This morning the New York Times took the time to question a phenomenon that we all know to be real: that for celebrities, the summer of 2009 is the Summer of Death™. (We say this because the season doesn’t officially end until four days from now. So watch out, Bret Michaels — you with your Tonys mishap and your tour-bus accidents, we saw the new Final Destination this summer, we know how these things work.) Back in mid-August, we took a count of the prominent celebrities who had passed away from May until that point, defining a celebrity death as one that was mentioned in at least one of the major network evening-news broadcasts. Back then there had been 21, and that was before Les Paul, Patrick Swayze, Henry Gibson, Mary Travers, Ted Kennedy, DJ AM, Army Archerd, and Dominic Dunne all sadly passed. And yet, AP managing editor Lou Ferrara says that by his measure, this wasn’t a particularly bleak season. By our measure, the nearest summer of loss in the past couple of decades was in 1993, when fifteen celebrities by our definition passed. Already in 2009 there have been 29.
Ferrara’s argument is that it just feels like a lot of people died because some of them were extremely famous, or important to a generation. But we would argue that that doesn’t make this any less the Summer of Death™. The Times tried to float the theory that this season “could come to be known as the summer when baby boomers began to turn to the obituary pages first, to face not merely their own mortality or ponder their legacies, but to witness the passing of legends who defined them as a tribe, bequeathing through music, culture, news and politics a kind of generational badge that has begun to fray.”
This Times article isn’t really about whether or not this is the summer of celebrity deaths, as the title indicates. It becomes, through a series of quotes from experts and thoughtful baby boomers, about trying to give ownership of this streak of bad luck to one generation — to make it their loss, not everyone’s. Because of all these deaths of people who are important to baby boomers, we learn, that generation is now thinking about its own mortality. Which may be true, of course! But it’s an entirely separate issue. We’re talking about the loss of people who were meaningful to Americans of all ages, not just those between 45 and 63.
It’s not just that people like John Hughes and DJ AM are more closely tied with younger generations. It’s that Michael Jackson’s music has a legacy that continues to evolve. As did Les Paul’s, and Merce Cunningham’s choreography, and Don Hewitt’s innovation for the medium of television news, and on and on. People under 30 may not have been allowed to see Dirty Dancing in the theaters when it came out, but it doesn’t mean they don’t know what it’s like to feel like you’re only at a party because you carried a watermelon.