Sit down gang; I’ve got something to tell you. Everyone you love will die. Yes, you knew that, but take a second to consider the real implications. Everyone that you love will die. Your pets, your friends, your family and – most importantly – your idols. Now you know where this is heading. It’s not just Mum and Dad that’ll be munching the graveyard soil, but real and important people, like your favourite musicians and television stars. Don Draper? Dead. The Bon Iver guy? Dead. The Coen brothers? Dead and dead. This is a frightening prospect, and one that warrants analysis, because those of us grown into the internet age are in a peculiar and unenviable position. We have a lot of death still to go.
It all clicked when Lou Reed died. As I read the tweets and obituaries, and carefully quashed my modest and embarrassing grief, I realised that in my own brief span of existence, a lot of cool folks have died. Just off the top of my head, I recall the multiple bummers of Lou, Roger Ebert, Hendrix’s drummer, Pink Floyd’s keyboardist, the Stooges’ guitarist, Heath Ledger and Arthur C. Clarke. And that’s just the ones that I care about and can remember without Google. Now let’s extrapolate. Picture your favourite TV shows, bands, movies, books, thinkers. We’re at the period where the ‘60s cohort is dropping off; think how many are still up for the croak in your lifetime. Now extend that to your idols of the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s, the ones you just discovered last week. They’re all ripe for burial, and if you’re lucky you’ll read their obituary before they read yours. Buckle down – the next few decades will be a little raw. Why us? As in all things, the answer is the internet. The ability to access, and delve deep within the details of, almost all pop-culture recorded within the last sixty years means the latest generation is far likelier than its predecessors to be familiar with, and enamoured of, surviving creative types from a period before they were born. Picture the ‘50s – how much was there to delve into, pop-culture wise? This is a time without Wikipedia or YouTube, where hearing an obscure record means importing it from a catalogue and seeing an old movie means chancing upon a local theatre’s midnight revival showing. Here figures of adulation are pretty thin on the ground; indeed, one suspects the deaths of Buddy Holly and James Dean got so solidly entrenched as milestones in pop-culture partly due to the relative scarcity of mass-media era idols, let alone dead ones, by comparison with the current day. Now you can read the Wikipedia page of every Twilight Zone episode while downloading Rush’s complete discography, and you can’t go a month without the death of someone involved in something you love. This creates a problem. How can the children of the internet leaven the inevitable sorrow of a lifetime of dying idols? Well, you can’t stop admiring them, and you can’t stop them dying, but you can stop making such a big deal of it. In the incestuous relationship of news blogs and social media, there lives a complex ritual of grief by which each expresses their individuality through competing to outdo others at demonstrating sorrow over the latest semi-prominent death. Through the long winded ‘appreciation’ article or the lyric-quoting tweet we show the Depth of Our Feelings and the Breadth of Our Taste. Before you test me for Asperger’s, I hasten to add there’s no problem with public commemoration of dead celebrities, nor with sadness at the passing of someone whose work you respect and enjoy. The problem is that our honest expressions of such are not immune to the natural human desire for attention. Even the RIP tweet is to a certain degree crafted so as to draw attention to its author, and attention is a zero sum game. You’ve gotta stand out, and there’s no better way than by being the greatest mourner. The net result is that, rightly or wrongly, every celebrity death becomes the death of an Immortal Genius. It’s hard not to be affected somewhat by this view. Soon you see notables dropping left, right and centre – Oh God, not Brando’s former mailman! When Lou Reed died, much was said that was important and accurate, but there was also a ton of bullshit. Lou was an incredibly influential musician who was either very good or very bad, sometimes within the same song. I was sorry to hear he died, and I will be sorrier still when Neil Young finally hits the bricks, but if we’re to survive the decades ahead, we need to be a little more realistic. These people whose lives I mourn were not my friends; I didn’t know them. They made something that I treasured and I am grateful that they did, so I’ll fire up their discography and curse the fates. But save the gnashing of teeth; there’s a lot more death coming, and we need those chompers in top notch condish.