The sheer number—and status—of the celebrity deaths that have piled up over the past 12 months would be farcical if they weren’t so tragic: music icons Prince, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie; sports legends Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe and Arnold Palmer; not to mention major political figures like former first lady Nancy Reagan, and Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister and president. Since Christmas Day alone, fans have mourned the loss of music star George Michael, Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame, and Debbie Reynolds, a movie icon immortalized in the film Singin’ in the Rain, who died just one day after Fisher, her daughter.
But if you thought 2016 was a bad year for celebrity deaths, just wait until 2017.
“There’s going to be more and more, and it’s going to feel like ‘oh, another one,’ ” says Jacque Lynn Foltyn, a sociology professor at National University in San Diego, Calif., who studies celebrities and their deaths. “It starts losing its uniqueness.”
After the death of both Bowie and Prince, there was so much talk among Linnea Crowther’s social-media circle about it being an especially bad year for celebrity deaths that she opted to look at all the notable deaths dating back to 2010 to see if this year was an outlier. Crowther had a pretty good database to work with, given that she is the celebrity obituary writer for Legacy.com, a website dedicated to obituaries.
When she compiled the data, she found there was indeed an uptick in celebrity deaths for 2016, and that celebs were in fact dying younger compared to previous years; the average age of the late celebrities was in their early 70s. “We don’t expect someone at 69 to die like David Bowie,” Crowther says. “We don’t want to die at 69. We don’t want our parents to die at 69. It’s a little young, but it’s not unfathomably young to die at 69.”
While her selection of who was or wasn’t a celebrity is admittedly subjective, her data included various tiers of celebrities, from household names like Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird who died in February, to those notable for their work rather than their name. “You might not know of the top of your head who Paul Kantner was, but when I tell you he was a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, you’re likely to have heard of his major credit,” she says. (Kantner died in January.)
Crowther hasn’t finished her study for all of 2016—a jocular GoFundMe page to raise funds to “help protect [94-year-old TV star] Betty White from 2016” reflects the no-celeb-is-safe mentality, even with mere days left before 2017. But her update in the fall tallied 71 celebrity deaths as of Sept. 30, which was more than any full calendar year dating back to 2010 (and with three months still to go at the time). But while she acknowledges the number of celebrity obituaries she’s written this year is much higher than average, she also predicts it could become the new normal.
“I would have to say this is the beginning of a trend, rather than a crazy unusual year,” says Crowther. “There are so many more celebrities.”
Indeed, there are logical reasons for why 2016 has felt like a deluge of prominent deaths. Celebrity culture found a bigger platform in the 1960s, in part because of the “New Hollywood” wave of American cinema, which occurred around the same time of the popularization of the colour TV.
“Beginning in about the 1960s, there was a real spike in the number of celebrities,” Crowther says. “The Boomer generation made idols out of music and TV stars in a number that had never happened before. Those people who became stars in the 1950s and 1960s are starting to get older.”
Think of some of the movie megastars of the 1970s: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall. And that’s just members of the cast of The Godfather: Part II. They are all now in their seventies or eighties, while the current life expectancy for an average American is about 79 years old. (Which is not, for the record, to suggest that any of these actors will die anytime soon.)
And while Prince’s life was cut short this year at the age of 57, the average pop star—male or female—will die approximately 15 to 25 years younger than the average age of death of the U.S. population, according to a 2014 Australian study. Since 1950, the study found, the most frequent age of death for notable musicians was 56 years old. (A “56 Club,” however, doesn’t have quite the same ring as the “27 Club.”)
Meanwhile, since the early 1950s, the U.S. population has doubled to about 320 million, and celebrities have only become more internationally recognized during that time thanks to the amplifying powers of the Internet and social media. That means with each death—even for celebrities who might not have been big stars at the time of their passing—“all you need to do is go online and you can immediately become part of a collective group of mourners,” says Foltyn. “I think some people are actually mourning the person, but other people who aren’t even familiar with that person get caught up in a collective behaviour. It’s an event; I call it a mourn-athon.” Even if someone isn’t familiar with the late musician or actor, they are only a few clicks away from listening to a compilation of their greatest hits or watching one of their classic movie roles.
But for how long can this keep up? Foltyn predicts there will always be an outpouring of grief and plenty of news coverage for the deaths of icons like David Bowie. But she says the public could soon become desensitized to the many influx of celebrity deaths from TV and movie history.
“It’s like anything you see a lot of,” she says. “You get tired of it.”