2016. CNN has posted an article that there have been worse years for celebrity deaths, but I think they are failing to understand this 2016 issue in the way that they failed to understand the 2016 election. The emotional outpouring, the memes, and the “Thanks 2016” posts may have less to do with celebrity death , and more to do with Generation X's angst. We all sit at the doorway to 2017. I have to come to grips with the fact that this next year will be the year I, as the caboose of Generation X, will be turning 40. My skin has spots it never had before, my hair is beginning to reflect the bathroom light from increasing silver strands, my eyes are a duller shade of brown, and I am running out of time to ever have the ability to grow a full beard. Somedays, I have to stare at myself in the mirror for a long time until I see the truth of what the decades have done to me. I am graying, and for a member of a generation that prided itself on eternal, snarky youth, that is hard to digest. I have 3 kids, all born in this new century. I teach high school history to a group of students who are 2 generations removed from my own, with my last born in the 20th Century class about to graduate. I teach a “History of the 1980's” class and run a blog about 1988 because it is ancient history to the young people in front of me that cannot fathom a world without internet access and cell phones.
I was born in 1977, the end of Generation X and the beginning of the Millennials. I grew up in a world of expensive VCR's that you had to rent, Saturday Morning cartoon blocks, and Ronald Reagan. I remember where I was sitting in 3rd grade when the Challenger exploded, and being broken by the series finale of “Family Ties”. Some studies say I could be a millennial. I look at the Millennials and their reliance on cooperative work, organic products, and hipster radiance and I don't feel like I belong to them. I was too old to grow up on Nickelodeon's child programming, instead being forged by its earlier, subversive, Canadian Nickelodeon syndication like "You Can't Do That on Television". I have defined memories of where I was at during the first airing of the "Thriller" video, and the fear I felt of a Soviet invasion after watching promos for "Amerika". I am a member of Generation X, and my heart has been ripped out in 2016.
I read a comment on Facebook the other day that questioned why we should care so much that someone like Carrie Fisher, with her drug problems, and her fatalistic behavior, had died. They asked the same question about George Michael and Prince. Each weekend there are countless deaths around the nation and the world; protesters, civilians, cops, military, children. I have spent the last few days struggling with that very important question. "Why did I well up with tears in the Missouri History Museum in St Louis when I overheard someone say that Carrie Fisher had passed on?" Part of the reason, is that I happened to be standing in front of a display case of 1970's toys ( a saddening fact that already had me emotional, seeing the toys I played with in countless 1970's church and bowling alley nurseries behind glass) that contained the original Princess Leia figure. I had just been explaining to my 7 year old daughter why the white paint on Leia, Luke, and the Storm Trooper had faded to brown. "We all get a little faded as we turn 40", I joked. Then, within that same minute, the real Princess Leia was gone.
I had met Ms. Fisher once at Indianapolis Comic Con, took a picture with her, celebrated the glitter head print she left on my nephew's shirt, and yelled how much I loved her as she walked away after her speech. "I love you too", she yelled back. That was my one meeting with the actual Carrie Fisher. We never had lunch together, or called each other to see what we were doing next weekend. Carrie never sent me cards when I was sick, and I was certainly not someone she called for advice on all of the wonderful movies that she helped write through her long and amazing career. So, why do I weep for her and feel so broken? Why do I long for one more moment and just one more film from Gene Wilder or Abe Vigoda? Why do I need to hear David Bowie or Prince again? Why did I need to drive to Kentucky to stand at the fresh grave of Muhammad Ali ? I have known tangible people that have died this year; fathers of friends, daughters of friends. These deaths were tragic for my friends. These were men, women, and children who were ripped from their families; people that I met, ate meals with, and shared memories with. Believe me when I tell you that I grieved for my friends. Yet, here I was in a museum feeling an intense level of grief for Carrie Fisher. Why? Is it silly? Is it pathetic? I have come to the conclusion, that these celebrities were our time keepers, and their deaths signify a mass awakening of Generation X to our mortality.
