So Carrie Fisher died on Tuesday. Her mum Debbie Reynolds the very next day. David Bowie at the start of the year. George Michael last weekend. Somewhere in the middle, there was Leonard Cohen, Prince, Alan Rickman, George Martin, Jon English, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, that guy from Dead Or Alive, the dude from The Eagles… but you get the picture.
If you’ve heard of a big bunch of these names and have said to a friend at least once in conversation “Gosh it’s sad, so many celebrities are dying”, congratulations. You’re a witness and survivor of ‘That Year Celebrity And Death First Really Fucked With Our Heads’.
We are the generations (namely baby boomers and Generation X’ers) who not only witnessed the invention of celebrity but the relentless procreation of it – first through film and television, then newspapers and magazines and, more recently, the internet and hype machine that is social media.
The first thing to realise is this: there have always been individuals in history worthy of celebration and/or notoriety. From ancient philosophers to mothers of invention, heroic trailblazers to despicable despots, we’ve looked up to, admired and feared many folks that can best be described as ‘icons’. Icons set examples for us, be these good or bad. We learn from their mistakes; take heed of their good ideas, instruction and influence. In short, we kinda need them and it’s no wonder we’re in awe of them.
Fact number two: people die.
The only difference in the equation is that we are more instantly informed about their deaths and previously informed about (pretty much) their entire lives. With our combined media serving as some kind of know-it-all encyclopedic machine, it’s not so strange to feel that, yes, we do know these people in a weird kind of way. After all, most of the people we talk about that have passed over have been celebrated/raved about through decades of pop cultural and/or political output. Indeed, ‘celebrated’ and ‘celebrity’ both come from the Latin root word celeber, meaning ‘multitude’ or ‘populous’ (read: recognised by many).
Basically, the more media there is for celebrities to be notarised – some to the point of notoriety – the more impacting or obvious the sum of their deaths are sure to be.
Put it this way, when the King of, say, Thailand, died two hundred years ago, the locals living a few miles from his palatial home may have found out about it by day’s end, simply through word of mouth, but someone on the other side of the equator might never have gotten to hear the news in their entire lifetime. Nor cared about it. Even the Queen of England might have only gotten a telegram, sent by ship, a month after the fact.
Icons have always been around. It’s only that we didn’t have an avalanche of media to remind us of their every move, including that very final one: the step taken toward their own grave.
If anything, it shouldn’t be the fact that a high number of celebrities have passed away in the last 12 months that surprises us, but the ironic circumstances in which many of them went: Bowie two days after his birthday, George Michael just hours before his Last Christmas, Debbie Reynolds the day after her daughter Carrie Fisher… now that’s what you can call spooky.
So with our mobile phones at the ready, and TMZ in our browsers, we can expect to see a hell of a lot more celebrities passing away in 2017. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s a fact. Just think of all the septua- and octogenarians who first graced the silver screen back in the late ’40s – when modern celebrity was pretty much invented, and the host of icons that have flooded our cinema screens/television sets/magazines and internet since. A lot of these people are well into their 80s and 90s now and probably have their own funeral arrangements done and dusted. Add to that a batch of more contemporary idols whose every move we’re well aware of thanks to all that insta-tweeting, and you’ve got the ingredients for a bigger list of big guns to be talked about over the water cooler when their time has come.
Yes, get used to seeing your favourite celebrities dying; to sensing a certain ‘shock’ when the news reaches you. And a certain kind of strangeness. For it’s one thing to get used to death as a natural thing when it comes to the passing of family and friends. But it’s a totally other, more twisted sensation when someone you’ve never met passes over and yet you cry more than you did when Uncle John died a few years ago.
All the same, Happy New Year, and here’s to a bright 2017, packed (hopefully) with higher moments and greater memories.
And to those souls we did lose in 2016, may they rest in peace. Antonino Tati