Since some time in the early 1960s pop culture has ruled the western world. Beginning a few years ago, but picking up deadly speed in 2016, the architects of that culture, now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, are dying, and it’s not going to slow down. 2017 is, aging and death being what they are, certainly going to be more of a “bummer” than 2016 was.
In 2016 we lost major players- perhaps most notably David Bowie, Prince, Muhamed Ali, and Leonard Cohen, and we also lost lesser lights in the firmament like Gene Wilder, Carrie Fischer, George Michael, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and several others. One popular internet reaction has been to joke about stars people are surprised to find are still alive- like Keith Richards, or sorry to realize are still alive- like Ted Nugent.
Much more popular than those jokes has been the refrains along the lines of “F-ck you, 2016!” “Oh no not another one!” “Can’t say goodbye to 2016 soon enough” or posting lists of celebrities who should have an around the clock medical team guarding them, like Sarah Tuttle-Singer of the Times of Israel did (Bob Dylan was on the list). Articles continue to describe the deaths as “shocking” as though it is an anomaly or flies in the face of nature that an entire generation of culture builders is aging and sooner or later that will result in a flurry of deaths.
Granted these are not just any deaths. Many of them were key builders of culture and are larger than life, having acquired a psychological status more akin to saints, spirits or gods. Venerated, imitated, prayed to in fan mail and evoked as moral backing for socio-political movements like civil rights for African Americans, LGBQT rights, the sexual revolution, or inwardness and the lonely dignity of the individual like Cohen. Even Fidel Castro belongs here in the pop pantheon, representing as he did for many more of a transcendent image of sagaciousness and rebellion in his military outfit with beard and cigar than a real historical human being with many flaws and crimes to his record. Carrie Fisher was also a kind of countercultural saint being sequentially a venerated sex symbol than an elder in the subcultural geek paradise of Star Wars fandom (as well as being a brilliant, witty comedian and writer!).
The word used to describe 2016’s dead celebrities more than any other is “iconic”. That hits the nail on the head- these celebrity saints were living Icons, channelers of transcendent energy, walking archetypes, world changing titans (or embodiments of titanic forces). Many of them were characters in the drama of the transformation of American culture from being a host for Christianity and male dominated white post-European culture into a pluralist, post-Christian, imperfectly feminist and anti-racist culture which lauds personal expression and individualism above all else.
Coinciding with the incipient Trump era, which many fear may actually last long enough to do real damage to E pluribus unum, the deaths of these saints of post-modern culture produce an acute, if subconscious, feeling of disorientation and fear. A world that has a Trump, but no David Bowie or Muhammed Ali, is a frightening prospect.
This story "You Thought 2016 Was Bad? It’s Only Going To Get Worse." was written by Matthew Gindin.