2016 was a year that teemed with memorable moments, from the Cubs winning a World Series for the first time in over a century to a grueling election season with results that–to put it mildly–proved divisive to American citizens. Perhaps the most surprising facet of the sixteenth year of the new millennium came not from the annals of sports or politics, but pop culture. Last year was deemed “The Year of Death,” as an unusual number of actors and musicians passed from this world. Many of these people were not of the character actor, “where have I seen this guy before” variety, but titanic icons whose names conjure immediate images: David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, George Michael.
And, of course, Carrie Fisher, who passed away in the final week of 2016 after suffering a massive heart attack.
I am an honest man, and I am not ashamed to tell you that I teared up several times that day when I heard the news. It wasn’t just me; countless others poured their love for the woman behind Princess Leia throughout social media, sharing their thoughts on their favorite scenes, her best performances, and personal interactions. Players on The Old Republic even held a vigil at the video game version of Leia’s home.
From an outsider’s perspective it seems a bit bizarre, perhaps a little crazy. Why would anyone care about the passing of a celebrity– a person who holds no role in our lives, never called our names nor supped at our dining table? Why mourn somebody you never even knew?
Some would argue that it is the product of a society that worships celebrity, that our culture is obsessed with the lifestyles of the rich and famous to the point that we attach a piece of ourselves to these personalities in a vain attempt to live vicariously in their opulent world. In part this may be true; we are, after all, a nation of people who react with fervor every time that Kim Kardashian posts a selfie on Instagram.
It is more likely, however, that we mourn the passing of a celebrity not because we desire to connect with their world, but because the celebrities form connections to our own reality through their art.
We are all affected by art in grandiose and subtle ways. It inspires us, thrills us and even influences our critical thinking. And art not only comes in framed works and marble sculptures at the museum; we are surrounded by it in ways we don’t even recognize. David Bowie gave you the courage to pick up a guitar, but it was the golden brown latticework on the top of your grandmother’s apple pie that inspired you to don an apron and bake your first cake from scratch. It was Alan Rickman’s nuanced performances that motivated you to audition for community theater, but it was seeing your father’s passion for rebuilding that old Mustang that lead to your career in engineering.
Your preacher’s eloquently crafted sermon moved you to volunteer at the homeless shelter, but it was Carrie Fisher that taught you that you can be a flawed human being and still save the galaxy.
When an artist dies, we are forced to recall the lasting impression that their works have made on our lives, the memories and the lessons. We remember the first time we saw Princess Leia on the big screen, standing up to Darth Vader, and we think, “that was the first time that I was shown that a female can be both a damsel in distress and a hero at the same time.” We also think of our departed grandmother and our mouths fill with the taste of her pie. The artist may be gone but the work they left behind endures as long as there are people who cherish, study and learn from it.
So yes, it is ok if you shed a tear, or get choked up a little, when the death of someone famous stirs up emotions inside you. They may never be your friends, nor your family, but their works are the blood that bonds you together.
In memory of everyone–famous or not–that passed in 2016.
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