For many, 2016 is the year of the dead celebrity. Now celebrities die every year but the sheer girth of icons we lost this year is staggering. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, and Prince were some of the biggest icons taken from us. The loss of Bowie and Rickman so close to each other at the start of the year led to an outpouring of grief from many on social media. The day each of these men died, my Facebook page was awash with grief. Some saw the deaths of Bowie and Rickman as an omen of the dumpster fire of a year that followed. With the shroud of celebrity death upon the year, every new announcement of a dead celebrity hit home for someone and defined 2016 as the year of the dead celebrity for some. Now, that’s probably not true. People die all the time. Celebrities, by virtue of being people, have to die sometime.
Looking back at 2015 and prior years, it’s hard to think of any celebrity death that hung over any particular year. Perhaps this is an age thing, our icons tend to be people some 20 to 30 years older than us. There’s going to be a point where the faces of our childhood seem to begin shuffling off this mortal coil all at once. Perhaps this was just a particularly dense collection of that. While I think that’s true to an extent, it’s worth noting that quite a few of those dead this year died of disease, or accident, and not old age. Plus, all the above icons seem to be icons of my parent’s generation. Yet all were affected by their deaths. Sure, you could go down the list and explain this away: Bowie’s music was transcendent, and he was making music until his death. Rickman was beloved by the Potter generation for his portrayal of Snape.
I reckon that the Internet has changed the way we encounter pop culture. If you’ve been on the Internet long enough you’ve encountered opinions that seem unanimous amongst the population of the Internet. X movie sucked this year (*cough* I’ll talk shit about Batman v Superman another day *cough*), the latest Marvel movie was great despite seeming like a long shot, and so on. I think that when it comes to these Internet opinions that there’s a particular love for the 80s at the moment. It totally makes sense. Culture tends to run on 30-year cycles. The 90s loved the 60s. The 00s loved the 70s. The 10s love the 80s. Generally, this can be seen in what Hollywood remakes. (Though we could be on the cusp on 90s revivalism, the Point Break remake was recent). We love the 80s at the moment, and within that we find some of our biggest 80s icons died this year. Bowie’s music was at the height of its pop popularity in the 80s. Rickman debuted in the late 80s action flick Die Hard. Prince was at the height of his fame in the 80s. (Admittedly Wilder seems to bust this theory as his most beloved works were during the late 60s and early 70s but I’m suggesting it as more of a cultural feeling than a concrete absolute). We love the 80s and here the musical soul and filmic heart of the 80s was dying.
This explains why the death of celebrities hung over in 2016, but now I want to pivot to discuss something slightly more positive. I want to talk about legacy. When Bowie died, people listened to their favourite Bowie songs and albums (My personal favourite being Under Pressure, followed by half a dozen of his songs from the 80s). I listened to Lazarus and found what definitively will be the last great David Bowie song. We all went back and remembered the first time we heard David Bowie. For me, it was adolescence, with Changes being my first introduction to Bowie fittingly enough. Bowie’s music captured me at a tumultuous time, Bowie’s words capturing the feeling of being helplessly propelled into the future. One aspect of the public grief that gripped me and that I’ll share now was the stories. People spoke of Bowie as an outcast who changed the game, and all the people who hated him for his bizarre look suddenly wanted to be him. It’s a rallying cry for all those who didn’t conform to the norm. We could all stand to be a bit more like Bowie in our daily appearance.
Likewise, when Rickman died I returned to my favourite performances of his. My personal favourite being Galaxy Quest. No one did snark and disdain quite like Rickman and this role in Galaxy Quest was perfect for him. The film is about a cast of actors who used to act on a sixties sci-fi show and have been doing the convention circuit ever since (if Star Trek was your first thought, you’re on the money). Rickman plays the Spock of the cast. Like Nimoy, Rickman’s Alexander Dane can’t escape his character and is poked and prodded into saying his catchphrase 500 times at each event he attends. If you want to hear someone far more suited towards film critic talk about Rickman’s wonderful portrayal, seek that out because far greater minds have expressed his skill far more than I ever could. Similarly, as with Bowie, Rickman’s death caused all these stories to come out of the woodwork about he was the kindest, most genuine person in all of Hollywood. People spoke of how Rickman was always grounded and always willing to listen. My favourite story that I recounted when Rickman died was the fact that he only entered acting in his late 30s after quitting his old unsatisfying job. Rickman took years to get noticed in Hollywood but when he was, he was cast in Die Hard … as his first major film. The rest is history.
Every person my age probably saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on TV at least once in their life. This was my first introduction to Gene Wilder and many others introduction to him as well, I imagine. Wilder’s whimsy, but also his fury in that movie did marvellously well in realising the bizarre character of Willy Wonka, far more so than some dude in a wig and white face makeup ever could. Later I would find the comedic stylings of Wilder in Young Frankenstein, and then finally Blazing Saddles. Both characters showed that Wilder had excellent comedic timing. I’ve got no deep stories about Wilder like the previous two but all I can say is that he made me laugh uproariously and that’s worth a lot.
I don’t have much to say about Prince other than my Mum is a big fan of his music. I personally enjoy 1999, When Doves Cry, and Kiss. I listened to them when I heard of his death. I didn’t know much of Prince but his music made an impact on me. That’s great that someone can be barely on your radar but their death can inspire some looking back at their work. I hope someone extends me the same courtesy if I die.
Hopefully, this piece did a little of something to remind us that even in the death of our beloved icons that there is hope to be found. As Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times”. That’s what I think I’ll take from 2016. Celebrities may have died. Politics may be a dumpster fire run by petulant man-children. But there is good in the world. There’s good in death. So remember your icons. Tell stories about them. Relive their work. Use the light of those who inspire to find hope in the coming days. I know I will. Here’s to 2017 being better.