Music fans have already had a rough few weeks, between the deaths of Motörhead frontman Lemmy, R&B/soul legend Natalie Cole and chameleonic rocker David Bowie. This rash of bad news continued Monday, with the news that both Mott the Hoople drummer Dale Griffin and Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey had died. The latter passed away at the age of 67, due to "complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia," the band noted. Frey's songwriting achievements transformed classic rock: He co-wrote a slew of Eagles classics: "Desperado," "Hotel California," "Take It to the Limit," "Lyin' Eyes" and "Take It Easy," to name a few. In the '80s, solo hits such as "Smugglers Blues" and "You Belong to the City"—not to mention a notable guest spot on the TV show "Miami Vice"— introduced him to a whole new audience.
Unlike the near-universal outpouring of sorrow for Bowie and Lemmy, the initial online reaction to Frey's death online frequently came tinged with snark or mild derision. My husband spotted someone quipping, "The heat is off!"—a reference to Frey's '80s hit "The Heat Is On"—while a friend-of-a-friend blocked someone who greeted news of his passing with pleasure. References to the Mojo Nixon song "Don Henley Must Die" and to the memorable "The Big Lebowski" lines about how much The Dude despises the Eagles popped up elsewhere. And still other acquaintances griped about the unwelcome intrusion of Eagles or Frey videos that were no doubt going to pop up on Facebook feeds.
The latter distress is easily solved: Don't log on to Facebook for a while—or, easier still, don't click on the videos. Still, I was troubled and disheartened that the immediate reaction to Frey's death was often a flippant comment. Certainly this response came because his professional persona could be outwardly prickly: Rolling Stone characterized his interviews in the 2013 documentary "History of the Eagles" as "delightfully unrepentant," and noted he "pull[ed] no punches when discussing the band's formation, its lineup changes and especially his fractured relationship with guitarist Don Felder." The Eagles as well were a critical punching bag long before "The Big Lebowski" codified the hatred: Despite massive commercial success, the band was often reviled—as Robert Christgau wrote in 1972, "Listening to the Eagles has left me feeling alienated from things I used to love."
But just because Frey's music or personality might not be someone's cup of tea doesn't mean his passing should be fodder for online comedy or jokes. In fact, celebrity deaths often highlight one of the worst parts of social media: the pressure so many feel to weigh in on every major passing, even if they have nothing meaningful to add to the conversation. Rather than making a quick comment and moving on, FOMO compels people to join in the collective mourning and add their own thoughts about a musician, actor, author or politician. If someone is a fan of the deceased or has a personal attachment, the response is often sincere and genuine—but if they're not a fan, it's too easy for the reaction to either emphasize this fact or (worse yet) approach the death with a joke. Social media is an amazing tool for connection and camaraderie, but it can also enable and exacerbate emotional detachment from real-life tragedies.
At the same time, the power of collective mourning can be healing, as Bowie's death especially underscored. There's a reason why so many Facebook newsfeeds exploded with articles about the Starman's life, vintage interviews and music videos—it was a comfort to find out that so many other people were grieving, and many found solace in the empathy and understanding that rose from sharing happier moments and positive stories. And learning more about an admired artist's personal life from friends or collaborators makes his or her art seem more vibrant and alive. But not every musician is as beloved or critically respected as Bowie is and was, which is a major difference. In many circles, liking Frey and Eagles is considered uncool or unacceptable, which makes public admissions of fandom taboo, something to be ridiculed or hidden.
Again, that's no excuse for snide remarks, especially because dictating who should be mourned—and chiding people about how they mourn, something else that happened in recent weeks—is patently unfair. Everyone has a different relationship to a celebrity, especially musicians; one person's loathed artist is another person's cherished icon. As a music writer friend, Mark Deming, eloquently wrote on Facebook: "I'm pretty outspoken about my dislike of the Eagles, but I also know that Glenn Frey had family and friends who cared about him, and that anyone as popular as that band was made music that impacted a lot of people in very different ways. If 'Peaceful, Easy Feeling' was playing when you met your future spouse, or 'The Best of My Love' was your brother's first dance at his wedding, that song that may annoy other people has a very personal meaning for you, and I truly respect that."
Indeed, Frey's death didn't necessarily mean that the Eagles' music should automatically receive a critical free pass from now on—the same way Bowie's death or Lemmy's deaths doesn't mean their respective catalogs should be canonized. But neither does it mean that his passing deserves condescension or sarcasm. Frey was a complicated figure—just like Lemmy was, just like Bowie was, just like all celebrities are. Even Eagles cohort Don Henley admitted these complexities, in a touching statement released after Frey's death: "He was like a brother to me; we were family, and like most families, there was some dysfunction. … He was funny, bullheaded, mercurial, generous, deeply talented and driven."
But in this statement, Henley also noted how much his former bandmate loved his wife and kids, which is an important point to make: At the end of the day, Frey was a family-oriented man dealing with serious health problems, which is a universal experience countless non-celebrity families face on a daily basis. Frey's songwriting and musical talents gave him an elevated place in pop culture, but his death leaves his relatives, friends and bandmates reeling with sorrow. And there's really nothing funny about that.