Bowie, Prince, Ali, Cohen, Michael, and now Fisher – it’s been a deathly year for icons of pop culture, and we’ve still go three days to go.
Who’d be a celebrity these days, or at least who’d do it without getting danger money? The number of celebrities shuffling off – or falling off – in 2016 has increased exponentially.
Or has it? Famous people have died all of the time through the years. Perhaps it’s less to do with the numbers and more to do with the reach. If anything it’s a dangerous year – the most dangerous – to be a no-name Christian living in the Middle East. Number one dangerous occupation – with a bullet. Not that the media will make too much of that.
Think about it: global pop culture exploded in the sixties. The stars of screen, and certainly of music stage took on an influence among the Boomer culture that then springboarded them into the cultural stratosphere. The Boomers cultural influence has proven to be enormous, as they filled the old media and then created the new media.
The key to success for a pop cultural icon is to be so pervasive that everyone feels like they know you even if they don’t. You may live in a mansion in Los Angeles or a up-town brownstone in New York, fly the world, make more in a month than many make in a lifetime, but the ubiquity of your face and influence makes the bloke living in Pittsburgh or Perth feel that you belong, in some sense, to him. To all of us.
So when a celebrity dies, we all feel the pain. Yes, that sounds stupid, but it’s true.
Remember too that if global pop culture exploded in the sixties, then those who exploited it and succeeded in it are now in their seventies. Who said three score and ten was not for cultural icons?
Where is the rule that celebrities have a God-given right to live longer? So a certain percentage are going to die about now. The problem of course is that given the Peter Pan ideology of global pop culture, aka the cult of youth, it just doesn’t seem possible that death can take them. It’s as if being a celebrity bullet-proofs you from the travails of ordinary life.
In actual fact it’s the other way around. Ordinary life bullet proofs you from the travails of celebrity life.
As has been noted in the past few years even before George Michael’s health demise and now death, his former Wham! partner, Andrew Ridgeley, has kept out of the limelight, lived healthier, has kept a long term stable relationship of 25 years (admittedly with that rather hot singer from Bananarama), and just seems happier. Sure his star didn’t shine as bright, but it’s still in the sky. There’s something in being normal that makes one resilient. It’s as if God intended fifty year olds to act like fifty year olds and not twenty year olds.
So what about the age thing? Bowie was seventy and died of cancer. Cohen in his eighties, Ali’s long documented health decline made his death less of a surprise. Fisher was sixty – youngish. Prince was a young 57. Michael only 53 – that’s a tragedy. Both Bowie and Cohen were in the first wave of popular culture, and death could be expected. Fisher, Prince and Michael were launched in the second wave of late seventies and eighties, so perhaps they were taken too soon.
But you’d have to say that the sorry tale of drug woe, pain-killers and forlorn relational breakdowns and isolation that bedevilled the likes of Prince and Michael have become features of the celebrity life, especially as they hit their fifties, so perhaps we’re going to see an increasing wave of these demises.
Prince was often in chronic pain due to injuries sustained during his performances, whilst the last photos of Michael show a bloated, sickly man, unrecognisable from the Greek Adonis he undoubtedly was. Lifestyle played a huge part in their untimely deaths, Keith Richards being the exception that proves the rule.
What good can come of all this death? Perhaps it will make us think a little more about our own mortality. The irony being that scores, hundreds, thousands, are killed in the likes of Syria all of the time, and they are never given a name, much less column inches, or precious seconds, in the media.
One wonders too about the new wave of celebrities such as the Youtubers that my daughter watches. The new media has given an immediacy and relational intimacy between celeb and devotee that the celluloid stars could only dream of. What will happen when they start to die? There won’t be enough safe spaces left in the Western World to cope with the grief.
Of course, in the end, these death, generally, reach wide but they don’t reach deep. I was sad when Bowie died, as were millions upon millions of others. But it didn’t shut my life down for any period of time like it did his wife Iman or his son, the film director Duncan Jones. Wide, but not deep.
On the other hand, my own father is a matter of weeks away from death. Destroyed by Lewy Body Dementia, he is a shell of a man lying in a bed wasting away unable to communicate. Perhaps a dozen people at most have visited him with any regularity over the past two years. The doctor said he wants to speak to us today about the situation today.
Dad has had little influence, no shining gifts, no money, no celebrity. His death will not reach wide, but it will reach deep – for me, for mine. Very few would trade George Michael for him, precious fewer for Bowie. But he’ll still stand before his Creator their equal, a place where no amount of talent, influence or money will earn you the “Well done” so many celebrities ultimately crave.