This is the final PopCulteer of 2016, and I find myself tasked with trying to sum up a year in which death was a constant presence.
That’s a bit hard to comprehend. So many factors played into this year’s pop culture body count. Much of the remarkable number of high-profile passings in the last 12 months was due to simple demographics. A lot of the iconic personalities we lost were beyond the age where dying of natural causes is unexpected. However, we also had more than our fair share of people dying at what seemed to be far too young an age. I found myself abstaining from running obituaries for every famous person who died because I simply couldn’t keep up with them all.
Our society is obsessed with celebrity. To a certain extent we always have been, but it’s certainly been even more the case in the last hundred years, with the rise of motion pictures, and especially in the last sixty years with the coming of television. We care a lot, and have personal connections to, a lot of people we will never actually meet in person.
That’s where demographics come into play. People who are on TV become stars, and people have been becoming television stars for a long time now. When you think of people who made it big in the early days of television, it’s more remarkable that many of them are still living than to think of how many have passed away. When you consider a classic TV program like The Dick Van Dyke Show, which debuted more than fifty-five years ago, and realize that of the main cast, only one supporting player has passed away, it’s sort of mind-blowing.
Many pioneering television stars are now well past the age of 80. We are lucky to have so many who are not only still with us, but still working. But we also shouldn’t be too surprised when some of them come to the natural end of their lives. Even people who were famous for not being dead yet passed away this year (Abe Vigoda, left).
The loss of Muhammed Ali was a major blow, but after his decades of battling Parkinson’s Disease, it wasn’t a surprise. Many stars simply passed of natural causes after living long and fruitful lives.
But it is a loss and the general public does come to love and adore actors, musicians, writers, athletes and other celebrities so much that when one dies, widespread grief and mourning is to be expected. A reasonable amount of grief should be respected. On top of all the celebrity deaths this year, there has been way more trolling of the pople affected by those deaths than any decent human being should condone.
What seems to have made 2016 such a punch to the gut is the sheer number of major, iconic names that passed away, and the large number of not-quite-iconic, but still pretty famous, people who coincidentally died around the same time. The year began with the death of David Bowie, one of the most-revered musicians in history, and–as of this writing–ended with the one-two punch of the deaths of Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, a legendary film star with a career that started in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In between we lost so many major names that only a fool would try to compile a complete list. Just a few months after the loss of Bowie the music world had to deal with the shocking death of Prince, an equally-iconic musician, who also shared Bowie’s sense of personal privacy that made his death seem all the more sudden and shocking.
No doubt, 2016 will go down as one of the most depressing years in history. All this death and division happened during a numbing political season that went on far too long and yielded even more depressing results. “None of the Above” won the presidential election in a landslide as almost half of eligible voters didn’t bother to go to the polls. Under our complicated rules that means that the White House was awarded to the person who got three million votes less than the top vote-getter. It doesn’t seem fair, but in a year where we lost both Bowie and Prince, and even Lemmy, if you counting the waning days of the previous year, who would expect fairness?
That may be why this year seemed more death-heavy than usual. Maybe people just wanted any distraction from the political campaigning, so they focused on every death more than they would have otherwise.
The only problem with that concept is that, when you start adding up the bodies, 2016 was, for real, an exceptionally brutal year for celebrity deaths. It was so bad that I first made the joke about The Grim Reaper being Time Magazine‘s Man of the Year back in July.
Like I said, there are reasons for it to seem this way. We have more “stars” now, and being mortals, some of them are always going to die at a normal rate. It was the luck of the draw this year that so many huge stars all shuffled off this mortal coil around the same time. It’s sad, and it’s okay for people to feel sad when someone whose work they admired and enjoyed passes away.
Yet, life goes on. It’s a bit strange because, speaking on a personal level, 2016 has been a pretty good year for me. Despite seeing several cultural heroes pass away, being diagnosed with a major serious illness and spending months away from making videos as a result, and watching several friends deal with very difficult personal travails, I’ve had a pretty decent year.
I managed to appreciate what I have and I’ve maintained a positive attitude toward my personal life and health despite the completely demoralizing political climate and the realization that this country is probably heading into the darkest times I will ever see in my lifetime.
Life will go on. I will work hard to find moments of joy and happiness with my wife and friends and family and we will survive. There will be more losses to mourn and more challenges to overcome…and that’s life.
That’s what we still have after this year littered with so many deaths…life.
As we bid farewell to 2016, we’ll raise our hand, extend our middle finger and salute, because despite its best efforts, we’re still not all dead yet. As we strap in our seatbelts for the coming train-wreck that will be 2017, we’ll do our best to survive it too.
Happy New Year. Good riddance to the old one.