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How Grief Over Kobe Bryant Altered Fan Culture

As fandoms of all stripes generated an overwhelming convergence of grief, a silver lining emerged: We were in it together

Kobe Bryant’s death didn’t hit me — really hit me — until I heard Demi Lovato sing. Maybe that’s what it means to be a pop music stan. But it’s also illustrative of how grief totally warps our sense of reality. 

Hours after the retired NBA star died in a helicopter crash just outside Los Angeles, Lovato took the stage at the Grammys in a white ball gown and a piano by her side. Her first performance in two years, this was to be her triumphant comeback from a 2018 opioid overdose: a song called “Anyone,” written four days before she was hospitalized. Overcome with emotion, she had to restart the song once. Then she sang to the rafters of the Staples Center — where Bryant’s two retired Lakers jerseys are hung. 

Demi returned to the public eye just as Kobe left forever. Her performance added to Sunday night’s weighty Grammys, which already contained multiple tributes to Bryant. Lizzo dedicated the night’s opening number to the basketball great, Camila Cabello sang to her father, and John Legend, YG, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin and others hastily modified their Nipsey Hussle tribute performance to acknowledge Kobe’s death as well. But one performance stuck out. Raw and vulnerable, Lovato told her peers and the world who she is: a woman who hasn’t yet overcome her traumas, someone still enmeshed in pain. And someone who got a second chance when many don’t.

I was a wreck. I couldn’t stop thinking of a fallen basketball player I never followed. And I couldn’t believe a former Disney star triggered all that.

Grief, or the lack thereof, is a visceral reaction, one we can’t control — and there is no right way to mourn. But according to grief counselor Dr. Amy Olshever, our brains tend to categorize grieving death into two separate categories: in-sequence and out-of-sequence. In-sequence fits the timeline we’ve created: parents before children, and grandparents and the elderly before them.

The deaths of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and everyone on the helicopter weren’t just unimaginably violent — they were out-of-sequence. A 13-year-old daughter and 41-year-old father, a mother and daughter, and many more: these families died before their anticipated timelines were over. 

As outsiders to the events, we can logically understand the surviving loved ones’ pain. “Because of all the complicated layers of a situation like this, the public often find that they feel empathy for the different family members, having their own past losses triggered by this very public loss,” Olshever says. But we, the public, are grieving too. We may struggle to make sense of our own connection to a cultural force like Bryant — however distant he was in our lives. “It is often difficult for people to navigate how deeply emotional they feel for someone they didn’t ever really know personally,” Olshever says. She compares the reaction to the Bryants’ deaths to the outpouring following Princess Diana’s sudden car accident in 1997 — another out-of-sequence tragedy no one could have anticipated.

Pop stars don’t often get to sing about hopelessness. It’s rare to hear a woman like Demi give voice to feelings of depression and despair, relapse and addiction, suicidal ideation and personal failure or sing what she described as a “cry for help” on a stage as grand as the Grammys. Just a month before her overdose, Lovato, 27 — who snorted coke for the first time at 17 while working for the Disney Channel — released a song called “Sober” about relapsing for the first time in six years. On Sunday, performing “Anyone,” she sounded like she was grieving for herself: a life lived out-of-sequence.

We live in a culture of fandom binaries where one’s allegiances to a team or artist comes to define their personality. Bryant means as much to my sports-loving brother as Lovato means to me. K-pop stans posting performance videos (called fancams) on Kobe memorial tweets may have been in terrible taste, but even this act is part of the fan culture they live in, where people live and breathe their idols. 

But any idol can fall. Kobe Bryant’s death lit up fan culture in a way I haven’t seen in years. From Sunday night, when Lil Nas X performed with Diplo and BTS, through this week, as we continue to work out these confusing, complex feelings of sorrow and loss, it’s felt like we’re living in a dark, alternate timeline where nothing is in sequence. But as fans generated an overwhelming convergence of grief, a silver lining emerged: We were in it together.