One of the things that repeatedly comes up with David Bowie fans talking about their hero is how much he meant to people living in small towns or suburbs. For adolescents who felt confined by stuffy suburban mores and maybe felt themselves a bit different, Bowie must have felt like a lifeline.
Personally I grew up in bohemian west London and many of my parents’ friends were easily as weird as Bowie, if not quite so cool or well-dressed. I liked Bowie when I was 16 and 17, but I can see why for some people he meant a lot.
Whenever a celebrity dies there follows a certain outpouring of grief, followed by the contrarian take attacking the grief-mongers; after Julie Burchill’s post here, everyone may as well give up on that genre, because it can’t be bettered.
Being a meta-contrarian I don’t see what’s wrong with public mourning for celebrities, especially if they are significant in the way Bowie was. Humans have always made idols of the famous – for centuries after the fall of Rome pretty much the only books anyone read were the lives of the saints, and when someone considered holy or important died people felt grief about it. And that’s not to say that grief isn’t real, even if with Bowie's death people are simply mourning the passing of time. Of celebrity deaths I think the only one that genuinely saddened me was Rik Mayall, but I’m not sure how real my grief was, or whether I was simply the man who reads about an earthquake in China in Adam Smith’s famous example.
We haven’t become more celeb-worshipping; we just have better technology, which means that everyone gets to give their opinion, and a lot of what people have to say is not very interesting to others. There’s not much to say about Bowie dying because, of all human situations, grief probably produces the least interesting reflection, funerals being filled with clichés and truism (but when you’ve lost someone you still appreciate it).
If anything, I’d say that people have become more wary of celebrity grief, precisely because of what happened after Diana. People make this comparison often but the events of August/September 1997 were genuinely scary and weird; I remember large crowds of people in floods of tears outside the palace, hysterical eejits shrieking to journalists about the royal family, demands by the media that the Queen grieve, NO PROPERLY, in public. One poor eastern European was even punched for daring to take a teddy bear from the pile of junk that had been left outside the palace by Diana’s demented fans. That was genuine hysteria, and long before social media allowed these things to spread in this weird neo-medieval century of ours.
Complaining that people express grief at the death of a celebrity is like complaining they cry during films, when they know those films aren’t real. After all, who hasn’t cried during a really sad film like Watership Down, ET or Downfall?