On the day I learned that Kurt Cobain had killed himself I was alone: 8 April 1994 fell during the Easter holidays and I had stayed at university to revise for exams after my housemates had gone home. Needing to talk to somebody, I called my dad, who was also a Nirvana fan, and we spoke for an hour about what he meant to us. Later, I played loud records in an empty house and embraced what Cobain called “the comfort in being sad”. It’s one of those ice-clear memories of life before the internet that remind me how much mental space I had to fill with my own thoughts rather than other people’s.
Cobain was only 27 and his death jolted a generation. This year an unusual number of significant musicians have died young. In April, the EDM producer Avicii, 28, killed himself in Oman. Two months later, the rapper XXXTentacion was shot dead in Florida aged 20. Last month, the rapper and producer Mac Miller, 26, died at home in LA of a suspected drug overdose. These were not my heroes but tracking the reactions to their death online gave me a taste of what I might have seen if social media had existed in 1994, and it was exhausting.
I’m sure I would have immediately heard conspiracy theories about how Cobain died, and indeed whether he had died: some fans scrutinised the video of XXXTentacion’s murder scene as if it was the Zapruder tape and concluded that he had faked his own death. Speculation about why Cobain killed himself would have pointed the finger at his wife, Courtney Love, just as Miller’s ex-girlfriend Ariana Grande was besieged by posts blaming her for driving him to his death. Anything remotely problematic about Cobain’s life or lyrics would have been held up as a reason to mourn him with reservations, or not at all. Drive-by trolls would have cracked jokes or tweeted “Kurt who?”
I am depressingly certain that instead of listening to “All Apologies” (MTV Unplugged version, obviously) on a loop, I would have become embroiled in some pointless, poisonous argument with a stranger. Like everything else online, mourning a celebrity has become a form of combat, especially when the death is premature.
When a cultural giant such as Aretha Franklin dies, there is a certain reassuring protocol to follow. Obituaries, often commissioned years in advance, provide a semi-official narrative backdrop to the spontaneous and therapeutic outpouring of memories, anecdotes and YouTube links. The grief police will always be with us, tediously priding themselves on how unmoved they are, but over the course of a long life, old controversies are, if not settled, then at least widely acknowledged. Anyone who argued about Philip Roth’s alleged misogyny after his death in May was jumping into a foxhole that was dug decades ago.
It’s different for the very young, their lives and reputations still in flux and beneath the notice of even the most conscientious obituaries editor. When the clay is still wet, there’s an immediate public struggle to mould it this way or that, and define how the deceased should be remembered. Such concepts as due process and guidelines on reporting suicide become quaintly irrelevant. To say, “Let’s wait for the inquest before we jump to conclusions” is to feel like Twitter’s King Canute. Combative mourning allows no time for doubt. Voice your opinion now or forever hold your peace.
This process has little to do with lived reality. Building a reputation is something quite distinct from acknowledging a life. As far as I could tell, nobody had a bad word to say about Victoria Wood or a good one about Charles Manson but more often a life, even an abbreviated one, is a ragged, narratively incoherent mess that even the person living it doesn’t fully understand.
To take the thorniest example, XXXTentacion was all at once a nasty piece of work who, at the time of his death, was awaiting trial for false imprisonment and aggravated battery of his pregnant girlfriend; a musician whose jarringly raw songs about depression meant as much to his teenage fans as Cobain’s did to me; and a human being who didn’t deserve to be shot dead before his 21st birthday over what appears to be nothing more than a Louis Vuitton bag. Reconciling those facts is neither a zero-sum game nor something that can be achieved within 24 hours on Twitter.
When a less divisive character dies young, the problem becomes the powerful urge to turn the death into a whodunnit, or a whydunnit. Anyone who’s ever known an addict or a suicide knows that the reasons for their behaviour are myriad and ultimately unfathomable. Even a documentary as thorough and thoughtful as Asif Kapadia’s Amy left viewers arguing about exactly why Amy Winehouse died, who was to blame, and how her death could have been avoided, so the rush to “explain” why Avicii took his own life or Mac Miller succumbed to drug addiction struck me as grotesque. On social media, the hardest things to say – “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” – are also the truest.
There’s a good reason why many cultures have rituals that allow the bereaved to withdraw from society to work through their grief in private. When I lost my dad, the Nirvana fan, I didn’t invite strangers into my house to say that he was overrated or argue, with diagrams, that he faked his own death as a publicity stunt. The passing of a public figure doesn’t lend itself to quiet contemplation – at best it’s a vast and noisy wake, at worst the nightmarish open house from Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! – but it’s not impossible. I increasingly try to step back and work out how I feel about the person rather than what I think about the discourse. If I had been able to plunge into a sea of opinions on 8 April 1994, I would certainly have felt less alone, but alone was what I needed to be.
This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash