When Freddie Mercury passed away 25 years ago, a sage old friend of mine hit the nail on the head when he said that Freddie epitomised the attitude of society at that point in time. “I want it all… and I want it now!” My good friend’s observation has now escalated to a stage where we can obtain practically anything we want pretty much immediately. Any song we want to hear, TV show or film we want to view is easily accessible; news items are relayed simultaneously – and as a result news of those who depart this mortal coil filters through to us in seconds via social media, news alerts and suchlike. It used to be the case that perhaps lesser known or past their sell by date celebrities may receive a few column inches in next day’s newspaper when they died. Most people wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Occasionally, in the case of the really big names there would be a tribute; perhaps one of the TV channels would show an old episode, film or documentary and we’d all forget about it a few days later and get on with our lives. Nowadays someone posts it on Facebook or Twitter – the whole world reacts – we madly search YouTube for a link to share – photos of the departed are plastered everywhere – and the world mourns someone they’ve never met. The next day another celebrity leaves us and the whole thing repeats itself ad infinitum. The end result is that society begins to believe the myth that something is wrong. The media is obsessed with the question, “Why are all these celebrities dying?” The answer my friends is that they always have done – it’s simply the way in which we find out and react to the situation that has changed. I remember when the late, great Alan Hull of Lindisfarne died back in 1995 I chanced upon a tiny article hidden away at the bottom of a page in a tabloid. Only a few people I knew were aware of it. There was nothing on the national TV news. Imagine how it would be received in this day and age. A post on Facebook… trubutes left, right and centre… numerous YouTube videos shared… it would be oh so different.
What also needs to be remembered is that many of those who have left us during 2016 are the products of a series of generations in which celebrity status featured excessive lifestyles that surpassed those of what have gone before. The 70s, 80s and 90s created a culture of extreme sexual exploration, drug taking that reached a level never seen before, infinite cases of alcohol abuse and burning the candle at both ends to such an extent that it is inevitable that the bodies of the products of those eras would eventually struggle to fight off the rigours of old age and resist mournfully to carry on.
Another factor in our perception of the deaths of celebrities is that for the last 30 to 35 years we have been exposed to their exploits in much greater depth through video, DVD and immediate digital access. Social media has also brought us closer to them; making us feel that we know them. In many cases we have been brought up with them in our homes and imagine them to be a lot younger than they are. Constant reruns of shows from decades ago distort our concept of their ages. To a certain extent they become ageless. The images I have in my mind of Bowie, Rick Parfitt and Lemmy are as they were when I was a teenager back in the late 70s and early 80s. The reality is that all three died at around the same age as my father. Nothing unusual really – except that my father never smoked and only drank in moderation. The only unusual thing from my point of view is how on earth did the rock stars I mentioned survive as long as they did?
There is also the issue of knowledge of who those who have died actually are. In the past, particularly when I was younger, many of the celebrities who were reported to have died meant absolutely nothing to me. I’d never heard of the majority of them. I couldn’t Google them and was certainly not prepared to pop down to the local library to research in detail who they were. Their departure left no lasting memories for me – therefore they were very quickly forgotten.
We now live in a completely different information age. People die every day, they always have done and always will do. Comparisons with years gone indicate no difference in the number of celebrities who have passed. The only difference is our perception of the scale that has been warped by the technological age in which we now exist.