Youth Culture's Heroes are Dying: So What Happens to Our Everlasting Youth Now?

26/04/2016 16:19

How many times have I seen "Stop it, 2016!" in the past few weeks? Graphs showing the upsurge in celebrity death, memes about George R. R. Martin writing the year, demands to put all sorts of international treasures in cotton wool. But shouldn't we be ready for this? Didn't we realise it was coming? In the 60s youth culture was born; it exploded into life and took over the world, remaking us in its own image. It never grew up, it refused to - it was youth embodied after all. But youth culture's heroes and heroines sadly aren't immune to death. So, grown up or not, the representatives of our culture are starting to die.

It's a brutal blow. The first generation of international celebrities on a large scale are reaching that crucial viable-dieable age. There are lots of them, and they're getting old. If you think 2016 is a killer, I dread to think what 2017 will bring: it's only going to get worse as we go from here. But, to make it more punishing still, these people represent youth at its most invigorating and vital - the concept of them getting old at all is a shock. How could David Bowie or Prince really die? They were still burning the midnight oil, fulfilling their creative passions, they were still making music to shock and subvert, they were still sexy.

Maybe young people in the 50s knew how to grow up and die with dignity. They weren't still gigging and groupie-ing when they reached middle age; they were putting their slippers on and planning for retirement. The mass outpouring of grief for these Peter Pans feels like we're still being their groupies to the grave: crowding round 'stage exit' for a personal connection, the ability to say we were there and touched by greatness. The children of youth culture were taught we never had to grow out of these things, of this need. And as we can't let go of our own need for youth, how can we possibly accept that theirs is gone forever?

I never used to understand the sense of mourning or loss for a celebrity. More than that - it made me angry. Busy mourning more personal losses in my life, I was irritated when people expressed sadness at the death of someone they didn't know, and probably had never met. "You're not mourning them!" I wanted to shout, "You're mourning for yourself! You're not sad for the loss of Michael Jackson, you're sad you're not a teenager any more! You're sad that you're getting old and one day you'll die too!" I thought it was an insult and a slight to the family and friends that truly loved whoever it was, that we would dare disturb them with our sham grief and empty sadness.

But is that kind of mourning really not valid? Don't we need this? To mourn for ourselves? To mourn for our youth? To mourn for how the world is changing? To mourn for the future too?

I certainly haven't been immune to the shock and sadness in 2016's brutal onslaught. With Bowie my own laziness made me sad, that I had never made the effort to see him play live, with Victoria Wood I was deeply nostalgic for my childhood, and I was finally brought to tears reading a personal eulogy on the BBC, when I hit the words "Now I'll never get to take my kids to see Prince." In fact, will my kids even get the chance to have their own Prince? With a music industry so depleted, will new talent like that ever get the support to shine? I was mourning for the world, for the future.

And the real future of course, is our own death. However much youth culture is part of our blood. However much the entertainment of our time has convinced us that we can be young forever; we can resist the clichés of growing up, we can style ourselves, or keep up with new music, or burn the midnight oil on our own creative passions. However much we want to believe we're still sexy, it's coming. We may not have known the people we're mourning, the loss of those individuals may not be as personal as we want to believe. But the heroes of youth culture are starting to die, and with them our own pretensions of an everlasting youth. So maybe the universal mourning couldn't be more appropriate.