Why the deaths of Prince, Bowie and others in 2016 are so shocking

Prince“No, no, no, no!” On learning that Prince had died unexpectedly at just 57, the response of almost everyone I know yesterday was the same.

It was awful news. It was a complete and utter shock. It seemed faintly unreal. That it was just the latest in a seeming unending line of celebrity deaths in 2016 merely compounded the hurt.

David Bowie, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood to name but a few.

But why are these deaths so shocking? In Prince and Victoria Wood’s cases it was their relative youth (57 and 62 respectively), but that could hardly be said of Ronnie Corbett or Terry Wogan.

The simple reason is this: for a generation of 30-50-somethings, our childhood and adolescent memories and heroes are being eviscerated.


Childhood is a time when we rarely think about the future. It’s filled with innocence and freedom, so memories of childhood heroes remind us of a time when everything in life seemed so much easier. Whether we really were happy when we were watching The Two Ronnies or listening to Wake Up With Wogan is irrelevant.

Making sense of the world

As for music, it plays an enormously important role in how we grow up. It allows us to make sense of a world at a time when so much else is changing. We change physically and emotionally at such an alarming and unexpected rate, so having someone or something to act as a constant and help you pick a path through is crucial.

Music also helps you to achieve identity and acceptance within your peer group. Not for nothing was the weekly conversation about the previous night’s Top Of The Pops a vital part of the school day on Fridays, when I was growing up.

We could be heroes…

Many of the deaths we’ve seen in 2016 have also been people we idolised when we were young.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, many of us lived (to quote Henry Thoreau) “quiet lives of desperation”. We didn’t know where we were going, or how we would get there. We were stuck – it seemed – in a suburban nightmare with no obvious escape route.

The likes of Bowie, Prince and Victoria Wood each inspired us in their own way. They showed us possibilities. They made us believe we could achieve.

Heroes – for this is what they were – help to define the limits of our own aspirations. They’re symbols for us of all the qualities we’d love to possess and all the hopes and dreams we’d like to realise.

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