Leonard Cohen: website DeathList predicts who might be next
There is an explanation for the seemingly large number of high-profile deaths this year
Leonard Cohen: the death of a celebrity used to be mentioned at the end of the news or in an obituary. Today’s media has changed that. Photograph: David Wolff-Patrick/Getty Images
You don’t need me to tell you that we’re living in strange, troubling times. Yet anyone hoping to wash up to shore from this week’s vicious news cycle was left wanting. As news of Leonard Cohen’s death broke, the tweets were inevitable: “Wake me up when 2016 ends.” “Can’t it be New Year’s Eve already?”
With Cohen the latest celebrity to die in 2016, we seem to have weathered enough misery to last a decade. Starting with David Bowie in the first fortnight of January, there appears to have been a strangely cruel – not to mention bizarrely rigorous – death sweep across the celebrity world: Victoria Wood, Terry Wogan, Paul Daniels, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Caroline Ahern . . . the list is as illustrious as it is lengthy.
A bizarre new website, the DeathList, is predicting which star might be next to die; British national treasures such as Gordon Banks, Prince Philip and Bruce Forsyth feature on the chilling list. It has caused controversy but given people’s appetite for the macabre, the site’s popularity looks set to run and run.
Is it mere coincidence? Has the Grim Reaper got his scythe back from the repair shop? There is, as it happens, an explanation for the seemingly disproportionate number of high-profile deaths this year. The simple truth is that there are more high-profile, global celebrities around to die.
Fifty years ago, celebrity culture was non-existent, save for Hollywood’s rarefied denizens or London stage stars. Pop culture proper exploded in the 1960s, resulting in the birth of several rock ’n’roll stars, sporting heroes and TV actors, and their appeal was airborne. Where once their celebrity was contained within their home country, their influence started to spread across the world.
And the first wave of those celebrities – the Baby Boomers who broke from the path of convention to dedicate their lives to art, fame or music – are now reaching their 70s and 80s.
Time once was, too, that the death of an eminent celebrity was mentioned on the news, at the end, or in a newspaper obituary. Today’s media means we have a closer attachment to these celebrities than we did years ago. And, paradoxically, the mass shock of another celebrity death doesn’t abate.
And so the “theatre” of celebrity death carries on for days, starting with Facebook tributes and continuing with lengthy, polemic think-pieces. Clicks are king and so celebrity death has, for the most part, been shunted right to the top of the news agenda.
Happens to us all
Facebook and Twitter users are also among the first generations to truly indulge in celebrity fandom. The art that stars such as Bowie, Prince and now Cohen created has been truly loved by people in ways that music wasn’t appreciated in generations before. Terry Wogan and Caroline Ahern evoked affection in people like so few before them.
As Séamus O’Mahony (author of The Way We Die Now) noted in an interview: “We’ve made celebrities into quasi-religious gods. And no-one expects a god to die.”
Come to think of it, celebrity deaths reflect a particularly bizarre facet of humankind: we are shocked, overwhelmed and scared of the very thing that will happen to all of us. Because we now expect to live well into old age, we have a cultural taboo around death that makes it feel so very far away.
Coupled with the sense that medicine can fix just about everything and we feel it’s a matter of time before all diseases are cured, death becomes even more jarringly unknowable. But death is the one thing that science can’t cure. And no amount of fame or money will inure us. Whether celebrity or civilian, death will come for us in the end.