The annus horibilis of 2016 has struck once more, because after the death of George Michael on Christmas Day, we also lost Carrie Fisher yesterday, aged only sixty, following her heart attack on December 23. And her mother Debbie Reynolds followed her only a day later, aged 84. I can’t even begin to imagine how horrible this must be for their surviving family.
And just because they shouldn’t be forgotten, yesterday also claimed the lives of Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, who died aged 96, American actor Ricky Harris, who died aged only 54, and British actress Liz Smith, who died aged 95. And today, German singer, songwriter and musician Knut Kiesewetter became the hopefully last notable victim of 2016, when he died aged 75 (a former president of the German Central Bank also died, but his death was mostly greeted with shrugs and “Who was this guy?”).
All this happens at the end of a year that has already claimed the lives of Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Prince, Robert Vaughn, Leonard Cohen, Götz George, Manfred Krug, Bud Spencer, Sir Ken Adam, Tanith Lee, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Kennedy, Guido Westerwelle, Hans Dietrich Genscher, Hildegard Hamm-Brücher, Walter Scheel (Was 2016 trying to exterminate the FDP, too?), Jutta Limbach, Fidel Castro, Tamme Hanken, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Gene Wilder, John Glenn, Anton Yelchin, Uwe Friedrichsen, Roger Willemsen, Roger Cicero, Erika Berger, Peter Lustig, Maja Maranow, Muhammad Ali, Sonia Rykiel, Vera Rubin, Rick Parfitt, Alan Thicke and whoever I have forgotten.
Indeed, the “Let us remember the artists who left us in 2016” bit at the end of the news today had to be hastily amended with “George Michael and Carrie Fisher died as well”. I did not watch the special obituary edition of Markus Lanz’s show afterwards and the one time I did tune in, there was Andreas Gabalier murdering Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, so I quickly switched off again.
Is this sheer amount of deaths in 2016 (along with all the other awful things that happened) unprecedented? I’m not sure, since a lot of people, including famous people die every year. But it certainly seems as if 2016 saw the loss of many people who were important to me and touched my life in some way. Many of these people were giants and icons of my childhood and teen years.
The loss of Carrie Fisher and George Michael within days of each other hit me harder than most of the 2016 deaths (though Alan Rickman, Götz George and Sir Ken Adam also hit me hard), because I was a huge fan of both of them.
Along with the rest of Germany, I probably saw George Michael for the first time, when Wham! performed “Young Guns” on the legendary music program Musikladen back in 1983 (here’s a clip, complete with host Manfred Sexauer, who left us two years ago), because my Mom and I always watched Musikladen (and in fact, my Mom had been watching since the very first episode back in 1965). But I didn’t became a fan until “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” came out a year later. I have a “My Class” book from the period (this is the exact book I had in the early 1980s), where everybody filled out his favourite colour, movie, book, song, etc… and every second kid wrote down “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”, because everybody loved that song.
I don’t think I knew George Michael’s name then – at the time, I did not care about the names of singers or their personal lives and only remembered the names of artists once I realised that it made recording songs you liked off the radio easier. But I certainly loved his music, “Take Me to the Edge of Heaven”, “I don’t want your freedom”, “I’m Your Man”, “Careless Whispers”, “A Different Corner”, “Club Tropicana” and of course, “Last Christmas”, which is my favourite of all modern Christmas songs and the one where I will inevitably turn up the volume, once it comes on. Coincidentally, the central characters of two different Christmas romances I wrote, Christmas Eve at the Purple Owl Café and Christmas Shopping with a Broken Heart, share their first kiss to “Last Christmas”. Because it’s simply that great a song.
By the time, George Michael left Wham! and started his solo career, I certainly knew his name. My cousin had a huge crush on him. She didn’t know he was gay and I don’t think I did either, though it’s bleedingly obvious in retrospect. Not that I would have cared, I loved the music, not the man. I remember dancing along alone in my room to “Faith” and “Monkey”, I remember writing the lyrics to “Father Figure” into my diary, I remember how I and a couple of friends scared the older brother of a friend half to death by singing and dancing along to “I want your sex” at a birthday party. “I want your sex” is still on my “I have to write a sex scene and need to get inspired” playlist.
Through much of my life, George Michael’s music was always there. I have four CDs with his music, more than by pretty much every other artist. He has written so many songs I love that I have a hard time picking a favourite (and I just realise I forgot to mention “Cowboys and Angels”, which is also on “I need to write a sex scene” playlist). I’m heavily music synaesthetic, which means that I don’t just get colour and taste with music (though I get that, too), but whole mini movies, provided the music is good. I always got mini movies with George Michael’s music.
