This piece originated as a bar conversation, where basically all good or terrible conversations start. It was the night Garry Shandling died. And even before then, tweeting things like “fuck you, 2016” seemed like old hat after David Bowie died. And, of course, this was still a month before Prince’s death would shock the world.
Over pitchers of domestic light beer (people scoff, but a human being can drink a lot of domestic light beer and not be hungover the next day, as I get older this becomes more and more of a priority), we tried to figure out if this was just an anomaly, or if 2016 was truly evil. I mean, average life spans are increasing. More people aren’t dying. So what’s going on? The next day (with no hangover), I started looking more and more into this. There are a lot of factors at play here, but one short answer is that, no, 2016 isn’t evil. Another short answer is, no, the perception we are experiencing more beloved artists dying isn’t an anomaly.
And the final short answer: This is just the way it’s going to be from now on. Okay, let’s get into some longer answers.
There’s an odd cultural phenomenon that happened back in the 1980s that’s hard to pinpoint – but it’s almost like most of our current cultural slate all started in that decade. It’s the B.C. and A.D. of cultural decades. I say that it’s hard to pinpoint because, today, culture moves startlingly fast. A story that might have dominated the news cycle for weeks now comes and goes in an hour. (If that.) Culture happens so fast now it’s almost like it never existed. As quick as it comes, it’s gone. (Hey, remember Batman v Superman?) So to say, at the same time, that popular culture has also stood still since the ‘80s seems in direct opposition to the first statement. But it’s not. Both are true.
There are a strangely large amount of famous people and popular entities that were famous in the 1980s who are still famous today. Star Wars and The Transformers dominate the box office. Ghostbusters is a highly anticipated movie coming out this summer. Madonna and Tom Cruise are still extremely famous people. Sylvester Stallone still makes Rocky movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger still makes Terminator movies. Bruce Willis still makes Die Hard movies. Bruce Springsteen has become basically the unofficial poet laureate of the United States, now publicly protesting in favor of transgender rights. Indiana Jones and Han Solo are still culturally important characters. The third Back to the Future movie came out in 1990 and is still extremely popular today. There’s another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie coming out this summer. The current wave of superhero movies are often credited to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. (I’d still say Superman: The Movie, but, like Star Wars, that’s an entity that started in the late 1970s and was still very popular in the 1980s.) Heck, politicians still cite Ronald Reagan in stump speeches.
Here’s why this is remarkable: In the 1980s, properties from the 1950s weren’t still popular. Oh, there was nostalgia. The fact Happy Days existed proved that. But people in the 1980s weren’t living with the same cultural checkpoints as people in the 1950s. Little kids today are playing with Star Wars toys. I played with Star Wars toys. My dad, who grew up in the ‘50s, played with a slingshot and a BB gun. A lot of these ’80s films played homage to the past, but they weren’t the same franchises. We live in an age where few people look backwards anymore. The television rerun basically doesn’t exist. (I’ve written about this. Basically, you have more access to television than you’ve ever had, but you will never sit down and watch old episodes of, let’s say, F Troop because you don’t have to anymore. There are other ways to be entertained. The notable exceptions: Seinfeld and Friends.) Yet, all of these past properties are still very much in the zeitgeist. Walk down the toy aisle at your local department store: It’s the same stuff that was there in the 1980s.
Because of this, more people have remained famous longer. If Garry Shandling had his first television show in the 1950s, would he have still been famous by the 1980s? With social media and with this weird phenomena of “the ‘80s,” Shandling was never not around. The Larry Sanders Show is tough to find today, almost impossible to find in its entirety, yet it’s on almost every internet list of “best television comedies.” In the ‘80s, there was a lot of, “Oh, he or she died. That’s a shame. They were good in that thing from 1959.” Now, it’s, “He just tweeted yesterday!”
Basically, if you were super famous in the 1980s, you’re probably still really famous today.
