Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
But all good things, they say, never last
All good things that say, never last
And love, it isn’t love until it’s past
Prince, June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016
Lots of people are talking, not surprisingly, about the lengthening roll call of lost celebrities from our childhoods.
The BBC are saying that they are doing twice as many obituaries as last year. They’re already budgeting for a longer obituary show at the end of the year. Gilded statistics. We fear the moment there’s breaking news from TMZ.
Maybe it’s because fame, or at least the first generation of democratised fame, is now reaching its old age. Warhol, the soothsayer. Everyman. Fame, you have reached your destination.
It certainly seems like the whole of the 1970s is on its deathbed.
TVs became common in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Through the medium of TV, and the many hours we’ve spent gazing at their flickering screens, ours has become the first era in which we’ve all assembled a reasonably rounded understanding of famous people who aren’t politicians or royalty. And there were – and are – so many of them.
I grew up in the seventies. Most of the people I ‘knew’ by far were people I’d never met. Mike and Carol Brady, Uncle Martin, Will Robinson, James T Kirk, David Bowie, Kate Bush, Noosha Fox, Olivia Newton John, Stevie Nicks, Jeff Lynne, Michael Parkinson, Molly Meldrum, Gerard Kennedy, Endora, Telly Savalas, Lee Majors, Jon English, Ronnie Corbett, Benny Hill, John Inman, Hattie Jacques, Fess Parker, Kenneth Wiliams, Terry Wogan. Hundreds of them, thousands of them. I knew their manners, their mannerisms, their catchphrases. I’d be wooed, amused and horrified in turn. Some fictional, some real, all through a 4:3 window in the corner of the room.
Sitcoms and series gave us a rote learned familiarity. As the years went by this glittering population that we knew by proxy created a parallel world. Our TVs were portholes and their genius shone through it in the glow of the cathode ray. I can feel the static from the screen.
The seventies were just the start. The eighties gave us soundtracks to our lives, with music we could lug in our pockets. Suddenly songs became a more contextual stimulant and balm, lifting our mood in the street or on the bus or anywhere really. Our relationship with the people who create music deepened as it found new therapeutic contexts. We fell more profoundly in love with songwriters we would never meet. They didn’t just entertain us. They helped us. They seemed to know what to say at the exact moment we needed them to say it.
But the glass screen meant that we could never adequately thank them.
It came all the way from Texas
With a sad and simple face
And they signed it on the bottom
From the late great Johnny Ace
It probably started with Diana’s death. She was the first contemporary celebrity to perfect the art of disintermediation. When she sat there with Martin Bashir, we were in the room. When she sat alone in front of the Taj Mahal, we were sort of Instagramming it with our eyes. And after she died, all those bouquets laying there like tweets.
What this says about the future of grief is anyone’s guess. I was talking to someone yesterday about social media and its peeling away of the layers that separate us from people we admire. It rounds our understanding through its immediacy. Some of our heroes are diminished, some are boosted.
Social media enables the possibility of some form of connection or conversation with a celebrity, which can draw us closer to them. When they die, this changes the rules of grief.
Mystique, accentuated by the primitive channels of seventies and eighties broadcast, at least confined our emotional range to admiration. Today we can love and dislike our idols from day to day and in this nuance feel a loss all the more tangibly because they have become real.
On a cold December evening
I was walking through the Christmastide
When a stranger came up and asked me
If I’d heard John Lennon had died
This distant closeness throws us, sometimes it seems, almost every day. Today Prince died. Yesterday Victoria Wood. Bowie. Wogan. All of them a sort of carnival of the disparate, but all individually important to us in ways that we can’t adequately explain. The stiffness of ancient social grief has been replaced with a genuine sense of helplessness in our sadness that comes directly from the burden of disconnection. We can feel but we can’t touch. We can understand but we can’t explain. We can connect but we can’t join. Everything is behind glass.
And it’s cumulative. We might be the first people to be experiencing the sense of the death of a time. In two years, this freshly-minted century will have raised its first 18 year olds. There’s a change to the order of things. Perhaps it’s the death of the 20th century that we’re feeling.