A lot of the imagery I get for pop music from the 1980s is space-themed in some way, because this was also the time I became first a Star Wars and then a huge SF fan in general. Which brings me to Carrie Fisher, who is certainly part of the reason why I am an SF fan today.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were not a whole lot of role models for girls who weren’t fainting damsels in distress or older mother and housewife types. Even Charlie’s Angels, who were pretty awesome and kick-ass, answered to a man. The lone exception was science fiction, because SF gave us Uhura and Tamara Jagellowsk and Janice Rand and Dr. Helena Russell and Athena and Sheba and Cassiopeia and of course, Princess Leia.
I still remember how I first encountered Princess Leia, in action figure form during a show and tell session in a kindergarten in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1978, clutched in the hand of a classmate along with Han Solo (that kid knew who the best characters were). Many of my classmates at the time were obsessed with something called Star Wars, which I hadn’t seen and wasn’t allowed to see. But up to that point, all the Star Wars characters I’d seen were either robots or scary people in masks or monsters or young men, none of which seemed very interesting. This Princess Leia was different. For starters, she was a princess and like every little girl aged five, I loved princesses. Plus, she had the most gorgeous gown and fabulous hair, which was a huge thing, when you were a kid forced to wear pants all the time (because it as practical) and always had your hair cut so short you got mistaken for a boy (but it was practical). And I decided there and then that I wanted to look just like her.
So I refused to have my hair cut short anymore and announced that I wanted to have long hair from now on (and I still do). I also rebelled against the all pants all the time (especially since pants aren’t all that comfortable, if you’re still growing) and insisted I wanted to wear dresses. I spent the next several years trying to look like Princess Leia. I came close at times (and I wished I had a photo of ten-year-old me with a Leia hairstyle, but no one was nice enough to take one), though I never fully succeeded, probably because no real world human being can ever really look like Leia without a lot of Hollywood magic, not even Carrie Fisher herself.
I never had Star Wars toys as a kid, until I bought them years later at the flea market (and of course I have the action figure of Leia in that iconic white gown, the same one my classmate so long ago had). It even took me years to actually get to see the movies, since my parents did not get that “I think this movie looks interesting and people are talking about it at school” translated as “I really, really want to see this, so take me there.” And though my Mom had no compunctions about dragging me to see The Name of the Rose, when I was really much too young for it, Star Wars or Indiana Jones or indeed anything I really wanted to see was deemed too scary for me.
Though when I finally did get to see the Star Wars movies, I realised that Princess Leia was even more amazing than I’d thought. She spits at Darth Vader, mouthes off to Tarkin, withstands torture and utterly fails to be impressed by her would-be rescuers Luke and Han, once they show up, and promptly takes charge of her own rescue, which particularly impressed my young self, because the princesses I was used to never did that. She continues to impress throughout the original trilogy, leading the Rebellion, helping to repair the Millennium Falcon, kissing Han Solo, threatening Jabba with a bomb and then strangling him with the chains he uses to bind her, befriending Ewoks, shooting Stormtroopers, kissing Han Solo some more. And by the time, The Force Awakens came around, Leia is still leading the Rebellion, now promoted from Princess to General and showing all those little girls who once wanted to be her that life doesn’t end at forty or fifty. Obi Wan and Yoda both had it wrong. Leia was clearly the most impressive of the Skywalker siblings.
But while I could not watch the movies until they finally hit German TV, what I did have was a box full of newspaper and magazine clippings with pictures of Star Wars characters and other stills from SF movies and toy catalogues from the early 1980s featuring Star Wars action figures. I still have that box, too, somewhere. I know it’s purpose is gone now I can watch the actual movies anytime I want, but I can’t bear to throw it away, because those clippings once meant so much to me.
I also have a collection of film books and magazines from the 1980s, which still fall open at the pages featuring Star Wars all those years later. I also have the Star Wars novelisations – in English – even though I had to special order them from the bookstore at a time when that was enormously expensive and took ages. I still remember having to paintakingly spell out the title of The Empire Strikes Back to a bookstore clerk.
Indeed, I suspect that I learned Carrie Fisher’s name from one of those clippings or magazines. At any rate, I promptly set out to watch any movie she ever made, like I did with any of the other Star Wars cast. This is how I came to see Under the Rainbow and The Burbs and Blues Brothers (okay, a friend forced me to watch that one, but once Carrie Fisher showed up, brandishing that rifle, I actually enjoyed it). Carrie Fisher’s appearance in it also definitely contributed to my decision to watch Harry and Sally, though a Time Magazine review of the movie I read on a plane also helped to persuade me. I sneaked the magazine off the plane (though I supposed I need only have asked if I could have it) and made everybody I knew read that review, trying to persuade them that we needed to watch that movie. The magazine is in my box, along with the newspaper clippings.
