my childhood and young adulthood. That nobody consulted me on the matter was irrelevant; memories are memories.
On the way to the cross, Jesus told the women of Jerusalem: “Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.” They probably were weeping for themselves and their own loss already — very human of them. If we shed too many tears over the wrong things, that’s better than shedding none at all.
Editor’s note: Earlier, I described Tim Stanley as a “former Telegraph columnist.” He still is one.