This week Prince became the latest in a seemingly bewildering number of prominent celebrity deaths in 2016. After Lemmy from Motorhead passed away at Christmas, the Grim Reaper seems to have been putting together his own entertainment festival, picking up people like David Bowie, Victoria Wood, Glenn Frey, Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels, Terry Wogan, Frank Kelly, Alan Rickman, and many other, with Prince being the latest. We’re only in April and already the year hasn’t been great for the celebrity world.
We are seeing more famous deaths this year than usual, but it’s not altogether surprising when you look at the facts (e.g. in this BBC article). A lot of it is down to the baby-boom after World War II ended, which led to a lot more people becoming famous in the 1960s and beyond, especially as the entertainment industry was growing too. It was becoming very easy for a celebrity’s work to be seen and heard by millions in their own homes, through TV and radio, which were the best promotional tools back then.
You couldn’t rely on Youtube, Facebook or Spotify to introduce you to new music in those days, as there was no internet. You had shows like Top of the Pops, Beat Club, Juke Box Jury and countless others to bring you the best stuff. And you had to watch TV shows on a schedule – there was no Netflix back then, and most people didn’t have the equipment to record things. Families would gather round the TV to watch shows like Doctor Who or Dad’s Army in those days, because they felt like actual events. You couldn’t catch up on iPlayer later. The old Doctor Who shows may seem incredibly dated compared to the modern version, but make no mistake, back then it was groundbreaking, as there had been nothing like it before. (And before you wonder, I’m only in my 30s, being a child of the 80s, but I like a lot of stuff from the 60s and 70s as well)
A lot of celebrities from that generation went on to have very successful careers, often lasting for decades, though even those with short-lived fame could still have a big impact. Many musical artists, TV stars and film actors from that generation are still well-known and admired today, and indeed many are still working today. How bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who still find the energy to go on tour and be good at it, I don’t know, but they seem to manage it somehow!
There were people from earlier decades whose legacy has also lived on, of course, but from the 1960s onwards there have been many, many more of them. And that’s the point, because now most of them are reaching their 60s and 70s. So it’s simply more likely that they’re going to die. Sad but true. Like it or not, we’re now in a period where stars from the 1960s onwards will be passing away with some regularity. There’s even a site called Deathlist which predicts which celebrities will die each year. And they’ve already got 5 right this year, more than by this point in any previous years. If they keep going at their current rate – and it’s feasible given some of the names there – then they could be up to 15 by the time 2016 ends. Scary thought!
Of course, every time a particularly popular celebrity dies these days – such as David Bowie or Prince – the news media and social media get flooded with talk about them. And as a result, you always get some people who get annoyed about it. They can’t understand why people seem to worship and adore musicians and actors so much, and get upset about someone dying that they’ve never met. Especially when it comes to music stars it seems given the reactions to Bowie and Prince.
If you’re not a fan of them, then maybe you don’t see what all the fuss is about. There are lots of other things going on in the world that are also newsworthy, of course. But the news companies still report the other stories even if they’re just slightly smaller headlines for a day or two. And coverage of big stars dying is justified, and the grief among their fans understandable, because of the huge impact and influence they had. Even if they didn’t affect you personally, it’s clearly affected millions of others. You may even have been impacted by their work in ways that you didn’t even realise or expect e.g. music used in adverts, TV shows or films, or fashions that you enjoy wearing or seeing others wear, or quotes that you’ve heard, etc.
Music is extremely powerful, more than people sometimes realise or appreciate. It can tap into your heart and mind in a way that almost nothing else can. It transcends the boundaries of geography, language, race, gender, time, and more. You don’t need to be an expert in anything to enjoy it. It can bring people together in harmony when nothing else seems to work. What may seem like white noise or cats wailing to you may be full of joy or sadness or deep meaning to others. For instance, I find Hello by Adele to be a very irritating song (though I do rather like this heavy metal version), but for others it’s a hugely popular track, either because people can relate to it a great deal, or they just love the sound of her voice and the music accompanying it.
And that’s the thing. Although people often like songs just because they sound good, it regularly goes a lot further than that. Often people can relate the lyrics and emotions of a song to their own life. Even a simple instrumental without any words can be enough. After all, many songs are written from the emotional perspective of the composer. Many songs have deeper meanings that casual listeners don’t even know about or consider.