In spite of my collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, I did not know much about Carrie Fisher’s personal life. I knew that her parents had been Hollywood stars themselves and that she’d been married to Paul Simon, but that was about it. I certainly did not know about her struggles with addiction (nor about George Michael’s, for that matter), until the movie version of Postcards from the Edge came out. That’s probably for the better, because with the strict anti-drug education of the 1980s, it was a serious topic of discussion whether you were even permitted to consume and enjoy art and music made by people taking drugs, because – and no, I don’t get the reasoning behind that one either – consuming art and music made by people who take drugs somehow made you more likely to take drugs yourself. Given that the teachers who promoted that sort of crap were part of the sixties generation and many of their idols had already expired from drug use, that whole attitude was even more hypocritical (and pisses me off even thirty years later). Nonetheless, it was a sadly common attitude at the time. And so I’m glad that teenaged me did not know about Carrie Fisher’s and George Michael’s struggles with addiction and that I only found out when I was ready to handle that knowledge. Because that way, I got to enjoy their art without worrying whether it was wrong to do so.
Given the backlash still facing public figures, particularly women, who admit to struggling with addiction and mental illness, it is even more remarkable that Carrie Fisher chose to be so open about her problems. And indeed it was Carrie Fisher’s utter frankness about her life and her illness that made us realise she was not just a talented actress who happened to play an iconic character, but a remarkable woman and feminist icon in her own right. Quite a few tributes I’ve seen (I’m collecting a bunch of them for the weekly link round-up over at the Speculative Fiction Showcase) focus on this aspect of her life. One of my favourites is this collection of 15 of Carrie Fisher’s most memorable feminist lines at New York Magazine.
As always when public figures who have touched a lot of lives die, there are those who simply have to police the way other people choose to remember the dead. There’s a tweet going around berating people for mourning Carrie Fisher and George Michael, but not Donald Henderson, former head of the CDC who was instrumental in the eradication of smallpox and who died in August 2016.
And then there is this truly awful editorial from the Guardian, which claims that we mourn dead celebrities as a replacement for religion and because we don’t have enough real friends.
For starters, I really hate any “X is a replacement for religion” pronouncements, usually made my people who can neither understand that people manage to live just fine without religion nor why someone would enjoy X for its own sake. So X – whereby X can be football, science fiction, superhero movies, sports not football, fandom, etc… – simply has to be a replacement for religion. Such pronouncements are not just clueless, but also massively offensive. I’m not religious and – amazingly – I’m not missing anything. If I was, I know where the local church is. And the local mosque. And the local Hindu temple. I could also locate the nearest synagogue, if I wanted to. However, I am a lifelong science fiction fan. Not because I miss religion, but because I love SF. I’ve also been a fan of both George Michael and Carrie Fisher. Not because I miss religion, but because the art they made was important to me.
I also don’t get why people feel the need to police who and how we mourn. There are mourning rituals I don’t get, e.g. public memorials of flowers, votive candles and stuffed toys or crosses set up at the site of deadly road accidents (which wasn’t a thing in Protestant parts of Germany until about twenty years ago and still seems strange to me). But I wouldn’t dream of telling people they shouldn’t put up those crosses or lay down those flowers. It helps those who engage in those practices. It doesn’t have to help me.
On a similar note, I resent that I am expected to feel more deeply about the recent terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market than about any of the other many terrorist attacks of 2016 in Brussels, Nice, Istanbul, Jordan, Afganistan and elsewhere, simply because the Berlin attack happened in German soil. For even though Berlin happens to be the German capital, I don’t have close connections to the city. I have been there a handful of times in my life (including at the place where the attack happened, since it’s a prominent part of the city), all of them years ago. I don’t have any friends or family who live in Berlin and I don’t know anybody who was directly affected by the attack. But somehow, caring more deeply about the loss of two artists who shaped my youth than about a terrorist attack in a city I have little connection to makes me a bad person.
People have the right to mourn whom and how they choose. I never quite got the intense reactions to the death of Princess Diana (and only her, no one beyond their families cared much about Dodi Al Fayed and the driver who were also killed), for though her early death of tragic, it wasn’t a world stopping event for me. Nor do I get the equally intense reactions to the assassination of John F. Kennedy or people weeping over the death of Pope John Paul II. I don’t remember the death of Elvis, but I do remember when John Lennon was killed and I was very confused (I was seven at the time) how many people were sad that a man I’d never heard of had died. That the radio only played “Imagine” and not the Beatles songs I’d actually have recognised didn’t help either. But while these deaths didn’t elicit the same reactions in me, they clearly meant a whole lot to many other people. And who am I to tell them they’re wrong?
Ann Leckie puts it even better in this post on her blog about mourning rituals and what their purpose really is. And indeed, I have been to funerals of people who had less impact on my life than either George Michael or Carrie Fisher, neither of whom I’ve ever met. I still went to honour the dead and their families. And my presence as well as everybody else’s presence seemed to comfort the close relatives of the deceased.
So the ever grumbling pundits should just allow us to mourn the passing of the icons of our youth, even if they weren’t the icons of their youth.
So rest in peace, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Debbie Reynolds and everybody else we lost in 2016 and may the Force be with you all.