Hear me out on this dear readers. X has been and always will be a generation who was by-and- large ignored by the larger society. We are one of the smallest generations born in the last century. I once heard someone say that this may be due to the fact that we are the first generation born during the advent of the birth control pill and legalized abortion. We are smashed between the revolutionary Baby Boomers and the boundary pushing Millennials. We were born into a world where strong leaders who symbolized hope were being assassinated and our parents witnessed friends going off to fight and die in Vietnam. Our parents could not shield us from the realities that the Soviet Union was closing in and the global economy was in a freefall. The condition of the world of the 60's and 70's was not ripe for the hope and optimism of having babies. The economy being the way it was, both parents went to work and brand new cable TV’s were at our disposal without limits. Divorce rates rose, single parent households became a regular touchstone of our lives. Our generation was to be the guinea pig in the world that was left to us by the Baby Boomers. We would be the first generation to grow up in a post segregation world, and the last generation to live in a world dominated by 3 channels of television. We grew up in an era that saw the first push for consumer and workplace safety. This transition was probably most felt by us as the last generation to grow up with steel playground equipment and the ability to ride in cars without seatbelts. We have been called a cynical generation and a latchkey generation. More than our Baby Boomer parents,or maybe because of our baby boomer parents, we were raised on television and mass media on a scale that was unprecedented in American history. We were the first 24/7 mass media consumers.
I know that today, technology is everywhere and studies have shown that my modern Generation Z students have a 7 second attention span from their constant media diets. However, members of Generation X were initiated into the idea that you could program news, music, entertainment, and sports on a constant rotation. Yes, we spent an abundance of time outside playing the games of the previous generations, but when we came back inside the choices were endless. We were the generation that played the first home video games and who could watch movies that used to only show in theaters, over and over and over on our VHS devices. The music that had once been accessible only in record stores and on the radio( if you were willing to wait for your favorite song) was now pumping out of MTV all day. We had computers and portable walkmans. Our toys were sold to us through cartoons, Scholastic book orders, lunch boxes, breakfast cereals, albums, greeting cards, and every imaginable means of grabbing our attention for the next big thing. I am talking about He-Man, GI Joe, Thundercats, Pound Puppies, Cabbage Patch Kids, and the a long list of synergy products.
I would argue that our biggest contribution to mass culture was our willingness to absorb every aspect of what was being thrown at us. We were willing to gobble it up, and the producers were willing to sell it to us on every last product vehicle they could. Look at the marketing of ET that even included the infamous Atari game( which sits in my classroom display case next to Pac-Man to show the ying and yang of the early gaming industry). We embraced all of the good stuff and much of the bad stuff. We were searching for identity in a brand new world that had thrown off the old traditions and identities. We were a rudderless generation that drifted from The Brady Bunch to Kiss to the A-Team and Pee Wee Herman. In the absence of structure in the world, while the adults searched for themselves in cults, and New Right/ New Left politics, we found structure and value in John Hughes films and New Wave music. How often do members of our generation get together and carry on entire conversations in movie lines from Airplane and Blazing Saddles? The Reagan boom of the 80’s turned our anti-capitalist baby boomer parents into rabid consumers and investors. Those parents bestowed the gift of independence on those of us who would become helicopter parents, and a steady stream of pop cultural access.
The reality of why these deaths have been so hard on us may be in the fact that we are the last generation to share a unified vision of mass culture. Today’s kids have a million different choices of options to keep them entertained. They have their own tastes and their own favorite youtube stars. Social Media has made them independent consumers, critics, directors, photographers, and program directors. We are splintered. Our generation listened to the music we were given, watched the television programs that were available complete with commercials, and reenacted the movies that everyone was watching. Is there anyway Back to the Future would last in the theaters for 4 months today? The things we knew about the world came from homogenized news programs on the 3 networks which in turn fed our parent’s discussions of the economy, global events, and politics. We lived in a world of common conversations about what happened on TV last night and what video to watch on MTV. In a world where the grown ups were not talking about AIDS, we were learning about the virus from episodes of “Mr Belvedere”. We all played with the same toys and took advice from the same TV dads. These characters took on a life of their own in our minds, as we invited them into our homes. The stories they told were stories that could help us relate to our friends at school and help us feel like we belonged to a bigger culture in a world that was rapidly changing. These icons were the glue that held a fractured society together. Despite our differences on issues like Apartheid and Affirmative Action, we could all talk about Michael Jackson. Despite the fear of nuclear winter, we could all find comfort in the commonality of The Cosby Show. These pieces of culture were larger than life. They were our Greek legends, stories and images we would pass down to our kids. How many times have my kids rolled their eyes after yet another Christmas viewing of “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas”?
