Perhaps it is safe to say that never has there been an extremely disappointing year than 2016. It basically was a “rollercoaster ride”, having tremendous ups and downs. However, from all the various hullaballoo that ensued in the past year, it was the series of celebrity deaths that really caught my attention. There were deaths from the start of the year up until the end. Indeed, death is a natural occurrence and the passing of celebrities is obviously not a new thing. But I guess the reason why 2016’s “slaughtering” of celebrities was as big as it was is because of the way the users of social media have handled or reacted to it.
As a huge fan of music, I might probably be a bit biased towards musicians on this issue. Anyway, here goes. David Bowie, aged 69, was 2016’s first success on its big-game hunting. Bowie died of liver cancer on January 10, 2016, just two days after his 69th birthday and release of his final album “Blackstar”, which earned five awards at the Grammys the following year. But I digress. Anyhow, the massive media coverage of his death would not be surprising at all since he was always regarded as one of rock’s music icons. What is actually alarming is that just four days later, Alan Rickman, best known for portraying the antihero Severus Snape in the immensely popular Harry Potter franchise, passed away due to pancreatic cancer. It is not my intention to compare, but Rickman’s death resonated arguably more with social media than that of Bowie’s probably because of two things: (1) majority of social media users are millennials (most grew up with reading the Harry Potter books and watching the films) and (2) Harry Potter has been so deeply ingrained in popular culture that it is almost impossible to avoid any references to it within a month.
The following month, February, another notable celebrity death was Harper Lee’s. Although, I think it would be best to refer to her as an icon in the literary world rather than a celebrity due to the latter’s ostentatious connotation. Lee was the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, published in 1960. It is an inescapable novel in a way that every person who has gone through high school was required to read it and make a book review of it.
The deaths that followed before the turn of the other half of the year included big names such as Nancy Reagan, Frank Sinatra Jr., Chyna and Prince. I’m not exactly sure, but I think that a death of a musician is much more celebrated compared to a death of another celebrity in a different field. Music award shows are the best example for this idea. Lorde performed at the BRIT Awards to pay tribute to David Bowie. Also, Lady Gaga performed a medley consisting Bowie’s hits on the Grammys the same year. The same went for Prince’s passing as Madonna performed with Stevie Wonder on the Billboard Awards. Likewise, artists perform tributes even outside award shows, even during their own concerts. I think them doing tributes and acknowledging the influences they got from deceased artists is an essential way of using their own voice in shaping culture. Although many scholars have since recognized the power of voice in affecting society, for this issue, the idea of Zuckerman in his article “New Media, New Civics?” best describes how contemporary artists use their voices in relaying messages, particularly its effects in the digital sphere. The power of an artist as a celebrity is not to be taken lightly and it does play a major role in shaping the preferences of fans. Music is enjoyed by the majority of the human population and they attend concerts or events by their favorite artists. Although not necessarily consequent, the ideals proposed by the artists can be instinctively adopted by the fans. With that said, keeping in mind the current way of digital living we have right now (i.e. posting or sharing trivial things online through social networking sites), the fans would go online and share the “good news” they have heard from their beloved artists. For me, I think this is instrumental to keeping alive the contributions of the renowned celebrity who has already passed away. It plays a part in the formation of the history of the human society, especially in the cultural and artistic department. Since superstars have an impact on the generation they are (or were) playing a role in, for newer artists to “broadcast” to their own audiences the impression on them maintains the previous luminaries’ relevance.
Since social media has made it very easy for a person to use his or her own voice, there is a tendency to do it just for the sake of doing it. The acknowledging of the passing away of a celebrity for other people is simply just to play a part in light of popular events. I think it’s okay for others to pay respects to a recently deceased person even if they know nothing or too little about them. However, not to sound to condescending, but I think it is annoying for people pretend that they were influenced by the greatness of the stars without knowing any particular song, album, movie, book, or any contribution they have made during their time. They go as far as posting to social media that they absolutely adore an artist when in fact they cannot even name a song, movie or book by the artist, actor or author, respectively. I don’t know, but I think it’s just my elitist fan-self speaking.
Going back to our main topic, the deaths of Muhammad Ali, Kenny Baker (R2-D2 from Star Wars), Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Fidel Castro, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds followed in the other half of 2016. With the demise of such notable public figures both in the arts and political realms occurring within a span of a year, the people have become conscious of the series of unfortunate events. People went to social media to share their dismay on the sequences of deaths of their beloved idols. #RIP was one of the top tweets of that year. What was more amazing was that people were devastated and they were actually pleading for 2016 to stop taking lives anymore. I remember seeing a lot of posts on Facebook begging that the year stop taking any more lives. There even was a [ridiculous] petition to insure Betty White be saved from the reaping that is 2016. While it was a serious pop cultural issue, it is unsurprising that people were able to create humor out of it because of the prevalence of memes.
What I find most fascinating with the deaths of celebrities is that it brings up talks and discussions about not only of their contributions in their respective fields, but also the causes they have championed while still living. For example, Carrie Fisher’s death shed more light on the issue of mental health. She was never ashamed of it and was always public about her mental illness, and supported organizations. Her death not only emphasized her iconic appearances in the Star Wars film series, but also inspired dialogues on mental issues that are rarely talked about. Even in death, she was able to illuminate on the issue as her ashes were placed in a giant Prozac pill, and as expected, the Internet caught on. Likewise, it raised the topic on how depression can actually affect the health of a person as Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, also a renowned celebrity, passed away just a day after.
The thing with topics being on social media is that it spreads like wildfire once it is posted online. People could easily get wind of it just by going through their friends’ posts on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, and photos on Instagram. It is such as one would not need to rely on the traditional forms of media, i.e. television, radio and print to be broken of the news. To be honest, I think social media (new media) has overcome traditional media in the idea that credibility is not solely on the latter’s hands anymore. I did not really need to turn on the television to see the news or read the newspaper to confirm that my cherished artist has passed away. If the idea of an online source being credible was condemned not a long time ago, perhaps we can safely say that there has been a turning of the tide.
Finally, it would seem strange for the talk of dying stars to abruptly “die”. For this issue, I would say that the subject died a natural death, i.e. it faded out of the public’s interest in part with the turn of a new year. Also, I think it would be really weird if a topic that has been heavily discussed would be quickly shut down, especially this matter. Again, death is a natural phenomenon. But for me, the main reason why this issue was hot in the past year was mainly because all those stars that died were influential to us during our formative years. The icons we looked up to while growing up were disappearing one by one. Yes, 2016 really was an upsetting year with the notable deaths and the winning of seemingly radical politicians. I’m certain it will be cemented in pop culture as the year when everything went bad. But I think its effect was that the human race was effectively chastened and kept in place, possibly fueling what seems to be the growing want and need for revolutions.
by Paolo Ordenes