Culture

Has 2016 really been such a terrible year?

We live in hysterical times. "Turn and face the strange," as Bowie put it.

BY Iain Martin   /  22 December 2016

I blame David Bowie, or his fans and our response to his death. The hysteria that followed his departure in January set the fashion for a year which would be deemed uniquely awful when history is littered with far worse years, such as 1916 with its blood-spattered industrialised mass warfare, or 1942 during which the Final Solution was agreed. This year barely compares in terms of horror, the calamity of Syria and terror attacks notwithstanding.

But we live in hysterical times. “Turn and face the strange,” as Bowie put it in Changes, from the 1971 album Hunky Dory.

The death of Bowie when it came was treated as a genuine tragedy. This was silly. His loss was a shock for his fans, me included, but a narrative which involves a talented man achieving potential and leading a long, happy life, spending thirty years longer on planet earth than he had any right to considering the amount of drugs he ingested in the 1970s and early 1980s, does not count as a tragedy.

Of course, with all that weeping and wailing over the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust we were mourning ourselves and ‎lost youth. It was ever thus.


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By the time the radio and television presenter Terry Wogan had followed Bowie, and then Prince, the British media class and much of Twitter was in meltdown. We hadn’t even got to Brexit or Trump winning the US election. For forty and fifty somethings in the media – in which Bowie and Prince fans are over-represented – it was by the early spring shaping up to to be a car crash year that reminded us of our mortality and general insignificance in the great cosmic shitshow.

As someone delighted by Brexit – viewing the return of self-government as one of the best things that has happened in my lifetime – I couldn’t share in the gloom after the EU referendum, although I’m very worried by the Trumpland shenanigans.‎ As I explain in a piece for The Times today, voting to leave the European Union is already having a positive impact. Merry Christmas, Happy Brexit.

‎But another odd feature of 2016 has been the tendency of those most worried by news stories to attribute a character and personality to these 12 months, as though the year has a spirit or mystical force of its own. Just the turning of the page into 2017 will banish the bad vibes and hopefully make everything a bit better. It’s an outlook that is almost pagan. Or perhaps it is essentially Christian in the way the turning of the seasons – punctuated by festivals (pagan in origin) ‎- offer us hope, which we all need or there’s not much point putting one foot in front of the other. I’ll leave the musing on religion to Bruce Anderson, who has promised to write on spiritual questions and the magic of Christmas for the site tomorrow.‎ He keeps it quiet, but as well as being a magnificent writer on politics and wine he does a good line on religion, and art. We want more of all on this site – Reaction – next year.

Anyway… the current cluster of celebrity deaths, not unique to 2016, is easy to explain. In the 1960s and 1970s, changes in media and music and the spread of television created far more scope for the creation of celebrities‎ and they could become bigger figures in our lives. There was more media. And advertising, particularly, became skilled at exploiting our emotions and meeting our needs (or fooling us into thinking it had). Those new stars that emerged to front all this product – musicians, actors and numerous television personalities – were in their twenties, or thirties, when they became famous. Forty years later they were bound to be in or near the departure lounge. This clustering has fooled us into thinking that there is some weird force at work (the spooky power of 2016 again) cutting down lots of people we recognise. No, it is just normal life.

Of course, fame and our fixation on it is hardly new. The Victorians had music hall stars, referred to in the popular press, and famous authors, but television, radio, cinema, advertising and modern public relations from the 1960s onwards put at the disposal of someone as skilled as Bowie an extraordinary machine for reaching people and defining and controlling self-image. He did this, as the Beatles had done just before him, at a point when young consumers – newly affluent – were interested in their own identities and found it in music, fashion, ideas and lifestyle choices. Bowie understood all this better than any star performer of his era. He used the techniques of the 20th century demagogue to practice and promote his art. I will always be grateful he did.