The news felt like a gut punch after a few hours of blissfully avoiding any and all media in the car coming back from visiting family in upstate New York: Carrie Fisher had died. It’s not even so much that I was a huge fan of the 60-year-old actress, writer and sage - like any red-blooded American, I’d seen every “Star Wars” flick, but most of them only once - but it was just, well, everything about it.
The jolt of her passing at a relatively young age where it felt like she had a lot more to contribute. The loss of her power as a voice for those who even in 2016 still seem ridiculously voiceless, the mentally ill. And the idea that when Fisher was pulled off that airplane last week still alive that maybe this would be a comeback, feel-good story to end a year when it felt like the Grim Reaper had run amok, from the killing fields of Aleppo to the endless loss of another one of the best and most creative minds of our generation. Instead, Fisher died and then her mother, the actress Debbie Reynolds, died just one day later.
The death of Carrie Fisher felt like the exclamation point on the Internet meme that came to dominate 2016 - this idea that 2016 wasn’t just a year in which a lot of lousy things happened but that Satan himself had somehow come to life in the form of a calendar, that 2016 wasn’t just a run of 366 (yes, Lucifer even tortured us with that one extra Leap Year day!) gloomy days but an actual, horrific thing with legs to stalk us and with arms to snatch the very best.
Make no mistake: A good part of what made people believe that 2016 was a monster was the rise of He Who Shall Not Be Named, the subject of maybe 80 percent of this year’s posts here at Attytood. And then there was all the other grim news, from remote corners of Syria to the bloodied heart of Orlando.
But for many, the true wretchedness of 2016 was defined by the regular shock waves of logging onto social media and learning that some pop culture or political icon of the latter 20th Century, some of emblem of our fast-fading youth, had been plucked from ranks of the living, often with little warning. On the surface, it might be hard to find the commonalities between “Right Stuff” astronaut John Glenn, gender-bending rock star David Bowie, and “America’s Mom,” TV’s Florence Henderson. And yet each news flash drew a fairly similar reaction from the Twitterati online: “(Bleep) 2016!”
With about 2.5 days left in the year, and with Betty White, among others, still drawing breath, maybe this is a good time for all of us to exhale and give this idea of a celebrity plague some deeper thought. The 2016 wave of high-profile passings does have something important to say to those of us left behind, but it’s not what you think.
First and perhaps foremost, this wasn’t 2016’s fault. Years are not human beings. Stop anthropomorphizing them.
And yet there is a reason so many notable people died in 2016. The world - our modern world, specifically - has created quite a lot of people worthy of note. And the more celebrities that society creates, the more who will die. It was only 1968 (another really awful year, by the way) that a program for an Andy Warhol exhibit famously announced that “(i)n the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” That future hasn’t exactly arrived, but the omnipresence of television, now multiplied by the Internet, did help create a vast planet of people who came into our living rooms - people that we felt like we knew, in a way that would not have been possible before World War II.
Indeed, the seeming omnipresence of “celebrities” has cheapened that term down to a bargain-basement price. One of the renowned people who passed in 2016 - the 99-year-old Zsa Zsa Gabor - was arguably the first in a long line that later passed though Paris Hilton and has now grown to epidemic proportions, of people who are “famous for being famous.” But if fame is now truly such a cheap commodity now, then this 12-month death spree wouldn’t have laid us so low. The passings that really got to us in 2016 were the ones that said so much about this unique human epoch that we shared with them.
Prince. Muhammad Ali. Harper Lee. David Bowie. Carrie Fisher. Merle Haggard. Leonard Cohen. Gwen Ifill. One thing that all of those folks had in common is they were definitely not just “famous for being famous.” To the contrary, they were the leaders of an age when people broke down needless barriers that had literally existed for centuries. They created something - not just new ideas or new art forms, but a new art of living outside of long-established norms, and all for the better.
Before Ali, there had been other remarkable boxers, but none who’d leveraged that fame for global political change, who altered the way we view important things like religion and war. There had been many charismatic young actresses before Carrie Fisher, but none had ever shared her mental-health travails and inspired so many others, people who might have suffered in silence in quite the way that she did. There had been a boatload of pop crooners in the years before Prince and Bowie, but how many had helped us reconsider what it means to be a man the way they did?
Almost everyone on the list of notable 2016 deaths affected the fundamental way we view what it means to be human, of what is possible in life. And it’s important to note that these extraordinary people were the product of an extraordinary time in world history. The half-century that followed World War II - particularly here in America, the nation of birth for most of the people on this list - was a time when both affluence, especially for the middle class, and leisure time exploded. Those things offered humans an unparalleled new opportunity to innovate and create - and the more they did, the more they also questioned the traditional boundaries of race, or gender, or human sexuality that had restrained their forerunners.
Think back 100 years ago to 1916, and it is all but impossible to imagine a Prince or a Muhammad Ali or a George Michael as we came to know them in the latter 20th Century and beyond. It’s also impossible to imagine how much spiritually poorer our lives would have been. We have been so blessed to be alive in an era of so many creative people - and yet there is still one barrier of human experience that even John Glenn could not blast through.
Everybody dies. And while it seemed like there were too many high-profile deaths this year, the reality is that these microbursts of sadness were the inevitable consequence of living in a time with so many remarkable people have been alive, inspiring joy and wonder. The truly important “news” about Fisher and Ali and Prince is not the moment that we heard that they died, but the years that we saw how they lived.
And there is one other takeaway from those that we lost in 2016. In a difficult political world, it’s important to remember that none of the conditions that allow people such as these - or such as us - to live life to the fullest are a given. These creative souls and free thinkers thrived in a world where unfettered speech gained currency over censorship, where artistic freedom was valued and supported, and when societies strove to advance peace and avoid war, including the nuclear devastation that loomed in their background after 1945. Today, we must fight for these freedoms, for ourselves and for our loved ones but also to ensure that the next generation of Muhammad Alis or Carrie Fishers can emerge from our ranks.
In other words, as odd as this sounds, we need to maintain this wonderfully creative world so that 2066 can bring us even more notable deaths than we just had in 2016.
Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.