David Bowie. Carrie Fisher. Muhammad Ali. Prince. George Michael. Nancy Reagan. Alan Rickman.
On their own, thinking about each celebrity death in 2016 may break your heart. But those names in a group? From your core may erupt a common refrain: 2016 was the fucking worst.
But proving qualitatively that we lost many of our best in 2016 is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s Gene Wilder is another man’s Richard Pryor (2005)...or another’s Robin Williams or Joan Rivers (2014). In 2003, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, and Barry White each shuffled off this mortal coil, 13 years before Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, and Phife Dawg. Debbie Reynolds’ Dec. 28 death — one day after her daughter’s — is also the anniversary of the deaths of Lemmy (2015), Susan Sontag (2004), Sam Peckinpah (1984), and the great composer Maurice Ravel (you can go right to hell, 1937).
Furthermore, should we count well-known (and often polarizing) public figures and politicians like Janet Reno, Antonin Scalia, and Fidel Castro among the rock stars to enter Valhalla? And in what way? Ought the breathtaking influence of late film director Andrzej Wajda be overlooked by the popularity of 1996’s slate of Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Monroe, Gene Kelly, and Tupac Shakur?
It’s impossible to quantify the cultural impact of one Whitney Houston (2012), one Miles Davis (1991), or one Michael Jackson (2009). Death (auld lang syne, everyone!) can offer rich complexity to the way we consider fame, our idols, and what a celebrity even is.
Data and statistics can’t prove that 2016 was the worst, or not the worst, year for celebrity deaths. But it can provide context for the debate. So, using data from Wikipedia and the related Wikidata project, we came up with a list of the 30 most famous people to die each year since 1900.
The list takes two factors into account. The first is how many other English-language Wikipedia pages link to the person’s Wikipedia biography. These so-called backlinks could be considered to crudely measure that person’s importance to the rest of the English-speaking world. The second metric was the number of different language editions of Wikipedia (e.g., English Wikipedia, Swahili Wikipedia, German Wikipedia) that include a biography for that person, a rough approximation of that person’s international relevance. We then identified, for each year, the biographies that appeared in at least 20 editions of Wikipedia and had the highest number of English Wikipedia backlinks.
Wikipedia data, of course, is rife with quirks and biases — many simply the product of editors' obsessions. Even the lesser-known heroes and villains of World War II, for example, are widely cited. Contemporary celebrities also appear to have more prominence in the encyclopedia than the stars of yore. So we took these findings with wiki-sized grains of salt. Still, we think they’re useful — if nothing else than to remind us all of the amazing (and sometimes mediocre, and sometimes evil) people we’ve lost.
Using this list, we could point to other “bad” years for the arts, including 2009 (Jackson, Patrick Swayze, Farrah Fawcett, Brittany Murphy, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and John Updike), 2012 (Houston, Donna Summer, Michael Clarke Duncan, Etta James, Dave Brubeck, Ray Bradbury, and Ravi Shankar), and 2004 (Marlon Brando, Ray Charles, Christopher Reeve, Jacques Derrida, and Sontag). 1997 took with it Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, Jimmy Stewart, Jacques Cousteau, and Robert Mitchum.
And if you were alive in 1977, these deaths probably took your breath away: Elvis Presley, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Bing Crosby, T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, Jean Hagen, Groucho Marx, Freddie Prinze, opera star Maria Callas, novelist Vladimir Nabokov, filmmaker Roberto Rossellini...
Perhaps we’re feeling the deaths of celebrities more this year than we have in others because we're absorbing loss among a very large buffet of bad news. Perhaps there is a correlation of our emotions to our habits of social media, or a shift in how we honor the dead.
What we can gather from here: an appreciation for those who still walk among us and a celebration of those who have departed...in any quantitative and subjective manner you choose. Can I get a “Hallelujah”?