Vapid ResponseA 1999 Jeremy Paxman interview with David Bowie excavated and aired anew during this past week sees the man whose abrupt withdrawal from the stage takes some getting used to make some remarkably prescient predictions about the way in which the then-infant internet would alter the cultural landscape. Music’s method of delivery has arguably undergone the greatest change of all in the seventeen years since a cynical Paxo doubted Bowie’s foresight; but when the visionary interviewee warned cyberspace had the potential to generate both good and bad, the reactions on social and antisocial media to the week’s events vindicated his soothsaying.

‘Channel 4 News’ anchor Jon Snow is the cause of the latest online lather for attempting to inject a tediously obvious gag into a discussion with actor Richard Wilson on the premature passing of fellow thespian Alan Rickman. When Wilson guest-starred as himself in a classic ‘Father Ted’ episode, losing his rag as his ‘One Foot in the Grave’ catchphrase was barked in his face at an inappropriate moment, Victor Meldrew was still on screen at the time and ‘I don’t believe it’ was an omnipotent uttering within popular culture. For Jon Snow to ask Wilson if he believed it when hearing of Rickman’s death is an example of an ageing media man presuming the catchphrase retains its relevance; not that this has been acknowledged by Outraged of Everywhere, however.

Actress Emma Watson has also been castigated for her response to Rickman’s death, this time accused of exploiting it to push her own agenda. Her crime was to post a quote on feminism by her ‘Harry Potter’ co-star as a tribute; as Watson is known for her own feminist beliefs, should it really come as a great surprise that she used a quote that chimes with her opinions and thus emphasises why she was fond of the late actor? Facebook and Twitter were both awash with David Bowie quotes that were selected because whoever posted them felt they possessed the most relevance to their own lives.

I found Watson’s online tribute considerably less nauseating than the rash of crass tokenisms that routinely appear whenever a public figure passes away. The likes of David Cameron has no choice; as Prime Minister, it is a given that the death of a cultural giant such as David Bowie will result in the subject being raised when a microphone is stuck in his face, and he has to respond in the way both media and public expect him to. When John Lennon died in 1980, incoming US President Ronald Reagan was asked for his reaction, as was 60s PM Harold Wilson; it’s hard to imagine either politician putting their feet up of an evening and listening to ‘Plastic Ono Band’ just as the thought of Cameron nodding his head to side 2 of ‘Low’ is pure fantasy. These men are required to have pat buzzwords on standby for every such occasion; that is their excuse.

Where non-politicians are concerned, the standard ‘OMG – our thoughts go out to his/her family’ comment has become so familiar that the absolute absence of genuine emotion or feeling in the statement tends to be overlooked. What matters is that the poster has adhered to the unwritten law of social media by saying something, however meaningless and devoid of personal sentiment. That is what counts now, yet another legacy of the vicarious grief pioneered during the Diana hysteria of 1997. Ever since Her Majesty was condemned for not making an official comment within hours of the fatal journey into the Paris tunnel, the need to be seen issuing an official comment by everyone indulging in online life is compulsory.

If someone famous I detest were to suddenly drop dead tomorrow, whether Kelvin McKenzie or James Corden, I would not be declaring on Facebook or Twitter how gutted I was merely because it’s become the given thing to do; it would be dishonest and disingenuous, akin to the fawning ramblings that emanated from ancient peers in the Lords when Thatcher died, something that even annoyed Norman Tebbitt, especially when they came from the lips of those whose loyalty to the Iron Lady was in short supply at the time she was deposed.

One of the many problems with social media’s virtual friendships is that expressions of upset can also inhabit the virtual world, emotional holograms that have all the heartfelt authenticity of the gooey verse in a greetings card. For those whose social interaction has been shaped by cyberspace and have no memory of life without it, a pre-programmed response to death that is characterised by its vacuous content and the fact it actually says nothing about the person who has died is something that may as well be included in the terms and conditions form nobody bothers reading when signing-up, so obligatory is it now. The impenetrable glut of such comments also makes it hard to spot the actual genuine article when someone attempts to pay an individual tribute; Emma Watson did that and look at how it was received. Don’t veer from the script, dear.

© The Editor

8 thoughts on “VAPID RESPONSE

  1. How things change from Shakespeare’s report.
    We can recall Marc Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar – “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones”. Now it seems the complete reverse: the death of any ‘celebrity’ brings forth only the most positive reminiscences, disregarding any ‘evil’ that may have been committed.
    But we’re all guilty to some degree – I have on occasions been asked to deliver eulogies at the funerals of friends/colleagues and, tempting though it is refer to some less notable aspects, the expectation is for 100% sycophancy. I like to think I placed enough subtle clues along the way, but recognise the needs of the day’s audience for the overwhelming comfort of positivity.
    But then ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are often just perceptions – the case of Margaret Thatcher offering a good example. For everyone chanting “Ding Dong the witch is dead”, there were equal numbers offering more silent gratitude for what they perceived as her more dominant positive traits – but so what, the ‘start of the show’ didn’t get to hear either.


    1. I can certainly imagine if you’re thrust into the spotlight at a funeral service the pressure to paint a flattering portrait must be nigh-on impossible to spurn. Thankfully, I’ve never been placed in that position!


      1. Reminds me of this classic old Jewish joke.

        Hymie Cohen was not very well liked, in fact he was a rather nasty, heartless and cruel human being. Nevertheless his funeral was well attended, more out of respect for tradition rather than any for the deceased. At the end of the service the Rabbi, as is traditional, asks if anyone wishes to say a few kind words for the dearly departed…. Total silence ensues, broken only by the occasional uncomfortable cough, while everyone begins to stare at their feet etc. Finally the Rabbi pleads, “Please, surely one of you can find a few kind words for the departed?” Finally, at the back of the Synagogue, a little old man struggles to his feet. “Are, Soli, thank you so much!” says the Rabbi, “What last kind words can you offer for our dear departed Hymie?” Soli pauses for a moment, gathering his thoughts, and then says, with all the solemnity he can muster… “His brother was worse!!!” 🙂

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  2. What has annoyed me this past week is the media pushing these deaths so far up the news agenda that every tiresome prick in the land felt obliged to give a token ‘RIP’ & soundbite on social media.
    In the case of Alan Rickman, I’m not that familiar with his work so had nothing to say. In the case of David Bowie I’ve been playing his music extensively since I was a child, I’ve read books on him, pored over interviews since I started buying music magazines at the age of ten and watched & rewatched television footage, films and documentaries – and his death won’t change that.
    The curious thing with Bowie is how the ‘politically correct’ media have used and abused his body of work in recent years for their own ends – for every welcome, skillful adaption of his music (for instance – by Adam Curtis in Bitter Lake) you get some awful sacrilege (for instance Bowie soundtracking that atrocious BBC “The Detectives” thing about the Greater Manchester Sex Police), and now the sacrilege will be revved up even further I fear….


    1. I think you make the key point when you mention Alan Rickman. The movies for which he received the most recognition – ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ and the ‘Harry Potter’ series – are not my cup of tea and therefore his death, whilst sad for those who knew and loved him, had no discernible impact on me; like you, I had nothing publicly to say on the subject. The problem now is that social media junkies have to issue some comment when they too have nothing to say; to neglect to do so is to break the unwritten laws of cyberspace. There’s nothing so disrespectful to someone’s memory as an obligatory token tribute devoid of the genuine emotion that comes when somebody you actually care about passes away.


  3. Especially when, in the case of a politician, one of their Spads no doubt had to explain who aforesaid deceased actually was — before composing the ‘heartfelt’ words to be spoken by the politico.


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