2016: Extraordinary Popular Deaths and the Madness of Crowds

paul-daniels

It all started with Lemmy. His death at end of 2015 was, to me, unexpected, but only because I never thought about him. How often did anybody actually think about him? Who actually wondered when he might die? Suddenly social media was afire with people lamenting his loss and expressing their appreciation of his work. People I had known for years who had never so much as mentioned Lemmy or Motorhead now claimed to be personally effected by his tragic passing. Radio stations who had never played their music also mourned. Central to all of this was his portrayal as a wild man of rock whose hedonistic lifestyle had led to his early demise at the tender age of seventy. It wasn’t yet 2016 but Lemmy had set the bar for the next year where the Grim Reaper and social media would dance a slow waltz which would occasionally break into a frenzied foxtrot.

People had gotten a taste for pounding their chests for the death of complete strangers and they didn’t have to wait long for a chance to take it up a notch. The death of David Bowie on January 10 was a shock, but only because nobody had known he was mortal. This was probably the only celebrity death that I felt saddened by in 2016 and I admit it is unreasonable that I should have. A few years ago I realised that I hadn’t listened to all of his studio albums (27) and I listened to one a day for a month in the run up to my wedding. It gave me an abiding affection for the old oddball. I was far from a fanatical David Bowie fan but I felt I had more reason to feel upset than those people who were lamenting the death of David Bowie, the fella from Labyrinth.

All of a sudden people seemed to hone in on the death of anyone who had ever passed within fifty yards of a microphone or movie camera, in what became routine incidents of mass hysteria. The death of Alan Rickman on 14 January again set statuses and tweets rolling as people remembered his best loved roles. His part in Harry Potter came to the fore. A sad testimonial to the fact we live in an age where there are adults who are proud to read nothing but children’s books and whose favourite films are children films or rehashed superhero franchises. I liked Alan Rickman. He was a good actor and made some decent movies but I didn’t know the man and so how could I have felt any sense of loss? Mohammed Ali followed hot on his heels, passing on the 17 January. Hardly unexpected given his age and medical condition but again it added to the sense people were dropping like flies.

Whether or not celebrities were dying faster than normal was irrelevant. The perception was out there that they were. 2016, barely a couple of weeks old was marked as a murderous son of a bitch. From them on it became a duty for many on social media to log their feelings on the deaths of anyone they had ever even heard of.

Things seemed to quieten down for a while though. Paul Daniels died on St Patrick’s day and was described as a beloved entertainer. I liked his TV shows as a child but as an adult I found him a strange little man. However, the death of Prince in April sent things into overdrive. Prince was definitely talented and I enjoyed some of his songs but I never regarded myself a fan and never listened to an album. However, people gushed. Again, who knew they were all such Prince fans? Personally I always found him pretty cheesy. Now it seems he was a genius. Let me put it this way, I can count on one hand the number of times I was at a party where Prince was played, I can also tell you who played it. Once he was dead, however, it seemed everyone was a Prince fan. In my life I have known four people who called Prince a genius while he was alive. Fi, Alan, Willem and Liamo. It turns out it’s easy to love a corpse.

Fidel Castro and Leonard Cohen were respectable ages when they died. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. The best work of each was well behind them and they had little left to contribute to their respective fields. Castro wasn’t as bad as most people made him out to be but not as good as a minority made him out to be. I wanted to sign the book of condolence opened for him in the Mansion house, principally as an act of spite to the liberal media rather than out of any affection for him. However it was only there between 10am and 4pm on two consecutive weekdays. A decidedly anti-worker move. I wasn’t sad about Leonard Cohen. He was an old man and a stranger. He was a genius and an immensely likeable figure. I had been a fan since I was a child. My mother had a record of his on vinyl and I was intrigued by his music, his manner and his lyrics. I couldn’t get my head around how many women he seemed to have known and written songs about. When he died, possibly as a result of his poetic image, people spoke frankly about how much he had meant to them. Leonard probably would have found it all a bit much.

George Michael died on Christmas day and, much like with Prince, he was lauded as a musical genius. Anecdotal evidence was bandied about to demonstrate that he gave money to help others and that he wasn’t a Thatcherite, which is positive, but it felt like a case of the emperor’s new clothes when  people spoke of him as a musician. It seemed half the people I was friends with on Facebook now lauded him as a genius but I don’t remember any of them ever doing anything as naff as sharing a video of ‘Wake me up before you Go Go’ on their walls. When Carrie Fisher died, again, there were public outpourings of grief. Primarily people spoke about her part in Star Wars, a role she played forty years ago. This is the crux of the issue. People weren’t mourning Fisher, they were mourning their own past. I grew up with Star Wars. I loved it. I had some toys, not as many as my cousin Alan or friend Rob, but a few. Star Wars was designed to suck us in. Great fun, memorable lines, a gripping narrative arc, romance, explosions and a clear sense of good and evil. As part of that Fisher was embedded in our childhood fantasies. Much like Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher was part of a fantasy package.

The problem is that many of the people who were publicly mourning these celebrity deaths were the sort of people who normally held themselves above celebrity culture. They are the sort of people who view the Kardashians as symptomatic of the decline of Western civilisation. Who think the X Factor is destroying music and bemoan the saturation of media with celebrity gossip. They hold themselves above mainstream popular culture and see it as something for the lowest common denominator. There is a tendency to think that other people’s entertainment or popular culture icons are of a lower status than our own. People who watch reality TV shows or Hollywood blockbusters are ignoramuses who have been duped by a capitalist machine. However, most of those, Castro accepted, who were publicly mourned in 2016 were part of the same entertainment industry which gives us chick flicks and reality TV shows. Some of them, such as George Michael and Prince, were regarded as cheesy when alive, but rehabilitated as artistic geniuses once they were dead. Whether or not more celebrities died in 2016 than other years is a moot point, but we definitely kept track of it more. It wasn’t so much an appreciation of artistry as a morbid fascination. Many people were glad to see the back of 2016, I was too, not because I thought it was worse than other years but because I hope that 2017 will be free from the insincere mourning for complete strangers that dominated 2016.

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