The warning signs have always been there, alerting us to the day when these childhood heroes and legends would no longer be with us. However, those signs came in small tremors that would register with us as tragic chips in our wall of immortality. MTV stopped playing wall to wall music and Mike Brady died from AIDS related complications. When we would lose amazing talents like River Phoenix or Jim Henson or Kurt Cobain or John Hughes or Corey Haim or Robin Williams, we would feel the loss and a devastating sting, but ultimately our pop culture was too big to fail. The changes and the losses came in small, absorbable, uncomfortable bites. Hollywood remakes our movies, radio stations play our music in decade blocks, our styles are coming back into fashion. Generation X was lightning in a bottle for a Reaganomic economy, and the world keeps trying to recapture it. We have been living under the hubris of our “electric youth” (Thank you Debbie Gibson). As long as our culture survived, we survived and we never had to age. We have been allowed to live in our childhood forever thanks to reboots of shows like Full House. Magazines bring casts back together, vinyl is in stores, bands reform and go on never- ending tours, Kevin Bacon got his own iconic game. Generation X may be small, but we have been validated time and time again each time someone reaches into the barrel and pulls out a gem from our day to reproduce.
That brings us to the painfulness of 2016. This year, one by one, the chips became cracks, and the cracks became the destruction of the foundations of our stability. Our Dr Huxtable is being accused of rape and our Dr Seaver has left the earth. Our Willy Wonka is gone and our Charlotte will never spin her magical web again. Our Goblin King, our purple clad Prince, and our George Michael all left us without any more songs. Even the fantastic actors we barely saw have passed on and taken R2 D2 and ALF. The list is seemingly endless; Muhammad Ali, Abe Vigoda, Alan Rickman, Florence Henderson, Leonard Cohen…...Generation X has never had a real communal awakening to our mortality. Our generation lived in a time of fear of war, but very little actual war that demanded sacrifice of our treasure and our lives. This is not to say that there are countless Gen X lives that have been sacrificed on battlefields throughout the Middle East and the world, but war on the homefront was not as noticeable for our generation the way it was for the Baby Boomers in Vietnam and the generations before them in World Wars. We are witnessing en mass, the way we witnessed Rocky IV and the fall of Nixon en mass, our aging happening right before our eyes and happening in a massive giant wave. Our parents our getting sick and passing away, we are parents and grandparents ourselves, and we are facing the front end of our generation being a decade away from retirement.
The MTV generation has never really had to face the kind of death reality that the world has been filled with since the beginning of time. We have seen terrorist attacks and space shuttle explosions. We have seen 9-11 and deadly uprisings, but we never thought it would come for us and our families; our media has always been permanent, our shows, our music, our movies, the moments we have witnessed have never gone away. CD’s, DVD’s, VCR’s, home game systems, computers, digital files; we have always had the ability to recall the past. Death is not recallable. Carrie Fisher can never again return as the same Princess Leia, and it makes us shudder to think of her as the “Polar Expressed” version of herself from “Rogue One”. Carrie Fisher can never again write her incredible film scripts and she can never bless us with glitter. On one hand it is kind of a beautiful testament to our generation. We are the flame keepers and the storytellers of a very real and visible pop culture, but has our naive reliance on those images and sounds made us vulnerable to the kind of unreal expectations of a reality that is quickly demanding we recognize the fragility of life? I have friends who are developing cancer and having parts of their bodies removed to prevent future cancer. This was not supposed to happen to a generation raised in roller rinks and malls. Maybe it is unfair, maybe it is selfish to place our emotional baggage on these celebrities...we never owned these people. We made them into permanent characters that they only meant to portray for a short time. And now, in the moments of their deaths, we might be grieving less for them, then we are the death of our own childhoods. On the other hand, our grief may be very real in the sense that Generation X mourns as both a parent and a child. Our need for their talents created their success, and their need to express themselves created our values.We don’t want to let them go, we want to hold on to the greatness for just one more moment. Goodbye 2016 and goodbye to ALL those we have lost. Rest in beauty.