Our society is short-sighted. We believe our culture is perpetual, that the culture we love and the art we enjoy will always be there. It’s hard to see the bigger picture. But then 2016 was defined by a pervasive feeling that the ‘bigger picture’, our pop culture, was falling apart.
Popular culture as we know it is a new invention. It’s closely tied to the idea of celebrity which, again, only became what we know it as in the mid to late 20th century. What we are seeing now is the end of the first wave of pop culture, Pop Culture 1.0. The actors, singers and creatives who made it are beginning to die.
We may believe that 2016 was a year defined by celebrity deaths, but in a few years it’ll be the norm. The fact is that the vast majority of our culture, and specifically our culture that we hold dear, be it Star Wars or ‘Hotel California’, was produced in the last fifty years. With both Glenn Frey and Carrie Fisher gone, 2016 made sure The Eagles would never again play their signature song, and Princess Leia would never lead another rebellion. The question is, how long can art survive before it becomes irrelevant?
Nothing is more central to pop culture than pop music. The original popular music was Rock n’ Roll before the softer Pop music came along. The Beatles weren’t the first band to be hugely popular, but they were one of the first to ascend music, and become a part of the wider culture, as so many have come to do since.
The loss of Bowie, Prince and George Michael is not just a tragedy for their fans, it forces us to contemplate a wider question. How long can the culture we cherish last? ‘Let It Be’, Thriller, Purple Rain, how long will they be relevant? It’s easy to accept that these works are huge and will always be huge. But when we finally reach the point where all those who had creative control over them are dead, how will they be able to withstand and live on, in a society always looking to the next fad?
Some things are timeless. You can still see a performance of The Tempest or hear the music of Bach & Handel. I honestly believe that fifty years from now, people will still think Prince was a cool guy, and arty kids from Brixton will still worship their local hero Bowie.
But the fact is that music isn’t innovating like it once did. If we want to truly honour the memory of our cultural heroes, we need to make a break from them. We need new artists who can take our culture forward. Instead of looking to find stand-ins for the innovators who got us here, we need talented people who can visualise something completely new.