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Tributes to Prince have taken a turn for the absurd

When news of Prince’s death started trickling across the internet yesterday, a lot of friends on my Facebook page weren’t sure if it was a hoax or not. Even I expressed a little doubt. He was only 57 — surely there must be some kind of mistake. As it became clearer and clearer that the inimitable icon had truly passed away, an avalanche of grief rolled in.

People spoke openly about what the musician and actor had meant to them. For some, his music laid the soundtrack for memories that were both good and bad. For others, the singular uniqueness of him felt like a granting of permission, particularly if you were an angsty kid of color when Prince reigned. A friend of mine confided that “he made it OK to be weird and black when I really needed that to be OK.”

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I understand this grief. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced it fully, but most psychologists agree that the feeling of loss when a celebrity dies is very real, even if you’ve never met the celebrity. When Aaliyah died in 2001, three years before Facebook was even founded, I almost found myself talking to a school counselor who was standing by in light of the news, a little perplexed at how awful it all felt.

But as the new mourning ritual that is memefying death and shrinking grief down to a filter you can place over your profile picture, I find myself taking a step backward. Mourning — the expression of grief — is not a thing you can do incorrectly. It is what it is. So you won’t find me among the legions of mourning contrarians or counter-contrarians chastising one another in passive-aggressive Facebook screeds.

But I just can’t participate.

For me, grief and the mourning that accompanies it is a personal, private thing. I’ve posted my share of acknowledgments; Alan Rickman’s death earlier this year hit me straight in the feels, it’s true. But the heavy lifting of grief is always a process I’ve been selfish about. I am wary of intruders.

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When my mentor passed away a few years ago, I was perplexed at the number of people who wanted in on all that sweet, sweet sympathy that I would have gladly traded to have my friend back. When an acquaintance on Facebook wrote a long emoji’ed tribute that ended with a footnote about how close she was to my mentor’s daughters, I was furious — her struggle with infertility had been lifelong and painful. She had no daughters. She had no children at all and eventually funneled everything that would have made her a phenomenal mother into lost causes like me and her other mentees, though I’m sure it couldn’t have been the same. If you really knew her, you at least knew that. In a way, apathy would have felt less insulting than outright fabrication.

Facebook lends itself well to this kind of artificial authenticity, because it tends to be reductive. Death and its trappings become little morsels of shareable content, and there’s always going to be someone looking for a few imaginary badges for knowing a dead person longer and loving them more deeply than others. Even if that’s not really true. It’s the same with celebrities.

It’s the people who, after the death of Dimebag Darrell in 2004, claimed to be lifelong fans of Pantera, or the ones who were suddenly eager to one-up one another on who was the biggest Bowie fan, even if they had never mentioned this deep fanaticism before, even in passing. It’s the three separate people on my feed today who were gently or not-so-gently corrected by others when they posted pictures of Dave Chappelle as Prince with unironic, seemingly heartfelt proclamations of grief.

Part of that is just that the death of a celebrity inevitably makes them, well, more famous. But part of it is inventing some weirdly dark bona fides fueled by a desire to always be in on the conversation, even if you don’t speak the language. Still, if artifice is troubling, out-and-out commodification is much worse.

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Shareable content, as a rule, is a tidy little buzzword that marketers just love to throw around. They’re always looking for the next good bit of it, and it’s touted as a magic bullet that can sell even the most crap of goods and services. As soon as that little jagged arrow pops up next to Prince or any other celebrity’s name on Facebook or elsewhere, it’s considered a blessing from the metrics gods to do profoundly stupid and tasteless things.

Lots of companies went purple for Prince yesterday, and undoubtedly some of those accounts were manned by someone who was simply moved to acknowledge the grief all around them, or even their own. But some are just riding the wave that hopes to transform sympathy clicks into cold, hard cash. Take Cheerios, for instance, who posted and then deleted a tweet that dotted a word in an epitaph with a Cheerio.

Suffice it to say, people weren’t thrilled about it. But if that felt like a slap in the face, the people getting Prince-themed emails from high-end, online consignment store Tradesy must have felt like a sucker punch:

But the thing is, for every not-subtle attempt to shill things by working a dead celebrity into email blast SEO strategies that fail because it pisses people off, there are even more that work.

What’s always surprised me is how quickly the genuine, heartfelt displays of grief and mourning hit a critical mass and then start spiraling downward toward an embarrassing shit show of crocodile tears and shoehorned marketing campaigns. Sometimes it’s only a few hours.

It’s for that reason that I give Facebook a wide berth when a celebrity dies, or at least make liberal use of the hide button. Knowing someone you admired — even from far, far, far away — has passed away is undeniably sad, and I want to respect that. Watching people as they attempt to contort real grief into social capital or actual money just makes it sadder. So I stay away.

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