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Mourning Stars Through Streams, Screens And Communities

Flowers are laid beneath a mural of David Bowie in London in January.closemore
Flowers are laid beneath a mural of David Bowie in London in January.

In my early 20s, smitten by the mythic underpinnings of American popular music, I built an Elvis shrine in my living room. It largely consisted of magazine clips that my parents' next door neighbor Esther Schor had given me, culled from her own little tribute to the Memphis faun, which she'd set up near her basement tiki bar. During a holiday visit home to Seattle not long after I'd made my first Graceland pilgrimage, Esther let me take my pick of her swag; I augmented it with stuff from flea markets and souvenir shops, and that album cover the Clash had ripped off for London Calling.

The shrine wasn't huge, but it was focused: a teaching tool to help me grasp why this doe-eyed truck driver had become such a symbolic vortex in rock 'n' roll's early days. I studied Elvis's image while playing his records on my Technics turntable, meditating on the charisma of someone I'd never encounter in the flesh (since Elvis had died when I was 13). This went on for a year or so, until my roommate tired of having to see that sneer every time she and her boyfriend sat on their couch. She pulled down the shrine and shoved all the clippings and photos in a box, ripping the gloss off my favorite one right above the King's left cheek.

Imagine if I were a neophyte music fan in 2016 instead of 1988. David Bowie dies. Instead of having to travel to Berlin and London and New York, collecting artifacts to augment what I've extracted from record bins and off the shelves of the public library, I can simply join a Facebook group. Through it I can connect with nearly 10,000 other Bowie fans, sharing not just testimonials about how the Starman's music changed their lives, but archival material excavated from the borderless atmosphere of cyberspace: live performance footage, obscure interviews, recorded rarities, critical analysis, other musicians' tributes, even psychoanalytic takes. These links come to me steadily, along with loving commentary.

If I have a question about Bowie's connections to soul music or Hollywood, I can ask and immediately be enlightened. And through the Church, I find other resources — other Facebook groups, great blogs, fan-run websites. I'm not alone! On the contrary, I feel supported and guided. Partly because I didn't build this sanctum alone, I don't fear its desecration; others will protect it and guide me into its niches. As my knowledge grows, I begin to contribute my own discoveries and thoughts within a community I've grown to trust. The disappointment I feel knowing I'll never be in my hero's physical presence is mitigated by the bounty of material that makes him hyperreal: a ghost reanimated in bright pixels and surround sound.

Fans have mourned celluloid and vinyl heroes together, in public, since the dawn of modern popular culture. In 1927, the funeral procession of Harlem's beloved "Queen of Happiness," singer and dancer Florence Mills, drew tens of thousands of people into the streets, as Rudolph Valentino's had in Los Angeles the year before. The Internet's role as a commemorative platform came into focus after 9/11, and is central today, from the most intimate "compassionate crowdfunding" sites to globally streamed memorials for megastars like Michael Jackson and commemorating (or aiding) disaster victims.

2016, a year of startling loss in the music world, had plenty of those now old-fashioned tribute concerts, with more coming soon; but many more people gathered virtually, and not on designated occasions, but day after day. (As the toll of mortality continues, we are now seeing this process begin for our latest loss, George Michael.) In virtual settings, grief combines with something else: celebration, exploration. The goodbye turns into hello, stay awhile, the development of a communal practice of archiving and curating legacies, of preserving an artist's work and ensuring his or her ongoing relevance. Our departed stars become digital saints. We write their little books in playlists and video uploads.

Bowie's transformation into a digital bodhisattva became a signature story of 2016. This month, Blackstar, the album he released days before his passing in the year's earliest days, topped more music critics' lists than any other recording. Others have written about Bowie's prescience and courage in crafting his own musical elegy. His wavering voice crooning, "Look up here, I'm in heaven" in the song "Lazarus" became, for many, the sonic imprint of a year buried in loss.

Blackstar is also an entryway into Bowie's labyrinthine career. A companion piece to a play resurrecting the story told in his most famous film, The Man Who Fell To Earth, it harkens back musically to his experimental work at the turn of the 1980s and to thematic touchstones ranging from the theater to the criminal underworld. The experience of getting to know Blackstar complements the bigger one of absorbing Bowie's long and winding career. That career is highly unusual within pop — Bowie's decision to continually foreground his own processes of transformation sustained him artistically when others faded, making for many distinct chapters, each ripe for championing as his legacy has been reassessed. 45 years of trying new things meant Bowie left far more ways into his archive than the average pop idol, and many more reasons to linger there.

