My feeds, like yours, were nothing but David Bowie for a few days. The claims of the musician's undoubted significance grew so clamorous, so competitive, that after a while a certain hyperbole began to obtain: Bowie was not just a talented and influential pop singer, but the foundation of all contemporary art, the model of artistry in human history, the artistic equivalent of Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci, the creator of the greatest human art since Picasso, since impressionism, since the cathedral of Chartres, no, since the pyramids! One particularly hyperventilating yet perfectly representative article in Vice began: "Without him, there would be no punk, no glam, no post-punk, no hair metal, no goth, no Brit-pop, no new wave, no freak folk, no new romantics, no (as we know it) blue eyed soul, no (as we know it) art-pop." It went on for another few anaphoric paragraphs. Apparently, there was no single piece of postwar culture for which this singer was not single-handedly responsible. ("No Coldplay, no Arcade Fire … no Outkast or Kanye West …" Literally everything.)
The public grieving of course took on a boastful quality, as all celebrity deaths tend to do, as popular tweeters had to detail their own personal encounters with the man, in the guise of sadness. This led to a backlash. The vituperative British columnist Julie Burchill – possibly the crankiest writer alive; quite an accomplishment in such a highly competitive field – immediately poured cold water on the eloquent grief, mocking the lachrymose self-promotion of Bowie's many supposed acquaintances. ("You'll excuse me for finishing now," she wrote, "as I'm on tenterhooks waiting to hear what David Beckham makes of it.")
This led to a backlash-backlash, as infuriated fans complained of "grief-shaming," a brand new thing for funny columnists to be scolded for.
Everyone has a right to grieve, of course, but artistic evaluation in the public sphere is not exactly the same as grieving and, so, subject to disagreement. Perhaps we should just automatically put trigger warnings on all disagreements about artistic value.
Yes, of course Bowie was brilliant and visionary and influential, and, yes, he was an icon of originality for a couple of generations of pop-culture-following people. (Stay with that idea of "a couple of generations" – I will come back to it.) Of course he was the teenage bedroom soundtrack of every budding arts producer now working in media. And those people are everyone, right? We are the world.
Well, as it turns out, we aren't. British papers began, on Monday, to publicize tweets made by young people asking "Who is David Bowie?" Some of these tweets may have been facetious, of course – we'll never know – but the fact is that there were a few astoundingly uneducated young people out there who were nonplussed. The tone of the papers was uniformly derisive. It turns out that, of you who are 16 now and deeply immersed in popular culture, you may not know who David Bowie is – and isn't that ridiculous? It is embarrassing to be not like us. What's wrong with kids today? If they don't respectfully seek out the pop culture of their elders, they are Philistines.
But the ridicule of people who live outside the bubble of knowledge shared by media arts commentators actually demonstrates its own kind of ignorance. It is hard sometimes to step back and see that we are not exactly the world, to see that the kind of person who grows up admiring the sensitive gender-bending and Broadway-esque songs of a 1970s art-rocker is exactly the kind of person who will go on to be a radio host or a magazine editor, and exactly of an age to be in a position of status right now. Those people will associate almost exclusively with people like them, and will live peacefully within a bubble of shared values and references. It is a narrow class of people with a disproportionate influence.
And that class gets annoying sometimes in their shared certainties. They develop blind spots – as when they largely ignored rap for a few embarrassing years in the 1970s, and rave for a few embarrassing years in the 1980s.
Bowie was great, yes, but it is also a generational set of values we are talking about. My father, who was alive for the heyday of Bowie's career, would have been only vaguely aware of his music and not particularly intrigued by his death, and my father was not a Philistine. He was just outside this bubble.
We are all very finely attuned to the conversation in our own room, and yet it can be so refreshing to sometimes walk out into the corridor and see all the open doors and hear snippets of all the completely different conversations in all those rooms, sometimes even in impenetrable languages.