The music world seemed to have a unanimous thought on the morning that news broke of David Bowie’s death in January 2016. His album Blackstar, released just two days previously, instantaneously became a treasure-chest of significances. What was he trying to tell us? Lyrics analysed, music videos pulled apart and his private life — that is, his decision to keep his cancer diagnosis out of the public eye — opened out in a media frenzy. It was a bizarre blend of international mourning and interrogative entitlement.
According to Official Charts, more than five million Bowie records have been sold in the last two years. This includes greatest hit releases, anniversary picture discs, and as recently as this year, re-issues of original demos. It was certainly a lucrative time for record companies, as the perpetuation of the memory of one of the most well-loved pop stars ever is a nearcertain way to produce profit, espescially at a time when Spotify-led, algorithmic processes sell music on an increasingly whimsical, ‘hyperpersonalised’ basis.
The lure of a nine-time platinum selling musician to compete against the potentially fake artists which constitute streamed playlists and save Spotify millions in royalties is clearly just too strong. But the impact on how we remember the man himself is far more complex. However Bowie’s identity is now caught up in a mercenary battlefield which forgets the spirit of the artist and reproduces it in the interests of modern-day market demands.
The same is true for other highprofile figures — Graceland, ‘The Home of Elvis Presley’, in Tennessee offers anyone willing to pay $169 an Ultimate VIP Tour. The result of this mass commodification of memory is a net worth, on the 40th anniversary of Presley’s death, of $300 million.
Tragic circumstances around Amy Winehouse’s death were handled with delicacy and intimacy in the 2015 film Amy which received critical acclaim (rated five out of five by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw) and has become the highestgrossing British documentary film of all time. Her family’s response, however, was far from congruent with positive public reaction. Her father Mick claimed there are “basic untruths” and if people want to remember Amy and enjoy her art, they should individually listen to her music and video content instead. He later proposed an alternative, “more accurate” film to include details of his assistance with addiction treatment, as in the film he is portrayed as actively opposing Amy’s rehabilitation.
If there is dissension in how someone’s life facts are recorded and presented, how is it possible, in media and art, to do justice to the more subjective concept of their memory? There is a fundamental discord in the approach to comprehending someone’s memory. This results in a distortion in our view of who they are; their legacy becomes fragmentary splinters of constant, alternative interpretations, leading to collective commemoration away from the original figure.
These commercialisations of memory are odd incarnations of the elegiac form. In the place of a personal handling of grief has come the intense socialisation of how a person is remembered: there is debate over which aspects should be celebrated, invasion into the most intimate parts of their home, and outrage at decisions about privacy.
Of course, elegies have existed since ancient Latin poetry and various forms of media and art have adopted elegiac modes in order to process death, such as the enchanting, minimalist illustrations of Mari Andrew, or grief blogs like ‘Diary of a Widower’; they hold a kind of cool closeness with lost loved ones.
As a genre, its purpose is to provide a transcendence of original pain, enforce recognition, and stimulate disclosure. Freud famously wrote in his 1917 essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ that an elegy is a ‘work of mourning’ by being both about mourning and helping the creator to work through their grief. It is a genre entirely personal, and at once medicinal for those in pain and restorative to the memory of those passed.
The modern elegy has seen its multivalence expanded into tweets, tours, films and anniversary release discs. It has become increasingly difficult to ignore the financial agenda that infuses itself into the public arena of remembrance. Tennyson’s 1849 poem In Memoriam A.H.H., which took 16 years to write and was not even conceived with publication intended, seems a lexicalised therapy session that is numbingly repetitive, but rewarding in its intimacy. Kenny Ortega’s documentary-concert film This Is It, released in October 2009, is intimate too, with footage of Michael Jackson in the last rehearsals before his death just four months previously, but somehow feels invasive and exploitative, a view shared by the countless fans who held boycotts.
Commercialised associations of an individual appear as false impressions repeatedly compressed and repackaged. The memory of the person is at risk of becoming inauthentic and deflated, a version of the original which is easy to access and profitable. Remembrance is supposed to be complicated and difficult, hard to read and hard to watch. Shiny shows and anniversary editions remove the personal from the person. When the figure in question is no longer alive to keep their identity up-to-date and in their control, there is a serious risk that their memory is repurposed for consumerist ends.
We would do well to realise that memory is, and always will be, a mere construction of our imaginative reality. When the remembered is absent, we ought to keep our constructions between us and the lost subject, so that memory — and mourning — is idiosyncratic, respectful, and above all, demarketed.