In any case, the person listening to it will interpret it in their own personal way, which can sometimes be very different from how the original artist approached it. You may connect the song to experiences you’ve had in the past or are still going through now. It may evoke good or bad recollections from years gone by that have significant meaning to you, or trigger memories that you’d forgotten altogether. It may be relevant to the hopes, dreams and fears you have for the future. It could relate to someone you know and care about. Or it can just simply fill you with joy and make you feel good about the world, taking all your cares away for a little while. It can be a very effective form of escapism from daily life.
There are a whole myriad of reasons that a simple song can reach out and grab you in a way that’s greater than you may have anticipated. And once you’ve made that discovery, you may well find that you can relate to other songs by the same artist, and by doing so you’ll come to admire and respect them all the more. As a result, you come to view them as figures of support and role models, people who seem to understand you and are experiencing similar feelings to you. It can affect people very significantly. Holly’s post about Jessie J is a perfect example of the effects one musician can have. I’m not a particular fan of Jessie’s music myself, but I still admire and respect her for the way that she’s inspiring and helping people in the ways that she does. She has a big following, and with good reason as far as I can see.
Similarly with David Bowie and Prince. I like their greatest hits, but their music beyond that generally doesn’t appeal to me. But I understand and appreciate the huge influence they had, not just on music but on things like fashion as well. And I know they accumulated a huge worldwide fanbase. So their deaths deserve the attention they’ve been getting. It’s a significant one-off event, we will never see people like them again, and for many people it really is like losing a close friend or a member of the family, so it hurts for them.
The fans have let these musicians into their hearts and souls, absorbing every lyric and every melody, so to find out that they’ve gone can be a huge shock. If, back when Freddie Mercury died, I had been the Queen fan I am now, I would have been very upset at the time I’m sure. But these occasions also give fans a chance to thank those people for the music they’ve left behind to enjoy forever. And it will generate new fans who want to find out what they’ve been missing, curious as to why everyone else is saying such good things about them. The influence of people like Bowie and Prince will be felt for a long time to come in some form or another, which is a huge tribute to them and everything they achieved.
You may never meet your favourite artists, and they may never know you. Then again, these days it’s perfectly possible that your paths may cross, whether it be on social media or in person at one of their shows. Either way, they can be a love of your life, a friend, an inspiration, communicating to you through their words, music and videos. Even if they’re not in direct contact with you, it can feel as though they are. And for many people, music can be a genuine lifeline. It can be a vital escape from stress and darkness, or an essential avenue through which to express and develop yourself. There charities like Nordoff-Robbins, for example, whose work with music makes a massive difference to many people.
The power of music really cannot be underestimated. It can impact every single person in every conceivable way. Whether it be a very basic piece with minimal lyrics or melody, or a highly complex and constructed piece of epic wonder, it can have a major impact. Even if you can’t feel anything from a particular song, that doesn’t mean others can’t. The same goes for TV stars, film actors, comedians, footballers, athletes, painters, sculptors, scientists, authors and so on. Famous people of all types and from all walks of life can have a lasting impact and can endear themselves to the hearts of millions through the work they do.
And you don’t even have to be super-famous to achieve the respect of a large number of strangers. Places like Youtube give places for all sorts of people to share their lives and entertain a worldwide audience, such as the beautiful and brave Charlotte Eades, who garnered a huge following and inspired many people, just by spreading awareness of cancer. Her passing was just as keenly felt by many people who had never met her, and also made the news.
So if the news and social media makes a big deal out of a celebrity passing away who you’ve never heard of or liked, yet loads of other people seem to be a fan of them, then let them have their moment. It will be important to others even if it isn’t to you. People need to get over the shock, they need to grieve, and it’s only right to celebrate that person’s life if they’re widely respected, having inspired and entertained millions of fans. There’s nothing wrong with that. The news will return to normal, the world isn’t going to stop turning just because of it. People aren’t going to forget about everything else that’s happening, and you’ll still find other stories you’re more interested in under the main headline.
All forms of entertainment and culture, be it music, TV, films, books, sports, arts or whatever, are all very important in the world. They unite and inspire, entertain and inform, and give pleasure and joy to millions every day. So for all the celebrities we’ve lost this year, we should be grateful for the memories and inspiration they’ve left us with, which we can continue to enjoy and take comfort from in their absence for many yeras to come. But let’s hope we don’t lose too many more this year either, or the obituaries round-ups at the end of the year are going to go on forever! If there is a God somewhere and he’s putting together some kind of big festival or variety show, he’s surely got enough performers for it now!