The Fan Rituals of Memorializing David Bowie – Presentation

On April 5th, 2019, I participated in the MALS Lightning Talks. This is an event for Masters students at the Graduate Center, CUNY to showcase their research in three minutes. I spoke about the fandom rituals that memorialize David Bowie in Brixton, his hometown in South London. Watch my speech below, or read the transcript below:

On January 10th, 2016 David Bowie died of cancer. The next day 4.3 million tweets, per the Daily Mail, were written about him in an outpouring of public grief and commemoration. Social media allows fans to gain support through action as they find and connect with one another through their posts, and this reassures them that their strong affectual reaction to the death of a celebrity is normal.

Often this digital support through action manifests itself in the physical world. For example, on the morning of January 11 2016, a Twitter user proposed that Bowie fans should meet up in Brixton – his hometown in South London – to sing his songs and celebrate his life. Various news outlets and entertainment blogs picked up on this idea, and – sure enough – by 7 pm on Brixton Road thousands of people came together. Buskers played Bowie’s songs so everyone could sing along, fans had lightning flashes painted on their face like they were Aladdin Sane, and many left homemade cards and flowers at a mural of David Bowie featured in the town center. — Seen here —

Professor of American Studies, Erika Doss calls gatherings like this one a spontaneous memorial, that helps “mediate the psychic crisis of sudden and often inexplicable loss.” While these memorials are often unexpected, they are highly scripted and ritualistic. Bowie’s fans continued to travel to Brixton in the days after his death, to leave their tributes and pay respects at the mural, replenishing the flowers as they decayed.

Death allows fans to create, contest and shape narratives of a deceased celebrity, since public commemoration is an act of participatory memory, which is a phrase used to describe the ways in which people memorialize, celebrate and reflect across physical and digital spaces. The mural in Brixton was transformed by fandom rituals of authorship.

Since the day Bowie died, the local government in Brixton, the Lambeth Council, wanted to erect a memorial of some kind but nothing they did gained traction. All the while, Bowie’s fans continued returning to this mural, where they continued to leave their material offerings and to graffiti their messages of love and loss on the bricks around it. They continued to join together at the mural to sing their favorite songs as loud as they could. The ritualized behavior happening at the mural forced the Council to protect it. In doing so, his fans decided what his hometown memorial would be – not his estate, and not the government.

Public shrines allow the dead to reenter our daily lives. Through the memorial at the mural, Bowie becomes a figure that fans can connect with at any time – all they have to do is visit Brixton. Death makes David Bowie accessible to his fans, but it’s their mourning rituals that make David Bowie belong to them.

Thank you.


If you enjoyed this piece of writing and the video, you can support my graduate studies by buying me cup a coffee.

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