At the back of all of our minds, tucked away somewhere dark and still, is the knowledge that death is coming. It’s a universal truth that we don’t much like to acknowledge, so we keep it hidden beneath more tangible, living-world worries – like taking a wrong turn on the way home and accidentally getting lost in Coventry or driving the wrong way down a dual carriageway (I have done both of these things and have since given up driving), but all the while, we are aware that one day we – and everyone we love – will die.
Though this is something we all know, it feels like 2016 was the year that really made us sit up and take notice. Arguably, this began with the death of David Bowie, a man that never really seemed to be of this world, an entity who appeared to exist outside of mortality, a cosmic demigod made of stardust and magic. When Bowie died, we were forced to acknowledge that our heroes were mere mortals just like us.
At the time, it felt like Bowie’s death would be the low point of the year. In bitter hindsight, we can now see it was only the beginning. Since Bowie’s death, we’ve lost a hoard of beloved musical icons who, in some way or another, felt eternal, like they would be around forever, not subject to the rules of life and death.
If there’s something positive to be taken from all of this ceaseless dying, it’s the lesson that we must appreciate our icons while they are still alive. In the days since his death, there have been outpourings of love for George Michael on social media and in the press, outpourings that were largely absent when he was alive. But of course, this is nothing new.
If we cast our minds back to 2011, we’ll remember that we lost another well-loved musician in Amy Winehouse. In the five years since her death, Winehouse has been elevated to cultural icon status, revered as a musical giant in the same vein as Janis Joplin and Sarah Vaughan, mourned and celebrated in equal measure. But let’s not forget what life was like for Winehouse in the years leading up to her death. She was ruthlessly attacked by the press who refused to give her a moment’s peace, she was made a caricature for us to laugh at, her struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction were held up for us to mock, she was the punchline of countless jokes told by bad TV comics, she was a pinata for the braying public to thrash at again and again.
Of course, when Amy died, the tide turned at farcical speed. The same newspapers who had trashed her suddenly stumbled over themselves to claim her a legend and the people who had joked about her illness fervently tweeted their sadness at her untimely demise. How little we’ve learned in the intervening years. When George Michael died on Christmas Day, Twitter was awash with journos shrieking their grief. But where were these hacks when Michael was alive? They were deriding him as a pervert, a fag and a drug addict.
Let’s fast-forward to the fateful day Rihanna or Britney or Madonna die. How quickly will the thousands of articles that slut-shamed Rih, or blamed her for being the victim of domestic violence, be swept under the carpet? How long will it take for the deluge of posts that mocked Britney’s mental health to disappear from the Internet? How eager will all those editors be to erase any of the rife ageism and misogyny from their pieces about Madonna?
While I’m not suggesting our pop stars should be immune to criticism, it’s time we recognised that picking apart their sexual endeavours and drooling over their private affairs is an ugly and hateful pastime. We must learn to appreciate our musical icons while they’re still with us instead of waiting for the news of their deaths to take to social media and profess our sadness. We’ve lost many great people this year, but let’s cherish the ones we have left – because if there’s one inconvenient truth 2016 has taught us – it’s that pop stars are mortal too.