I cannot speak as to whether popular culture has lost more celebrities or experienced more cultural setbacks in 2016 as opposed to any other year. I'll leave that to the tabulators. I can say that whether data supports the idea of unusual loss or not, it sure feels true. I hope you'll allow me the indulgence to overlook hard data in this instance.
For all those we've lost this year, however, I will say that certain segments of the population feel that loss more than others. And those segments are not dictated by race, ethnicity, gender identification, cognitive ability, or socio-economic status. They're indicated by how much people interact with popular culture. And sometimes, the circumstances of a person's life draw them closer to pop culture.
I am 34 years old, born the year that Return of the Jedi came out in theatres and a little over a year after MTV came into being. Like many of my generation, I was the child of divorced parents. I will gladly welcome some data here; according to the CDC, divorces in America, especially involving children, peaked in the early 80s, correlating with the rise of MTV. In my case, my parents separated in 1990 and split for good in 1993. Either way, MTV won partial custody in the aftermath of their separation.
(Although not a direct reference to MTV, I feel as though John Darnielle explains this sort phenomenon well in The Mountain Goats's "Dance Music". Yes, "this is what the volume knob's for". Enjoy.)
I was always a little bit of an odd child, even before my parents' split. I was a bit intense in a few ways. Since the age of six, when I watched Mary Martin's Peter Pan on VHS every single day for an entire summer, I have periodically found some sort of pop culture item to obsess over daily. I didn't have a ton of friends as a young child. Thus, playing inside, making up stories, reading until I ran out of Babysitters' Club books, and more than anything, listening to and attempts at making music were my jam as a kid.
The root of my pop culture addiction, however, was hours upon hours of MTV. I learned to binge-watch before it was a thing. (Who else remembers the joy of a Saturday Real World marathon in the early to mid-90s?) My mother was often out working or taking my brother to t-ball on those days anyway. Popular music, particularly that which entered my consciousness through MTV, became my salve.
And it opened me up to being the sort of person I am today. Popular musicians, now armed with a visual medium, pushed boundaries of gender expression and sexual identity, long before the remainder of society caught up. Despite its lilywhite beginnings, black artists were doing too many groundbreaking things both musically & visually to be ignored in the second half of the 80s. Janet Jackson taught me the meaning of the word bigotry in elementary school and that I should fight against it (and her accompanying choreography only reinforced that).
If you were at all like me, and I suspect there are many of us out there especially in arts-related careers, the cultural icons of our time were more than just icons to you. When kids at school bullied you, you went over the moves in Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" dance in your head instead. The cultural institutions we sought refuge in became more than just song, dance, poetry, and entertainment. They became everything. Once we in the MTV generation grew older and attained the means to do so, we would follow our icons across the East Coast, wait for them after concerts, and/or defend them online for hours on end. We would blare them in our car stereos as often as we could, whether driving to the beach or getting lost on a mountain after midnight. We held tight to the icons who inspired us -- tighter than any generation of the past.
And as a result, that pop culture sensibility becomes how you interact with the world. It was for me. And I am completely neurotypical. I see that same sensibility in many of my students, and profoundly so with non-mainstreamed students who have disabling conditions. I have met kids who were not intellectually capable of expressing the answers to single digit addition problems but could quote entire (obscure) Disney films or rap every single syllable to a Nicki Minaj song.
Pop culture is meaningful. And if you've felt in the past like you've been left behind, socially, emotionally, or in any of a myriad of ways, pop culture can become far more meaningful to you. Thus, the loss of our titans, be they Severus Snape, Princess Leia, or George Michael, is a heavy blow.
The loss I felt the strongest, maybe ever so far, was that of David Bowie. My best Bowie story is a silly one. When I was in college, I had an all-night supervisory job. Technically, I was an overnight RA, but for the most part, I spent nights perfecting my Yahoo LaunchCast station (think a far inferior version of Pandora). My co-worker, in the community common room, decided to blare Bill O'Reilly repeats at about 3am one night. In the office, on the computer, I blared my LaunchCast until I drowned out Fox News. The loudness battle raged on. And then by the grace of The Internet, a Bowie song came up on my LaunchCast station. I shouted at the top of my lungs at my co-worker, "YOU CAN'T KILL ZIGGY STARDUST, HE'S IMMORTAL!!" I turned up the speakers full volume & cackled louder than I ever should have at 4am. I was roundly ignored, but it was one of the many times in my late adolescence/early adulthood that David Bowie had made me feel even a little powerful. That idea stayed with me years later, while recovering from a bad break-up and watching hours on end of The Venture Brothers cartoon with my dear friend, where Bowie showed up as "The Sovereign" andI repeated that same line to my friend: "You can't kill Ziggy Stardust -- he's immortal." I've repeated it many a time since, once even during an improptu Bowie tribute in Edinburgh (before he passed away).
In January of this year, my husband, who knew how much I loved Bowie, woke me from a dead sleep and asked, "Did you hear about David Bowie?" I sat up in bed and my heart sank. He was immortal. He was never supposed to leave us. He was always supposed to be there to save us from the villains of this world, be they the fictional Monarch or rude co-workers. I brought my portable record player and my bright green vinyl of Bowie narrating Peter and the Wolf to school for my students to listen to that day.
And as 2016 went, the hits just kept coming after that. We all know the story. Alan Rickman. Maurice White. Prince, for the love of all that is holy. Muhammad Ali. Gene Wilder. Sharon Jones. Leonard Cohen. George Michael. Carrie Fisher. To name a few. The people who seemed to be leaving us in droves were largely champions for those often unheard.
And that wasn't all 2016 took from us. In Oakland, CA, a massive fire claimed the lives of musicians, artists, and patrons of the arts, many of them in the LGBTQ community. In my beloved Orlando, 49 people were gunned down at an LGBTQ nightclub on Latino night. Many who had been marginalized in life died in the places where they sought refuge through art and music. And each of us, as individuals out there, have lost people who were dear to us even if they weren't famous or covered on the news.
I've been the recipient of a great deal of privilege in my life. But I have also had days where "Christopher Tracey's Parade" has been the only thing that could make me smile. If you've ever felt like an outsider, for any reason, chances are that music and popular culture has helped to heal you or served as a frame of reference for your interaction with the world. In David Bowie and Prince alone, we have lost two of the most influential and beloved popular music innovators and of the 20th century a mere three months apart (even though they were 12 years apart in age).
One of my biggest MTV icons, who has undoubtedly changed over the course of 20 years, once sang a line that felt like it must have been directly intended for me: "The more you change the less you feel." He was, however, lying through his teeth. It was a great line for disaffected youth in the 1990s, even in a song about hope, but as an adult, it doesn't hold water. The more you change, the more you see the world and the popular culture around you change, the more intensely you feel everything. And the more you see the people who helped to carry you through your childhood die off, the more intensely you feel that, as well.
Some of us are going to take those losses harder than others. My hope is that more creators, more innovators, more people simply listening to the voices that often go unheard, can take up the cause left to us by Bowie, Prince, and others and in 2017 start to make the sort of art and music that is needed so much by so many people.
[lightly edited for style & clarity, May 18th, 2017]