I want to be clear: I’m not saying “there are more famous people, ergo it seems like more are dying.” There are more famous people – there are hundreds of former reality stars whose names I’d recognize if I heard them, but I don’t care that much about their mortality – but truly famous and talented people are staying in the limelight longer. This is a good thing. Springsteen just sold out two arenas in Brooklyn. Stuff like this happens all the time with different artists from that era. Could you imagine an artist from the ‘50s not named Sinatra selling out venues like that? (Note: I’m well aware Springsteen came to prominence in the ‘70s, but he hit a new level of fame in 1984 with the Born in the U.S.A. album. David Bowie, too, a ’70s icon, was very popular in the 1980s.)
The point of the last four paragraphs: These people are getting older.
It’s almost like the fake fame we’ve been harvesting since the beginning of the reality era has made the truly talented people more famous. They mean more to us. And we keep them around longer. When Prince died, it wasn’t just people my age who saw Purple Rain in theaters (with their mothers covering his eyes during the nudity, which was embarrassing), it was people much younger than me mourning, too. No one had to have the “this is why this person was important” talk to anyone. People knew. That’s not the way it used to be. When Cary Grant died in 1986, I knew he was once a famous actor, but my mother had to explain that to me. The day Harrison Ford dies (which will never happen, dude can crash a plane and live), there won’t be any explanations needed. Again, this is a relatively new phenomenon.
And there’s yet another reason: In 1986, if you looked at pretty much anything from 1956, it looked ancient. Not just the styles, but the photography itself. Movies from 1956 – the height of Technicolor, to name one factor – have a different texture than movies from 1986. It all looked objectively different. But, now, in 2016, if we watch something from 1986, it seems “modern.” I’m not talking about the effects. (A lot of the effects still look great; a lot don’t.) I’m talking about the photography. The quality of how that actor looks a lot like how they look today. (Despite the shift to digital, which is basically trying to recapture the look of film, only for less cost. It’s funny, some movies from the early 2000s look worse than films from the ’80s.) When we watch Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future today, it looks so good, we forget that today he’s a 54-year-old man. I saw Wall Street on television a couple of days ago. Martin Sheen has been playing the same character for 29 years. (There’s even a line in the movie after his character, Carl Fox, has a heart attack, “He’s got 20 years left.” Nope, we are at 29 and counting.)
And people wear pretty much the same stuff today people wore in the 1980s. Okay, I know this might sound a little nuts because if you were making a movie set in the ‘80s, you’d put them in parachute pants and the jacket Michael Jackson wore in the “Beat It” video. Thing is, no one actually dressed like that. (Okay, yes, there were some parachute pants at my elementary school, but those people were outliers. Most people wore jeans.) Normcore in 1986 is very similar to normcore in 2016. There was no normcore in the 1950s. Everyone dressed up. People wore nice clothes to go to baseball games. In the ‘80s, people wore jerseys. Today, people wear jerseys, only the names have changed. (Even athletes from the ‘80s are still popular today. If someone was asked to name “any 20 basketball players,” I would bet Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are all somewhere on that list.)
Before this decade is over, Madonna will turn 60. Bruce Springsteen will turn 70. Harrison Ford will be close to 80. Tom Cruise will be pushing 60. These are still four of the most famous humans on Earth. Popular culture reached some sort of weird zenith in the 1980s, yet time keeps on ticking. These people still seem young because we still see Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in high-def clarity all the time. Tom Cruise still seems like Pete Mitchell (a.k.a. Maverick) for the same reasons. (We live in a world where Demetri Martin is 42.)
I’m one of those people who takes the death of a famous person I care about kind of hard. I try not to be the person on Twitter who makes it all about themselves in that weird “mourn-off” kind of way, but it does affect me. Maybe it’s because I was an only child – I spent a lot of time with a lot of these people. (I still get sad when I hear Robin Williams’ name.) But these people have also been with all of us, in culture, longer than how people used to routinely do.
People are living longer, but their fame is also living longer. And these people are getting older. I mean, we’re all getting older, but we live with that. This wave of cultural heavyweights from the ‘80s don’t seem old because we still live with that decade every day. It’s like The Force: It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds culture together. But, sadly, what we are seeing with what seems like frequent celebrity deaths is just the way it’s going to be. It’s a blessing current culture can keep people so relevant for so long … but what we’re seeing now – the mourning, saying goodbye to these people we admire, and losing maybe a little bit of ourselves in the process – is the curse.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.