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When your icons begin to die

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So 2016 has become known as this year of great death, and I can understand the impulse. From Muhammad Ali and Prince to George Michael and Carrie Fisher, an absolute ton of iconic celebrities have passed over the past 360-something days.

That said, I’m still not sure this has been, numbers-wise, a larger sum of celebrity life conclusions than past years. I mean, did fewer famous people die in 1985? In 1997? In 2011? According to Snopes, the answer is a definitive no.

So what’s the difference between now and past spans? In a word—us. Or, in four words—social media and us.

Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, people my age are learning of deaths and sharing the news of deaths that, in the past, were generally relegated to the obituary section of a newspaper. Sure, supernovas, a la Ali and Prince and Arnold Palmer and John Glenn, would be front-page news. As strange as this sounds, however, people of Michael’s and Fisher’s ilk likely would not have been. There would be a teaser on the bottom of A1, referring readers to the obituary. The same likely goes for, oh, 90 percent of those we’ve lost in 2016. Gordie Howe probably makes some front pages. Debbie Reynolds and David Bowie, too. But does Gene Wilder? Does Garry Shandling? As tremendously funny as those men were, well, I’d say no.

The other factor here is age. I’m 44. I grew up listening to Prince and George Michael and David Bowie. Those are the performers of my generation. And, if you’re reading this, likely yours, too. They carry weight for us that they don’t for others. “Freedom” is an enormously important song for me. So are “Space Oddity” and “Raspberry Beret.” Our generation is the oldest that lives and breathes with social media, and therefore we add weight to the passings by sheer volume. Truth be told, the reason we’re all talking about Debbie Reynolds’ awful death is because she was Princess Leia’s mother, and the heartbreaking timing crushed us. Otherwise, Debbie Reynolds doesn’t trend. She’s simply not of the social media era.

There’s a pretty crappy conclusion here, and it’s this: Just as the awfulness of 2016 won’t end with 2017 (Bad news: Trump becomes president), the death total of our people will only increase. The trickle was Whitney Houston. George Michael and Prince and David Bowie was the next wave. Aging sucks for myriad reasons—first and foremost because, as we get older, so do those around us.

At least we still have Mbah Gotho.

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