The Ethics of Mourning Deceased Musicians
April 5th, 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death by suicide, and it also marks the 17th anniversary of Layne Staley’s death from a heroin overdose. Both men were revered as two of grunge’s most prominent voices, and both died under tragic circumstances long before their time was due. Unfortunately, both men have something else in common: sizable portions of their fan base are not particularly good at respecting them in death.
On any given April 5th across all social media platforms, you will see posts that make your eyes roll all the way to the back of your head. You’ll see tributes with statements like “Rest in peace, Kurt. I miss you” written by a teenage girl who wasn’t even alive when Kurt passed away. You will see misquotes of things that Kurt Cobain never actually said (FYI: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” is a Neil Young lyric). You will see factions of fans arguing with one another about who is a “real” Nirvana or Alice in Chains fan. Worst of all though, you will see a plethora of conspiracy theory posts about how Kurt Cobain was murdered by his wife or that Layne Staley was murdered by a drug dealer, among others that are too awful to even discuss here.
This sort of nonsense isn’t just limited to musician deaths from “back in the day”, either - there are regular conspiracy theories about Chris Cornell or Chester Bennington being murdered. Chris Cornell’s wife is at the epicenter of a particularly nasty conspiracy theory that paints her as money hungry and eager to have her famous husband bumped off to take the reigns of his riches. Others think that Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington were killed for knowing too many industry secrets, attributing their deaths to “the Illuminati” or “elite pedophile rings”. There are similar “murdered because they knew too much” conspiracies about Xxxtentacion, Mac Miller, and other face tattoo rapper types. Give it enough time, and Nipsey Hussle will have some terrible conspiracy theory about his murder conjured up and posted online, too.
Then of course, there are those fans who met a celebrity who recently died once or twice after a show or in some other public setting, and these fans feel as though they had some kind of “connection” to that person, exaggerating a one-off fan encounter (or a one-night stand if they were a groupie) into something much more intimate and meaningful. The truth of the matter is that if you’re a music fan for long enough, someone in music you’ve met and had respect for is going to die. They might even die too young and/or under tragic circumstances, and it’s going to hurt. If you’re level-headed, however, you’ll just replay the moment you met them in your head a few dozen times while reading tribute articles and feel grateful that you met them.
Case in point: I met Chuck Mosley, the pre-Mike Patton era vocalist for Faith no More, at a solo show on September 8, 2017. On November 10, 2017, he had died of an accidental overdose. Here is the post I made about his passing on Instagram:
I gave a short, sweet, simple dedication to someone I met once whose work I liked and who as a person I thought seemed pretty damn cool (keyword here being “seemed”). I did not mention in my post that Chuck wanted to make music with me or that he gave me his phone number, two things that actually happened. Why? Those tidbits of information were irrelevant to the fact that the man just died. That information was irrelevant to the pain and suffering his wife, children, and band mates (both in Faith no More and his solo act) were feeling. Those were the people who were actually in Chuck’s waking life, who knew the man struggling with addiction problems and equally struggling with a tired, old body that was failing him. I did not know him at all.
From someone who has been there and done that with music communities over the course of nearly 20 years, here’s a few tips for what to do and what not to do when a musician dies (this also includes musicians who died more than a decade ago as well):
Leave their families alone. Seriously. Even if family members make public posts in memoriam for a recently fallen musician, that musician is still their son or daughter, their brother or sister, their mother or father, or another close relative. You wouldn’t post crude or insulting things in the comments of an “ordinary person”’s online memorial, would you? I’d like to think not. Furthermore, don’t DM family of the famously deceased asking questions or even sending “I’m so sorry” messages. It’s inappropriate. You are a stranger to them and have no right to get that personal with your dedications, and you have absolutely no right to ask questions about what “actually happened”.
Additionally, stop acting like you “knew” the musician yourself. Unless you were actually their friend in real life, don’t act like you were close to somebody famous in the wake of their death to get attention. Is it cool to post a fan photo of you with the deceased with a simple dedication? Yes. Is it appropriate for you to write something that erroneously magnifies what kind of relationship you had to the deceased, therefore making their death all about you? No. Absolutely not. Once again, family members, friends, lovers, etc. who actually knew the deceased will likely see this, and it will be upsetting to them. Don’t go there.
Stop the conspiracies. Conspiracy theories about musicians can make for some amusing late-night YouTube rabbit holes, but at they are also incredibly disrespectful and at times even harmful. Leeches like Tom Grant make a nice, fat living off of spreading misinformation and propaganda about the untimely deaths of musicians, simply because they know that fans will be eager to eat up any and all conspiracies about their “faves”. It’s one thing to read a couple of Vigilant Citizen articles and go “hmm” and then move on about your day. It’s an entirely other matter when you become obsessed with how someone died to the point that you have to point fingers in all the wrong directions.
Lastly, keep any celebrity death in perspective. Having an emotional attachment to a band or a musician isn’t unusual and in fact I have a few of my own. However, sometimes it’s good to remember that music just is what it is - something that helps you get through the day or puts you in a better mood. The death of a musician doesn’t mean that their music dies along with them. Those songs you love will still be in your music library. You might not have been that musician’s best friend or girlfriend or band mate or some other sort of relation, but you were a fan who (hopefully) purchased their albums or songs and got some enjoyment out of it. Pay respects to their legacies in the right ways for a fan to do - wear a band shirt, read old interviews, or just listen to the music.
Every year on July 3rd, my mom wears an old Jim Morrison shirt. Actually, she has three Jim Morrison shirts. Jim Morrison was her idol growing up. She thought he was good-looking, but what she liked most about him was his poetic mind. When he died at age 27, my mom, who was still a teenager, was devastated. She knew he had addiction problems as did most fans, but to her and other fans of The Doors, 27 years old was just way too soon for someone that brilliant to leave this earth. Along with one of her shirts, she remembers her rock idol by playing a few Doors songs every year on the anniversary of his death. Then she turns on the TV, changes the channel, changes the subject, and changes her state of mind. Call me crazy, but I think music fans could learn a few things from her.
(Thumbnail image by bodymind on DeviantART).
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