Surprisingly, there’s little information to indicate that 2016 was a particularly deadly year for artists and performers. For instance, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that organizes the Oscars and its famous “In Memoriam” segment, lists fewer Academy members’ deaths in 2016 than it has in past years, notes The Wrap. Snopes.com also conducted an analysis of “notable death” stories published in several news outlets from 2013 to 2016 and found that, in fact, 2016 did not have a high number of celebrity deaths compared to recent previous years.
Instead, the “Fuck you, 2016” sentiment is likely just a collective feeling, borne by social media, that this was “the worst year ever” when it came to the deaths of global icons like Prince, Muhammad Ali, John Glenn, and other figures who made a lasting cultural impact in the U.S. and around the world.
But there are some good reasons we believe we’re witnessing a kind of explosion of celebrity deaths, explains Joshua Gamson, a sociologist of celebrity culture at the University of San Francisco and a Gen-Xer who said he was deeply affected by the loss of prominent stars and role models.
Absent any real information that “more” celebrities died in 2016, as compared to 2015 or 2014, Gamson suspects that our collective sense of dismay and sadness is not due to the sheer volume of celebrity deaths, but a complex mix of destabilizing current events and an ever-connected social media ecosystem that updates us instantly on the latest news while also creating a public space for people to commiserate and mourn.
Here are some of the reasons Gamson believes 2016 was a remarkable ― though statistically average ― year for celebrity deaths.
1. The “supply” of celebrities exponentially increased in the 1970s.
During Hollywood’s Golden Age, an era that lasted roughly from the 1920s to the 1950s, America’s celebrities were largely film stars highly controlled by a studio system that created their personas as well as distributed their movies. Studio executives meddled in personal relationships and dictated physical appearance, all in an effort to control a star’s public image. For example, a studio executive changed Reynolds’ name from Frannie to Debbie against her will.
That all changed with the collapse of the studio system and the emergence of independent celebrity media, says Gamson. From the 1970s on, the celebrity news industry became more decentralized, ushering in more outlets for celebrity content and more platforms for people to become visible (People Magazine launched in 1974, for example).
“If there’s a sense of more famous people dying, that’s partly because there’s a phenomenon of more celebrity supply from a certain period of time that is now reaching middle age and late middle age.”
“As the celebrity industry got more and more decentralized and there were more and more outlets for celebrity information, there were more avenues for people to be visible and be talked about,” said Gamson. “If there’s a sense of more famous people dying, that’s partly because there’s a phenomenon of more celebrity supply from a certain period of time that is now reaching middle age and late middle age.”
2. What it means to be a “celebrity” is constantly changing.
What it meant to be a “celebrity” became more diverse during this time as well. TV programming matured in the 1960s and 1970s, bringing a new crop of highly visible performers to the forefront. In addition to actors, they included musicians, athletes, politicians and other figures whose deaths will be of public interest.
“If you’re thinking of the supply side of celebrity, then when those conditions change and there are more people that you know of who can reveal that they’re mortal, it feels like there’s more death,” Gamson said.
And history continues to repeat itself. With the explosion of celebrity news sources on the internet in the 2000s and 2010s, the diffusion of news across multiple social media platforms, and the expansion of what it meant to be a “celebrity,” Gamson predicts that in 25 to 30 years, the pop culture-consuming world will make similar proclamations about how 2041 and beyond will feel like the “worst year ever” for celebrity deaths.
“In terms of what we have now with internet celebrities, niche celebrities and micro celebrities, I think people will feel in 30 years that, ‘Oh my god, there’s more celebrities that have died this year than ever,’” Gamson predicted.
3. Genuinely awful real-world events compound a collective sense of doom.
The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah said it best: “This was the year that started with Zika and then went bad.” Global, massively destabilizing tragedies this year include the Syrian refugee crisis, in which 10 million Syrians have either fled the country or been internally displaced due to civil war that started in 2011. The Great Barrier Reef experienced the greatest mass bleaching on record, terrorist attacks continued throughout the Western world, the United Kingdom dismayed many by voting to leave the European Union, and the first woman with a real shot at winning the American presidency won the popular vote but lost the election.
“You’re already experiencing this sort of sense that ‘the world that I know is falling apart,’” said Gamson. “These deaths have been on top of other painful things of 2016.”
4. Social media pulls us closer to the news and then deepens our mourning period.
In a pre-Facebook trends or pre-Twitter era, you may had heard about the death of a famous person on the evening news, or read about it in a newspaper the next morning. These days we’re getting real-time updates on social media about Carrie Fisher having a heart attack, and lightning-fast internet news tells us her mother was taken to a hospital just minutes after that happens, said Gamson.
Once a celebrity dies, the tributes come pouring in on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as people share video clips of well-known performances, make memes commemorating their life and contributions, and post anecdotes about a time they were touched by a star’s generosity or performance.
“There’s something to the way we encounter the information that’s different ― how quickly it circulates, how quick it was for me to find out Carrie Fisher has died,” Gamson said. “And to see all these people in my networks responding to it makes it feel like a bigger event than it might have felt like 20 or 25 years ago.”