The 2016 death list seems to go on forever. Forget the rest of the year – just take the last week or so: George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Richard Adams, Rick Parfitt, Rabbi Lionel Blue, Zsa Zsa Gabor… A few months ago a New Yorker cartoon depicted an angel advising Death: “Maybe cool it on the beloved celebrities for a bit”, and there were suggestions on social media that Time magazine’s Person of the Year shouldn’t be Donald Trump but the Grim Reaper himself. The comedian and writer David Baddiel tweeted: “Starting to think it might be a serial killer, with a grudge against people who are massively loved."
Even early in the year there were suspicions that celebrity mortality was on the rise. In April – by which time we had already said goodbye to David Bowie, Pierre Boulez, Cecil Parkinson, Alan Rickman, Umberto Eco, Anita Brookner, Johan Cruyff, Ronnie Corbett, Sir Terry Wogan, Harper Lee, Sir George Martin, Keith Emerson, Nancy Reagan, Zaha Hadid and Paul Daniels – the BBC responded to the noise on social media that this was shaping up to be a record year by counting the number of pre-prepared BBC obituaries that had run in the first three months of each year from 2012 to 2016.
They found that there had indeed been a spike in celebrity deaths: twice as many “famous” people (defined as having a BBC advance obituary) died in January, February and March of this year as had done during the corresponding period of 2015 – and five times as many as in the first three months of 2012. However, the BBC’s obituaries editor Nick Serpell reported that things began to level out somewhat after that, and that the second half of the year was not especially unusual. But still, in the whole of 2016, the BBC has used 30 per cent more pre-prepared obituaries compared to the previous year.
That corresponds with a slight increase in deaths generally: for the first three months of the year in Britain 156,041 people died, up from 151,801 in 2015 – so there were more deaths, but only a few per cent more, and not statistically significant, which suggests that the death ratio of celebrities to the unsung is higher than normal.
So are there good, solid reasons behind the surge in celebrity deaths, or is it just one of those things – a statistical blip? I suspect the former, for one good reason: the Sixties.
In the late 18th century, when Gentleman magazine expanded its list of death notices into the first full-blown obituaries section, the principal criterion for inclusion was whether the subject was an “Eminent Person”, as the magazine put it. For more than a century that would have encompassed what we used to know as the great and the good: politicians, royals, businessmen, diplomats, but not too many actors or musicians.
What we now call celebrity culture probably kicked off with the rise of Hollywood and of professional sport in the first decades of the 20th century, and things began to resemble the modern day with Frank Sinatra’s “bobby soxers”, and, a few years later, Elvis. But it was in the first few years of the 1960s, when four mop-topped chaps from Liverpool took the world by storm, that the cult of the celebrity really got into gear.
It was the decade that promised a classless, meritocratic future, when young working class people could rise to stardom fuelled by talent and ambition alone rather than by privilege and breeding. The Beatles were rapidly followed by the Stones, the Who and the Kinks, and by a stampede of rising stars from other metiers: Muhammad Ali, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, George Best, Davids Bailey, Frost and Hockney… modern popular culture as we know it took flight.
Those people who came to fame in the ’60s are now in the autumn and winter of their years, so there’s bound to be an increase in celebrity mortality. And in the case of musicians, death comes sooner: a 2014 academic study in Australia which looked at 13,000 rock and pop stars found that they die on average 25 years younger than the rest of the population (Keith Richards, still hale and hearty a few days after his 73rd birthday despite a lifestyle to fell an elephant, is clearly the rule-proving exception).
Then there’s social media: the rise of Facebook – which grew by 250 million subscribers during 2016 – and of Twitter means that each notable death becomes known about and commented upon around the world within seconds of an announcement. Outpourings of grief go rapidly viral, and celebrity deaths seem to mean and matter far more than they ever did.
For these reasons, I don’t see any change on the horizon: there are more famous people than ever before, and they’re all on the Grim Reaper’s to-do list. I suspect that this time next year we’ll be telling ourselves that in celebrity-death terms, 2016 wasn’t so unusual after all.