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Loss of icons in 2016

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, December was the cruellest month of 2016.

In just that short span of four weeks, the Grim Reaper claimed some of the most memorable icons of my childhood and youth.

It started with American astronaut John Glenn, 95, who died on Dec 8.

Then the scythe claimed actor Alan Thicke, 68, on Dec 13. The younger generations know him as the father of singer Robin, but I remember Thicke as the benevolent paterfamilias of the 1980s TV series Growing Pains.

On Dec 18, it was the turn of one of Old Hollywood's glamour pusses, Zsa Zsa Gabor, 99, the Hungarian socialite who was the first international celebrity to be famous just for being famous.

Then the horrible triple whammy that came post-Christmas: Singer George Michael, 53, died unexpectedly in his sleep on Christmas day, and actress Carrie Fisher, 60, succumbed on Dec 27 after a heart attack four days earlier. Just a day after her death, her mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, also died after suffering a stroke.

My Facebook feed was flooded with mournful posts from friends. Michael had provided the soundtrack of our youth. While I was never much of a pop music fan, his hits with the 1980s pop group Wham! flooded the shopping malls in my teenage years and his solo hits were the radio earworms everyone could hum.

Fisher was the first princess I met in pop culture who did not need rescuing. Princess Leia was a sassy, snappy role model. Come on, she talked back to Darth Vader, that's how bada** she was. That slave girl bikini might have been the defining visual for my male friends, but what I remember was how she choked Jabba the Hutt to death with the same chain that held her captive. Now that is a feminist power model if I ever saw one.

The one unifying theme that kept popping up on my social media feed last month was the comments on the unusual number of deaths last year . But was 2016 really as deadly as it seemed?

Looking back at the year's fatal headcount and recalling the most famous names that registered with me and my peers, I realised that these were the first generation of stars who burst into the pop culture firmament in the 1960s and 1970s, powered by the ubiquity of modern mass media platforms of radio, television and film.

Singers David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Leonard Cohen were the influential music makers who defined the soundtracks of the flower power generation and the age of Aquarius.

Singaporeans who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, people of my age group in other words, can sing Bowie's Under Pressure and Frey's Hotel California at the drop of a hat. And when we think of Hallelujah, it's not Jeff Buckley's silky viral version, but Cohen's cracked china voice croaking in pained revelation. We discovered their music through vinyls and cassettes, in an era when America's pop culture was the dominant superstructure of soft power for young English-educated Singaporeans who looked West for opportunities, for entertainment, for inspiration.

America, in the grip of fevered social revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, was a verdant field for pop culture. The music scene, upended by Woodstock and the flower power movement, embraced all genres from blues and soul to funk and rock. It was the era world music became a thing as the hippies looked to all things mystic and Eastern.

The movies produced everything from gritty hits such as Taxi Driver (1976) to mass appeal blockbusters such as Star Wars (1977). American television was the commercial juggernaut that presented the world with idealised Americana, like the sunny mum of The Brady Bunch, played with toothy zest by Florence Henderson who died on Nov 24, aged 82.

The effects of these films and TV shows were multiplied by the development of videos, which allowed consumers to watch their favourite shows at home, and the mushrooming of merchandising, which allowed generations of kids to grow up with their favourite stars emblazoned on everything from posters to bedsheets.

This burgeoning of mass media and merchandising produced a diverse group of celebrities, from boxing powerhouse Muhammad Ali (who died on June 3, aged 74) to Kenny Baker (the man who played R2-D2 died on Aug 13 at the grand old age of 81).

These larger-than-life personalities thrived with the first flowering of mass media, when what theorist Marshall McLuhan characterised as hot media became an industry with streamlined production and delivery processes that distributed American pop culture to every corner of the globe.

And the passing of this first wave of pop culture icons coincides with that other great leap in media - the proliferation of social media platforms which allowed fans from all corners of the globe to pour out their grief in a collective yawp online.

Death is as certain to propel a celebrity up the trending charts as scandal.

Even the venerable BBC dedicated a story to this perception that 2016 has seen more high profile deaths than preceding years, titling it, Have More Famous People Died In 2016?

In the piece, BBC's obituaries editor Nick Serpell was asked to count the number of pre-prepared obituaries that the BBC had run across its platforms. The conclusion was that there was an unusual number of deaths in the first quarter of 2016, with twice as many celebrities dying in the period of January to March compared to the same period in 2015, and five times as many as 2012.

But apart from that early spike, Serpell added that the number of deaths for the rest of the year was in line with figures from the previous five years.

Nonetheless, a graph of the BBC's obituaries did point to an increasing number of high profile deaths from 2012 to 2016, reflecting the larger pool of famous faces created by the proliferation of mass media.

The deaths of so many last year perhaps also struck my generation with extra force as it is a vivid reminder of our own mortality, as we see childhood heroes fading one by one. As more stars wink out, I am reminded of what Shakespeare wrote so eloquently: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more."

The one comforting thought, however, is that the media that made these stars shine so bright in our firmament will preserve them for new generations.


Correction note: In our earlier story, we attributed the quote on the cruellest month to Chaucer, we have corrected it to attribute it to T.S. Eliot. We apologise for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 01, 2017, with the headline 'Loss of icons in 2016'. Print Edition | Subscribe