i Need Media
Mourning in the Digital Age
By Matthew Singer 11/07/2013
Lou Reed never struck me as someone who’d care much about being mourned, let alone about the ways in which people mourn him. On the other hand, I do think he’d have a problem with total strangers reducing his life and work to 140 characters. But then, he had the unfortunate fate of dying in the social media era.
On Oct. 27, the New York rock icon and Velvet Underground leader passed away from a liver ailment. Expectedly, for most of that day, Twitter overflowed with tributes of one form or another. Some quoted lyrics. Others linked to YouTube clips and articles. A few shared truncated remembrances of first encountering his music, of seeing him live or meeting him in person. But perhaps the most plaintive cry of sorrow came from — you guessed it — Miley Cyrus. “Noooooooooo notttttttttt LOU REED,” she tweeted. Apparently, when she sang about driving around listening to Jay Z, what she was actually blaring was “Sister Ray.” (“And VU song was on ….”)
That tweet is the most widespread example of a phenomenon particular to the Internet Age: the overwhelming need to comment on everything, just because you can. Not to cast aspersions on Miley’s fandom — it’s possible she’s always getting her twerk on to “Here Comes the Sun” — but without any accompanying evidence, I have to assume “Lou Reed” is a name she read on a $500 vintage T-shirt somewhere.
She wasn’t the only one, of course, just the most famous. All day, my Twitter was jammed with things like, “I just listened to “Transformer” or “Oh, man, that sucks. I love ‘Sweet Jane’!” And even before I woke up and read the news, a low-key debate started on the edges of my feed: Is there a “proper way” to mourn a public figure you’ve never actually met?
It’s something I touched on in this column a few months ago after the death of James Gandolfini, an actor whose art I had much less of a connection to than that of Lou Reed. But the answer, to me, is still the same: Grieving over an artist, no matter who it is, is ultimately selfish. You’re not mourning the loss of the person. You’re mourning the loss of their art in your life. And with someone like Lou Reed, whose life and art have been dissected for nearly the last half-century, coming up with anything new to say, in light of his death, is damn near impossible.
So while empty platitudes from pop starlets clearly grasping at cool points add nothing to the discussion, neither do posthumous 2,000-word treatises on Berlin or White Light/White Heat or Lulu from random bloggers. It’s the double-edged sword of media democratization: Whether a simple RIP or a record geek’s long goodbye, it’s all on the same level of importance, really.
You’re probably wondering how I responded. Naturally, I made it about me: I lamented the fact that I’d never be able to scratch “Get yelled at by Lou Reed for asking him stupid questions” off my career checklist. Maybe that sounds flip, but I was being honest. And in this day and age, that’s all that really matters.
i Need Media is a biweekly media column by Matthew Singer. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.