This has been a terrible year for celebrity Baby Boomers. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, then Victoria Wood and Prince in the space of two days… From Newsnight to Facebook, the media are awash with tears and tributes. As the BBC noted on 22 April, ‘It now seems rare for a week to pass without a significant celebrity death being reported… “Enough, 2016” and a more vulgar alternative are phrases people are uttering more and more regularly’.
It is hardly surprising that this wave of sudden deaths has thrown everyone into a tizzy. These were real talents, quite different performers, and, for many, formative influences. If Prince wasn’t your cup of tea, you may have rather enjoyed being beaten on the bottom by Wood’s Woman’s Weekly.
And these celebrity Boomers were also, by today’s standards, quite young. In a society that has become preoccupied by the problem of longevity, and worries continually about the impact of having increasing numbers of people in their seventies and eighties, it is a genuine shock when people do not make it past 69. It reminds us (as it should) that when policymakers bleat about the ‘burden’ of pensions and elder care, they are assuming that the final alternative is somehow preferable. It really isn’t. Increased longevity, with all the challenges it might bring, is a good thing – and it shouldn’t take premature death to remind us of that.
But there is something else about the recent Boomer deaths that seems to be giving us pause. As the once-new faces of the 1960s and 1970s begin to shuffle off this mortal coil, the spirit of the Sixties seems to be retiring as well. This leaves us with a fear that we will never see another Bowie, Prince or even Wood – not because of any dearth of new talent, but because the moment that gave rise to the Sixties generation, and which nurtured the experimental non-conformity of Bowie and Prince, or Wood’s affectionate piss-taking of British life and its conventions, has passed.
The culture we have now is in many ways more brash and shrill, but it generally promotes an ersatz experimentation – one which demands that everyone swears a lot and does weird things with their bodies and clothes, and not much more besides. That is not to say (as middle-aged people are wont to do) that everything is rubbish now and things were much better back when they were young; in any generation, there are creative people and new opportunities. But the wider social and cultural context shapes this talent, and gives it meaning and import.