David Bowie and the Empathic Grief Wave

Allow me to be frank from the start, I quite liked David Bowie. I’m not a die-hard crazed fan, equally, I don’t hate everything he did, I quite like some of his work, but I really shouldn’t have shed a tear on Monday when his death was announced, and, in my defence, I didn’t, initially. I saw it on the news at about 7am when it was announced, and thought ‘Oh dear, another one, how very sad, and he’s only just released that new album,’ and thought not much more about it until I got to work and put the radio on.
Once I heard the crack in the voices of my constant companions (the radio 6 music presenters) I began to feel quite sad about it. Then I logged on to twitter and facebook, and could see the genuine hurt of my friends and acquaintances, and the odd writer, musician and comedian I follow. Which is when the empathic nature of these things begins to kick in (admittedly, I am still quite susceptible to anything sad at the moment, having only recently lost my dog). It was said that there wasn’t even this big a general outpouring of grief for John Lennon in 1980. I would suggest that this is because the mechanisms for such huge waves of grief to take hold were not in place in 1980. Had Lennon been shot in the age of instant messages and social media then the wave of empathy would have been equal to or (almost certainly) greater than the scenes we saw in Brixton on Monday.
There was a similar effect when Michael Jackson died a few years ago. Again, I wasn’t a massive fan, but I found myself caught up in the snowball of grief along with everybody else. Bad had been my favourite album for a good fortnight when I was ten years old. But then you change what music you like more often than your socks when you are ten years old. By the end of the day’s radio coverage, I was almost believing that HIStory hadn’t been a massive load of egocentric tosh, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The people on the radio are your friends though, if, like me, you listen to it all day long at work. Hearing the genuine catch in the voices of Shaun Keaveny, Lauren Laverne, Mark Radcliffe and all the six music presenters on Monday morning made me feel as sad for them as I would had a real life friend been telling me about a dead family member. Considering that it was, in fact, people I have never met telling me about a person I have never met (and neither had they I believe) dying this is an impressive trick, and it just goes to show how much more interconnected we are now than we were in 1980. The ‘backstage’ insight that one gains from the twitter feeds of radio presenters makes you feel even more like their actual friends (I realise that sounds stalky, please don’t worry if I am following you on twitter, I am not that way inclined).
The radio relationship has always been an odd one, and when I catch the odd bit of Jeremy Vine, Ken Bruce and Steve Wright on Radio 2, it feels a bit like one of those awkward moments when you run into an old friend with whom you no longer have anything in common at a party and shuffle awkwardly while pretending to be interested in what they are saying, all the while wanting to move on to find newer, more interesting friends. It is only natural to feel empathy with these people that I spend my entire working day with. And it is empathy that drives us to cry over things that do not affect us directly, I have been known to cry over a sad bit in a TV show I have never seen before if they get the soundtrack right and it tweaks a heartstring.
Had I been a little older, then perhaps I too would be feeling genuine grief over Bowie’s death, but in truth, his work had no real direct impact on me. Had I been a gender confused teenager in the seventies then I would have seen him as the messiah-like figure he was for many, a rallying point for oddball outsider teenagers, and I understand that, and it is them that I am crying for when I hear the opening of Life on Mars (although it is one of those songs that’ll do that anyway, am I right?). I was an oddball outsider teenager, certainly, but it was the 90s, Bowie was doing Tin Machine and irrelevant, and we had Nirvana by then, though I was utterly unmoved by Kurt Cobain’s death, possibly because I was an arrogant gobshite 17 year old with no regard for anybody else, and all those who did care had taken the day off school in heartbroken grief (some of them did the same thing when Take That broke up later on that decade, only it was work they were skiving off from by then).

I have no Bowie-like figure really, Lemmy meant more to me than Bowie ever will, but I did not shed any tears for his passing. The ever mounting radio, TV and online grief show brings out our humanity, and reinforces the fact that when a huge amount of people are feeling something, all those brought into contact begin to feel it too, as part of the hive mind. Much as I complain about the regular outpourings of RIPs on my social media feeds, I have to admit it’s a good thing. It shows we do actually care, even if it is just to be seen to care while riding the trendwave. It works at Christmas as well, and if we could harness its power properly (admittedly, this is how religion spreads, and fascism) we could do a lot of good, and we could maybe all start to get on as a single species.

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