How David Bowie Won Facebook

Somehow, David Bowie managed to evade his fate in Facebook, that abattoir of emotions and ideological wasteland. By his death, he commanded us to talk about him.

A woman with a tattoo on her back looks at a mural of British singer David Bowie by artist Jimmy C in Brixton, south London, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016.
AP

More than a month has passed, and I still haven’t recovered from David Bowie’s death. I think about Bowie every day, a few times a day. I am not mourning for myself. First of all for him. Then for me. Maybe for both of us together. If death did not give him a miss, it will not give me a miss, either. If cancer got him, cancer will get me, too. If his existence is not eternal, my existence is transitory, too.

Still, no matter how tempting it is, I am trying my best not to fall into narcissistic melancholy. What’s important is his death, not my feelings. There’s a tendency to transform historical events into personal dramas. Everything is examined through the ego prism. Bowie died? No. I’m mourning.

People live with the feeling that they are special. That’s a conventional mistake. When you look at David Bowie, you realize how ordinary you are. With him, narcissism is trampled underfoot. Bowie truly was extraordinary. And not because his mother told him he was. He was weird. Are there other weird people in this world? If there are, they’re hiding on the margins, at the edges. When we mourn for Bowie, we mourn for the death of the weird. For an encounter, which is becoming ever rarer, with works that cannot be deciphered at first glance or on first listening; whose aesthetic codes are not yet clear to us; that infuse us with a feeling of astonishment.

When was the last time you were astonished by something?

Bowie reminded us that the possibility of being weird and singular still exists. It was a painful reminder, because we’d almost forgotten that it’s possible. This is a period in which people are looking for – and also finding – subversive messages, for example, in clips by Beyonce, a singer who gets millions of dollars just to mention the name of luxury products in songs she performs. (Her new hit, “Formation,” is less a hymn to black power than one big commercial for Givenchy dresses, which her fans can’t afford.)

In a world that’s undergoing rampant standardization in order to be in sync with commercial and aesthetic ideals, David Bowie signified the possibility of dissidence. I’m not sure he was the last dissident, but he was definitely the most successful dissident. It’s usually explained that mainstream is the track on which the mediocre and the frivolous tread, but Bowie showed that it’s possible to appeal to the masses without being stupid. Popularity is not bestiality.

Bowie’s passing is the most significant death of our generation. For those who are now in their 40s and 50s, there was John Lennon, lying dead at the entrance to the Dakota in New York. I know people who to this day still talk about the moment at which they heard about Lennon’s death, where they were, what they were doing, what sandwich they were eating.

John Lennon was important musically and culturally, but intellectually he was at the level of a rusty screw. Watching interviews with him on YouTube, I’m embarrassed for him. If he hadn’t been murdered, he would probably have gone on to become a self-righteous vegan multimillionaire, an aging hippie attracted to skinny models, green vegetable shakes and world peace.

David Bowie was the perfect pop star – a huge performer, a great writer, a brilliant human being. You know what? It’s almost unavoidable: David Bowie’s death was our Rabin assassination. And because the Rabin assassination was also our Rabin assassination, we have to think about the spiritual legacy the two left us. The Rabin assassination taught us left-wing melancholy: to live with perpetual guilt feelings. What’s the lesson from Bowie’s death? That you have to be a gorgeous, talented hunk. That’s all that’s important in life (and also, that drugs are not what will kill you in the end).

People are still mourning for Bowie. On Facebook, too. I mention that realm deliberately, because Facebook is the place where we reveal our thoughts. Facebook is the territory of the insensitive under an ideological cloak of hyper-sensitivity. Everyone talks about what pains them, but the pain passes without leaving a mark.

There’s a feeling that events we experience ourselves, read about or see on television are completely meaningless. By the same token, they could just as easily not have happened. They do not touch us. We’re angry, we mourn, we’re happy, we’re sad, we are rife with admonishment or with a desire to change things – and within half a day it all dissolves like the smoke of an electronic cigarette. Nothing is important enough or major enough. Miri Regev? Another stabbing in Jerusalem? The natural-gas deal? Moshe Ivgy? Feminism? Activism? The reactions may grow ever more extreme, but the actuality melts away between our fingers.

The less we feel, the more we react. People rush to form an opinion, to get irritated and to despair. Not a day passes without a scandal. And the scandals – are they worth anything? It’s impossible to know. Even before the current scandal has passed the next one has arrived, in an endless loop, seemingly revolving around fateful questions of conscience and morality – but not really. Everything seems urgent, but in practice nothing is urgent.

Illustration.
Sharon Fadida

Facebook is an abattoir of emotions. An ideological wasteland. A big fat nothing. The place to which real people go in order to transform themselves into captives of the algorithm of ungrateful newsfeed.

Somehow, David Bowie managed to evade his Facebook fate. To evade the wretchedness that informs the sterile dialogues and discussions that chase their own tail, until they get tired and go to asleep. Bowie’s death made it possible for people to take a breath, digest the news, talk about it, share it, understand what exactly is happening – to write and respond at length, to be sentimental, but not overly sentimental, to be personal, absolutely personal, without arousing embarrassment. To be sad without being cloying and gushing, to remember and to soothe one another with stories and songs. Not to act like a herd of buffalo with attention deficit disorder that is stampeding into a mud puddle. Not to rush and then to forget. To take part in a prolonged experience of deep collective grief.

By his death, David Bowie commanded us to talk about him. What usually happens is that people don’t talk. They shoot at each other from the trenches of their lives and hide behind sandbags. Bowie’s death has not faded as though it never happened. It’s with us. It’s an ongoing presence.

I don’t remember an Internet phenomenon like this since – well, since we’ve had Internet. It’s touching, in the original, non-vulgar sense of the word. Not touching like a manipulative clip of a lame kitten or a cute baby who is terminally ill. Touching like a Bowie song.

This was his last masterly work. David Bowie prevailed over Facebook.