My friend’s Facebook update revealed catastrophe. Her world appeared to be crumbling around her. She was overwhelmed:
“Heartbroken. This is too much.”
Clearly, something unbearable had occurred – a blow so devastating that the result was abject, dumbfounded denial:
“There is no way… please don’t let it be true.”
Deceased loved one? Deadly earthquake or terror attack? Good poll numbers for Donald Trump?
It was April 21, and Prince, a musician that, though certainly brilliant, my Millennial friend had never expressed a particular affinity for – and whose last Top 10 hit, 1994’s The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, dropped when she was entering Kindergarten – had passed away at the not-so-young age of 57.
Sad indeed. And I’m not disputing that my friend appreciated Prince’s music. Anyone with any taste appreciated Prince’s music. He was a genius – no one’s denying or diminishing that.
But “heartbroken?” “Too much”? That’s just… well, too much.
I would have easily dismissed it were my friend’s audition for Best Dramatic Actress on a Social Media Site at all unique. But multiply this ridiculousness by about 50, and you have a pretty good snapshot of my – and I’m sure most of your – Facebook feeds that day.
It is an oddity of social media, a saturation of silliness distinct from other strands of keystroke diarrhea.
Welcome to competitive celebrity mourning. May the bereft-est man win.
Dead Men? Tell Tales!
Our online lives frequently feature obnoxious, psychiatrically-compelling roles nearly impossible to play in person. Many are fully inherent to the medium itself: For example, “vague-booking” – purposefully cryptic posts whose attention-starved authors hint at doing something far more intriguing than watching reruns of Castle on TNT – is a behavior one would be hard pressed to exhibit face-to-face, from the couch, watching reruns of Castle on TNT.
Other unappealing avatars – trolls, oversharers, or simpletons whose posts are often naive, uninformed or flat-out foolish – are more revealing than reinvented. The blowhard picking a fight with a mutual Facebook friend on your wall is, more likely than not, a jerk in the flesh. Your friends who post endless photos of their kids truly are gaga about parenthood. And your uncle who thinks climate change is a hoax propagated by extraterrestrials is some combination of naive, uninformed and foolish. He should watch something other than Ancient Aliens on the “History” channel (might I recommend Castle on TNT?).
But celebrity cyber-mourning inhabits a category unto itself. It is tragically unique.
For starters, though it exists online, it obviously isn’t a fully modern invention; expressing sorrow – sincere or disingenuous – at news of someone’s death is both timeless and totally appropriate. What’s distinct is the supremely outsized severity of the grief expressed online as opposed to in person.
Had I told my “heartbroken” friend about Prince’s death face to face, I sincerely doubt she would have crumbled to her knees, pumped her fists toward the heavens and cried “Please don’t let it be true!” That’s a ‘loved one’s terminal illness diagnosis’ reaction, far beyond ‘past-his-prime musician’s death’ territory.
But unlike other online behaviors, this oddball overreaction isn’t instantly revealing of its author’s personality: I don’t think my cyber-coffin-jumping compatriots are any more likely to be arrogant, mean, or stupid than anyone else. Bullshitters maybe, but he who is fully free of that sin can cast the first cowpie.
Still, it’s a weird thing to B.S. about. “He’s dead? Let me log on and grossly exaggerate how much I enjoyed his work!” Those two thoughts are disjointed enough that, when a celebrity dies, our Facebook feeds shouldn’t become amateur obituary writing contests. But they do, and soon enough grammar and sentence structure become the day’s next casualties.
The result is sappy, transparently overplayed accounts of faux devotion and devastation that, by comparison, give our usual threads of orchestrated importance the feel of monk-like modesty.
But why? Why do we get so carried away when a celebrity passes away?
Oxymoronically, the driving force behind this sort of off-putting one-upmanship may be a desire to create shared experiences with others. A celebrity death is a safe occurrence for phony exaggeration – something that can be overblown, without risk of repercussion, into a sort of forced “where were you when you heard” moment. JFK assassination, 9/11… Prince’s death.
It’s groupthink self-importance: By bluffing at the extent of our fandom (I mean really – was Prince that high up on your Spotify playlist?), we individually claim a greater personal loss, and collectively puff the event up into a higher-level tragedy. In a sick sort of way social media has, at that point, achieved its objective of bringing far-flung friends closer together… over (enter deceased celebrity here)’s dead body.
But what does that say about us, other than the obvious conclusion that we’re occasionally insincere – which, like bullshitting, is pretty much a universal (and therefore unrevealing) act?
More than anything, I think, this sort of posthumous posturing brings into question one’s self-esteem. There’s a desperate, reassurance-seeking, talking-in-tongues-at-megachurches metaphor in there somewhere; we want to think that what we feel matters, even if we’re not really feeling it.
In the end, celebrity coffin-jumping, though extremely weird, is relatively harmless and fully forgivable. Though unduly deifying the dead should generally be advised against, it’s easy enough to give it a pass considering, for example, the universally-respected talent that Prince truly was.
That is, of course, until David Hasselhoff dies.