Fans leave mementos on the fence surrounding Paisley Park, Prince's home and studio in Chanhassen, Minn.

The same can be said of Prince, the other monumental cultural loss of 2016. His April demise was shocking and came far too soon, in the midst of health struggles we now better understand, but also during a remarkable run as arguably the most exciting live performer of the current century. Prince's renaissance as a performer had renewed awareness of his historical importance. He wasn't putting things in order when he died — in fact, he left an estate in chaos — but through his concerts, he was engaged in reassessing his own career. That unforeseeable coincidence of focused control and negligence proved to be Prince's greatest parting gift. People were craving a chance to explore the legacy he'd been teasing out in those years of great shows.

With his sudden passing, suddenly the unwavering control Prince had exerted over his online presence — virtually nothing was available — was loosed. A deluge ensued. Though nothing was made available to stream legally outside the Tidal service, which Prince had endorsed before his death, previously inconceivable YouTube channels like Prince Unreleased Songs from the Vault and Best Prince Live Performances popped up. (These channels, alongside crucial websites like the Prince Museum, are currently being monitored by Prince's estate, but plenty of material remains available.) Fans devastated by Prince's death found themselves dealing with the contradictory feeling of delight at all the new material now available to them. Many set about curating these wonders, within playlists and Instagram accounts. Meanwhile, the reconsideration of Prince as a figure as important as Elvis or the Beatles, already in motion, intensified.

Losing Prince was a tragedy, but one that, historically, was strangely well-timed. The rise of a rejuvenated African-American civil rights movement and the emergence of a powerful new generation of writers of color, enabled within cyberspace, has challenged racist thinking so prevalent within popular culture's canon-making mechanisms. Prince is the posthumous champion of this collective process, and celebrating him as a specifically black icon has become one means to rethink popular music itself. His music is the current in a mainstream that runs from gospel to soul to funk to hip-hop, currently usurping the one that gave primacy to classic rock and its antecedents. The revelation that Prince was a quiet social activist who gave significant funds to the family of Trayvon Martin and to black-run initiatives like #YesWeCode has added weight to this reexamination of his legacy, which like the Academy Awards boycott #OscarsSoWhite, gained power on social media.

For many, mourning Prince has become a political act, one that keeps his spirit alive in ways that he might have both welcomed and sought to complicate. Like Bowie, Prince had many selves and his legacy resonates across many different lines of identity. The aspects of his music that celebrated fantasy as a source of liberation — and which challenged binary thinking about both race and gender — have also proven central to the way his legacy is being preserved online. Dozens of personal testimonies by both well-published critics and ordinary listeners declared him a queer icon, a champion of women and a boundary-blurrer whose refusal to conform to anyone else's standards emboldened fans and helped them cope with the prejudices they themselves faced. Ultimately, Prince was both someone who could embody black masculinity and challenge the prejudices attached to it. His death has allowed for crucial discussions of how these practices might coalesce instead of defeating each other.

Prince and Bowie were, in some ways, two sides of a pop-cultural coin: Their endlessly expansive curiosity as musicians and cultural explorers produced inheritances that only seem to open up more meanings as listeners share and further examine them. The many other artists we lost this year may not be as overwhelmingly resonant, but the richness of their offerings, and their ongoing relevance, has also been amplified within the digital space.

The death of Leonard Cohen at 83 followed shortly after the release of a new album that then became a kaddish written by the man himself. You Want It Darker has been lauded by many critics as one of the year's best albums, and it is resonant, though no more so than the other two he'd released without nearly as much fanfare in this decade. The digital age has proven a good one for elder artists in general — freed from conventional record-label expectations, many are producing vital work. You Want It Darker was immediately available to anyone with access to streaming when it became his final work mere weeks after he released it. Making time to acknowledge its richness became a way of throwing dirt into the grave of this earthiest of icons — a warm way to say goodbye.

Cohen left behind a flourishing musical family, as did most of the elders we've recently lost: They were mentors and teachers as well as great artists in their own right. Online, the standard-issue testimonies that flow forth after a death can be augmented by recordings of performances that show how artists' influences manifest musically.

