Column: When does the celebrity grieving period end and the vilifying begin?

In this Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016 photo, Rene Rivo, a Filipino David Bowie fan, plays a picture disc of Bowie's Hunky Dory on a turntable at his shop in suburban Paranaque, south of Manila, Philippines. (Aaron Favila, File/AP)

It always seems like celebrities die en masse at the end of the year or the winter, like fate or whatever arbitrary quantum powers take a handful of them each time to satisfy a rapacious mortal equilibrium. There was no shortage of dead musicians this year, with notables Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister of Motorhead, David Bowie and Glenn Frey of the Eagles all shuffled off their respective mortal coils.

Regarding musicians, many of the ones from rock and roll’s late 1960’s, early 1970’s renaissance are now in their late '60s and early '70s, making them especially ripe for death, the presumed utterly decadent lifestyles of their heyday and their bodily tolls weighed. I believe we can expect to steadily hear about the deaths of many of our beloved “classic” rock performers over the next few years.

And, more relevant to us plebeians not quite inside the stratosphere of celebrity, we get to witness the obdurate modern orgy of people we may or may not care for (but remain attached to nonetheless) eulogizing these celebrities on social media, and what an utterly tremendous role the person in question must have played in their lives.

But not everything is as sunny and touching in the online obituary world when celebrities perish, it seems. Could be that we’ve been using it long enough to become desensitized to the spectacle. Maybe I just notice it more because I’m slightly older, more cynical and have now ascertained Facebook shouldn’t be my sole source of news. It may just boil down to the famous person in question.

Let’s contrast Frey and Bowie. Now, I can’t stand the Eagles. During the scene in The Big Lebowski when The Dude tells a cab driver, “Can you change the channel, man? I’ve had a rough night and I hate the f*cking Eagles,” you could say I feel some empathy. But the New York Daily News opened up with an article entitled, “Glenn Frey’s death is sad, but the Eagles were a horrific band.” Like, Jesus. Have a little restraint.

Frey was known for being a little prickly, and when interviewed about his former band mates, Rolling Stone described him as “delightfully unrepentant,” – a euphemism for “he was kind of a prick” – but public consensus never deemed him a particularly bad person and he never did anything illegal. The author calling Frey’s group “quite simply, the worst rock and roll band” days after he dies seems heavy-handed and wrong, even if they aren’t, in my own very subjective estimation, a good band. Death merits a grace period of kindness to the departed and his or her loved ones, given he or she wasn’t terrible while living.

Bowie, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. Based on the whopping outpour of maudlin Facebook posts displayed last week, public opinion would surmise that he was a much better, more influential artist than Glenn Frey. If you haven’t heard his 25th and final album, Blackstar, I highly recommend it. The same writer at the New York Daily News proclaimed Bowie’s “music and gender-bending influenced everyone in the industry.”

A catch is that Bowie carried more personal baggage with him, from a legal and moral standpoint. In the early 1970’s (which would make Bowie in his mid-20s), he had sexual relations with a 15-year-old girl named Lori Mattix. Mattix maintains the sex was consensual, but the age of consent in California (where relations occurred) was and still is 18. Consent aside, Bowie probably knew (or definitely should have known) that statutory rape is illegal, at least a little manipulative and certainly gross.

Nevertheless, certain people online were willing to ignore (or “poo poo” those calling out for it being too soon) Bowie’s moral transgressions because his artistic contributions were so potent, but vilify Frey as a person (because the art is an extension of the artist) because his art wasn’t as good. This strikes me as awfully hypocritical and an unfair painting of the dead celebrities in question.

When people die, we should remember them fondly for their contributions to the world, but we ought not to forget what we conveniently do about these folks to support our personal biases. Once the grace period ends – and shortly, as the Internet will dictate for the rest of our lives – they should be judged on all their merits.


Stephen Friedland is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at stephen.friedland@uconn.edu.