The real reason so many celebrities have died in 2016

Twenty-sixteen looked set to be a pretty dire year as far as celebrity deaths are concerned going in to the festive period. That’s before George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Liz Smith really put the nail in the…. well, you get where I’m going.

There’s no denying that there has been a notable upsurge in the number of notable deaths this year. David Bowie, Prince, Harper Lee, Alan Rickman, Nancy Reagan, Muhammad Ali, Sir George Martin, Victoria Wood, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Frey, Sir Terry Wogan, Frank Kelly, Tony Warren, Paul Daniels, Ronnie Corbett, Denise Robertson, David Gest, Carla Lane, Anton Yelchin, Caroline Aherne, Kenny Baker, Shimon Peres, Jean Alexander, Jimmy Perry, Pete Burns, Sir Jimmy Young, Fidel Castro, Andrew Sachs, AA Gill, Ian McCaskill, Michael Nicholson, Zsa Zsa Gabor have all passed and will all be sorely missed.

The big question to begin with is, were there actually more celebrity deaths in 2016 than in other years?

The simple answer is yes, but it’s a tricky issue. First of all, it’s hard to quantify “notable celebrity deaths” given that the former two words are subjective. The BBC counted the number of pre-prepared obituaries that ran across radio, TV and online in 2016 and found a big increase compared to other years, but that figure dipped to “normal” levels and peaked to “above normal” levels at different periods of the year, suggesting that it is less a trend and more a coincidence.

And then there’s the nature of fame in a mass media culture – ie, the theory that there were more deaths because there are now more celebrities. Many studies into this particularly morbid year have concluded that it is broadly in line with the evolution of mass communication. Charlotte McDonald, for example, found that the number of celebrity deaths in 2016 is partially a result of the half a century on from the flourishing of both TV and pop culture in the 1960s, which massively expanded the overall pool of public figures.

We also must account for the role social media has played in amplifying these deaths, which has added a personal layer of attachment to people we don’t know but feel we had a connection to. Alongside the twenty four hour news cycle this has created a sort of  virtual memorial service in which people can speak openly about death and thus intensify the attention we pay to it.

Still, with these factors taken into account, it is easy to see a common denominator among the increase in celebrity deaths – admittedly one that many people may not wish to highlight – and that is a notable trend of drug and alcohol abuse among baby boomers who came to fame in an age of spiritual hedonism.

Many of the celebrities in focus this year experienced the tie-dye, sit-ins and large-scale drug use of the 1960s, or the glamorous cocaine binge of the 70s and 80s in which celebs almost became promotional figures for drugs.

Carrie Fisher and George Michael both battled drug addiction. As did Bowie, Prince and most other performers that made it to fame in an era when cocaine was the fuel of the music industry.

As London gets caught up in yet another ‘age of cocaine’, surely we’d be foolish to not highlight the common denominator amongst some of the celebrities which have sadly passed away this year? Tests conducted in March of this year showed the average weekday concentration of cocaine in London’s wastewater was 949.3mg per 1,000 people per day – making London the cocaine capital of Europe. What’s more, it shows a dramatic increase year-on-year of the number of people taking the recreational drug.

There are of course many disparate reasons why so many celebrities have died in 2016, but there is one common denominator which we should not be ashamed to highlight in order to stem the number of people using drugs and potentially meeting the same fate.

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2 Responses

  1. Dr Mike Sutton (Supermythbuster)

    Dr Karl Kruszelnicki in “50 Shades of Grey Matter” argues this is a delusion. More celebrities are not dying due to any other reason than the fact that there are so many more of the than there used to be and that social media and websites – such as this one – keeps their death in the forefront of out minds far longer than in the past

  2. Babyboomers were mentioned in the article, but only in connection with drug abuse and death. But wouldn’t it be more reasonable to assume that after more births after the war (WWII) means more celebrities later on and more over-65 year olds passing on. I haven’t checked the ages of the ones listed in the article, but it seemed to me that I was recognizing many of the newly deceased (as a babyboomer too).

    Many of this age group did not have the advantage of knowledge about nutrition, or the availability of it postwar, to be able to grow up resisting illness and disease. That’s not to say, however, that many more boomers have not lived on, and long enough to acknowledge the passing of certain members of their cohort who became well-known – ‘celebrities’ in today’s jargon – but in fact, some of the most talented actors and singers.

    Drugs may well have been part of the lifestyle, for many, but I do believe it is today’s generation x and the millennials who are more likely to have gone overboard in this respect.

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