“Prince, surely not? Can we turn this year off and turn it back on when it stops being a giant exit for all the most talented people?”
The actress Minnie Driver echoed the thoughts of many in tweeting her reaction to the sudden loss of Prince, the latest in a long list of entertainers who died in 2016.
Similar comments flooded social media, along with somber opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines on what has so far been a dark year for the celebrity galaxy.
“All the adults that affected me in my childhood are making an exodus one by one,” the hip-hop producer Questlove wrote on Instagram.
Prince’s death at age 57 came three months after David Bowie, another of music’s leading lights, succumbed to cancer at age 69.
Other notable deaths this year in the industry include the so-called “Fifth Beatle” George Martin, dead at 90; Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, who was 74; Paul Kantner, the co-founder of Jefferson Airplane, also 74.
The music world was plunged into mourning once again at the weekend with the death of soul great Billy Paul — he of “Me and Mrs. Jones” fame — at age 81.
Outside the music world, high-profile recent deaths in the entertainment industry include British actor Alan Rickman, who was 69. Britain has lost a host of actors, performers or television personalities this year, many of them from the same era.
– ‘Year of notable deaths’ –
So has 2016 really been the year when the grim reaper took aim at the stars?
For Nick Serpell, obituary editor for the BBC, the number of notable deaths in 2016 has been “phenomenal.”
“This past year by objective measure has been a year of notable deaths in the music world,” agreed Shaun Tandon, AFP’s music correspondent in New York who pointed also to Glenn Frey of The Eagles, and Natalie Cole and Lemmy of Motorhead, both of whom died at the end of 2015.
The deaths of Prince and Bowie — both living legends — would have had a massive ripple effect no matter when they died.
But social media also amplifies the way we experience celebrity deaths.
“When, say, Otis Redding died in a 1967 plane crash, plenty of fans were grieving but they could not instantly open their computers and commiserate and create a larger movement of grief,” Tandon said.
“Suddenly everyone has a platform — and might even feel an obligation to share.”
– Baby Boomers –
Stef Woods, a professor of American Studies at American University in the capital Washington, agrees there has been a steady stream of celebrity deaths.
But there are also a lot more celebrities out there, as well as chances to “share and be involved with the lives and work of our cultural icons,” Woods, who specializes in pop culture and social media, told AFP.
“Our grandparents’ generation, there wasn’t the same… opportunity to share someone’s work through a variety of mediums, or follow somebody on Instagram, or hear their music on Tidal or Spotify, or see a movie on YouTube.”
Like Serpell, Woods predicts that the apparent spike of high-profile deaths will become the norm as the stars of the baby-boomer generation, roughly born 1946 to 1964, hit their mid-50s and beyond.
“David Bowie, Alan Rickman, they fall within the baby-boomer years,” she says.
But, she adds, we also feel like more people are dying because we are “inundated” with information by rolling news channels and digital media that chart every painful step in a celebrity’s illness, the details of their death, the funeral and the impact on their family.
“For some it is a source of comfort,” says Woods. “For others, it is overwhelming.
“We are losing someone that we feel close to and has been a part of our lives for decades.”