I would be lying if I claimed to have been affected by the celebrity deaths of 2016. I rarely listened to Bowie, Prince or George Michael. It had been years since I had watched a Gene Wilder film. I had vaguely assumed that Nancy Reagan and Zsa Zsa Gabor were dead. A.A. Gill? Do you think I subscribe to the Times? Fidel Castro? I’m not so anti-communist as to smile. Perhaps as a fan of pro wrestling I have been desensitized. Pro wrestlers die every week. It is hard to keep track of them.
Why do people care? In part to show that they are caring. I’m sure lots of people frantically googled “Abe Vigoda” in January, thought “oh, that guy from Goodfellas” and expressed their sadness. Still, I’m being cynical. We do care when people whose work we admire pass away. I was devastated when Jason Molina died. Why?
Partly because people whose work we admire won’t work again. Bowie fans won’t hear another album. Alan Rickman fans won’t see him in new films. A.A. Gill fans will miss his extravagant similes. If you are really attached to famous people who have died it feels as if the world has somehow become less beautiful.
We also feel sad because we are getting older. The part of ourselves that enjoyed these famous people dies with them. Yes, we have all read Shakespeare, and the man died about four centuries ago, but he was dead when we discovered him. These people were alive. Our experience of them may never be quite the same. At best it might be discoloured by nostalgia.
There is, as was most obvious after Princess Diana’s death, a sense of celebrities being a pseudo-sacred element of our culture – an outlet for devotional impulses once expressed through faith and nationalism. Everyone needs some idea of the transcendental and for many Heroes or Purple Rain took them closest.
Something has changed this year. Not just the frequency at which famous people have died but our reaction to it happening. We have become gloomy. Despondent. Despairing. This has much to do with world events, of course: terrorism across Europe; violence in the Middle East; a migration crisis; the institutional chaos; climate change.
Cheer up, the Steven Pinkers of the world will tell you. The Earth is great! We are, in general, richer, safer and healthier than the vast proportion of the people who have come before us. It is true, of course. If we were not so rich, safe and healthy, the demise of famous people would be put into perspective. But it feels like these comfortable times are ending – and, with them, would end a complacent, innocent age in which we could all care an awful, awful lot about film stars, pop stars, sports stars and restaurant and television critics.
This is overwrought, perhaps, but so are people. We get over it. We work. We watch the television. We get haircuts. Bombs explode. Elections happen. Stock prices rise and fall. Famous people die. No one is sure what it means.