In country music, Merle Haggard and Guy Clark were both mentors and role models to several generations of songwriters, and when each succumbed after long illness, new versions of their songs by touring performers began accruing on YouTube — heartfelt tributes in an open-ended memory book.

More obscure artists, equally important within their communities, gained greater visibility through similar acknowledgments. Avant-garde composers Tony Conrad and Pauline Oliveros are two examples: Both beloved teachers and central thinkers within the realm of new music, they were lifted up by the outpouring of heartfelt testimony (and useful playlists) from students, collaborators and fans whose care in grieving allowed for those unfamiliar with their contributions to begin to comprehend their importance.

A certain narrative logic adheres to the death of elders; they have lived long and often well, and, in cases like Cohen's, have clearly made their peace with the journey to the next bardo. When death comes to a younger artist, technology can help soften the blow.

Though it was well known that he lived with diabetes, the March passing of A Tribe Called Quest rapper Phife Dawg stunned hip-hop fans, especially because the group's recent reunion performance (on Jimmy Fallon's show) after 17 years apart had given them hope for more. Upon his passing, many fans and peers created playlists and mixes capturing the flow of his finest work; these celebrations of his voice eventually served as a bridge to the new album, We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, which came out Nov. 11. Performing on Saturday Night Live the next evening, Phife's surviving crew mates used the power of the remix to keep his spirit close: As his voice boomed out from DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad's decks, a huge banner image of his face unfurled between his fellow rhymers Q-Tip and Jarobi, and it seemed as if the ink itself were speaking. Phife's recorded contributions felt utterly appropriate, a far cry from the strange holograms that have popped up onstage at music festivals in recent years. Perhaps this is because digitized presence is coming to feel more real, less jarring, as it becomes a constant layer in our lives.

The virtual can only offer so much comfort, however, to those who've lost someone whose hand they held or voice they greeted at the door every day. Two of the music world's most incomprehensible tragedies in 2016 involved not artists but fans: the June gun massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the December fire at the Oakland artists' space Ghost Ship. Like every disaster now, those were witnessed across the globe in real time on social media, and its platforms became not just sites of memory but conduits for investigation, organizing and response.

For many in music scenes now deeply interlinked across long distances — in these cases, communities centered on dance and electronic music — it was heartbreaking to see friends frantically seeking word of their loved ones and often discovering the worst. Reporters gathering the stories of the lost turned to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to fill in the details of their identities. Devastated loved ones penned beautiful reminiscences that were more than standard memorials: They provided insight into the communities, vibrating with life, that had drawn people into these homes away from home, bringing to light the chosen families that formed within them. Within days, people began taking steps to organize politically to ensure the safety of such spaces in the future, organizing vigils and hosting discussions about how to protect what now felt threatened.

Merely sharing the names of who had died became a powerful gesture after the incidents at Pulse and Ghost Ship. The power of naming has been proven within many of the most resonant shrines of our time, from the AIDS Memorial Quilt to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; more recently, the slogan "Say Her Name" has brought into light how anonymity can conceal oppression. Within music communities, fandom is celebrated, but mostly in the abstract: from Beatlemaniacs to Deadheads to ravers, fans are fetishized as embodimenents of music's power to influence social change, but also reduced to stereotypes. Within Pulse and Ghost Ship, real, vibrant individuals lost their lives, and the most heartwrenching tributes have been addressed to those people who were crucial members of communities operating beyond the spotlight.

Sharing the stories and names of Cash Askew and Brenda McCool, among many others, their loved ones ensured the recognition of whole musical ecosystems — not just stars, but dancers, party people, emerging artists who came to support others like themselves; creative folk who nurtured scenes together, in hope and love.

"Something happened on the day he died," David Bowie sings, oracular, in "Blackstar." The song might be about the artist himself, imagining and trying desperately to direct a reputation. It might be about more sinister commemorations that proliferate online; the saxophonist Donny McCaslin has said that Bowie was thinking about ISIS, an organization known for honoring those who die for its cause using social media. Since his own death, however, Bowie has done what he describes in the song, metaphorically at least — he has "stepped aside," and its meanings become part of a flow directed by thousands, if not millions, of hands.

The shrines of yesterday — solid, well-maintained or carelessly trodden into dust — are giving way to ones that float, like consciousness. It's up to all of us to maintain their truth, and their glow.

Copyright NPR 2017.

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