Farrah Fawcett had the misfortune to die on the same day as Michael Jackson. With Twitter just a couple of years old at the time, the reaction to her death was considerably muted. I don’t remember it well: I was on the Twitter at that time, but only just, and I didn’t have a smart phone yet. What I do remember thinking is that, although she wasn’t a huge star, she was a household name, and she kind of got lost behind the noise.
In 2016, almost every celeb death is being lost behind the noise. The Hollywood Reporter has a list of
110 111 vaguely or actually famous people who have died so far this year. Of course, most of the names mean nothing to a Briton, but they do include the likes of Terry Wogan and Paul Daniels, so it’s pretty comprehensive.
I’ve long muted the hashtag #RIP, in an attempt to control the tsunami of similar tweets when somebody famous dies, so I’ve been watching Twitter react to these deaths with the volume turned down. It’s not just me being snarky, honest, but I do find that thing Twitter does to be overwhelming. While I had nothing but contempt for the people who went over-the-top with their reactions to the death of Princess Potatohead in 1997, I think people do have a right to feel sad when someone they admire dies. I’ve been following the 2016 Celebrity Apocalypse on the Twitter with interest.
What has been interesting is that the degree to which Twitter gets overwrought is directly proportional to the level of public affection felt for any given dead celeb. This might seem an obvious thing to say, but the Twitter affection can actually be out of whack with the cash register or industry status of the stars. Let me say here that I haven’t been sneering with contempt at the fan reactions. I’m a fan of a number of people myself, and I remember clearly the day after John Lennon died, and how significant his death was to me.
And it’s the fan reactions, I think, that tell you just how significant any given figure will be in the long term.
Lemmy’s death, at the end of last year, passed with tributes and obits, but didn’t garner the quantity of personal testament that the death of Bowie did a few days later. Whereas you can look on the reaction to some deaths as being programmed and insincere, we already knew, didn’t we, that Bowie meant a lot to people. So it was hardly surprising that the news hit so big, notwithstanding his patchy career. (My onetime hero John Lennon’s solo career was similarly inconsistent, of course.)
When Glen Frey passed, we got the tributes and the one-off performances (Springsteen in Chicago did ‘Take it Easy’; a tearful Vince Gill performed ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’), but most of the reaction on Twitter was from the industry and the press, which is telling. Glen Frey was not a particularly likeable man: he had the air of a mob lawyer, and even as a longhair in the early 70s, gave off the vibe of being a cop pretending to be a hippy in order to infiltrate the radicals. Glen Frey, as part of The Eagles, sold a lot of records, but he didn’t inspire the kind of passionate devotion that Bowie did.
So it matters, I think, who’s talking: who is paying tribute, who is posting all the tweets. With George Martin, Wogan, Daniels, Corbett, and most recently Victoria Wood, the messaging is mainly industry-based. The public don’t really care as much. Victoria Wood may have been different, but like Farrah Fawcett, her death has been eclipsed by a greater and more significant one, the most shocking, I reckon, since Heath Ledger.
As with Bowie, even as a non-fan, I knew that Prince was special to his fans. He pushed all the same buttons as Bowie in terms of identity, masculinity, sex, and so on; and he had the same kind of patchy back catalogue: moments of unmistakeable genius mixed in with poor quality control. And this latter is no mere coincidence when it comes to inspiring fan passions. Because it’s the pain that goes along with disappointment, leavened by the astonishment at how brilliant an artist can be that drives true fandom. Bob Dylan inspires similar devotion: the quality comes and goes, but you know it never goes entirely (which it kind of did, really, with Glen Frey and Keith Emerson). Lou Reed, too, had a career peppered with what can only be described as dreadful shite; but every now and then he’d pull out a ‘Street Hassle’ or a Coney Island Baby, or a New York.
The devoted fan can never quite give up on the object of their affections. Prince was better than most, because, unlike Bowie, he had a passion for live performance to match Springsteen. And he did the things (the after-shows in small clubs, the surprise appearances) that Springsteen does, which meant that, no matter how patchy the album releases might be, the live shows were always special. And Bruce is like that too: when did he last release a truly great album? It doesn’t matter – because it’s the shows that count, and that was obviously true of Prince too.