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Welcome to Answering Machine, a column where Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman will voice his opinion on the latest top headlines, which might include new music, various controversies, and publicized conflicts. He’s likened this to a Town Hall discussion of sorts, so please feel free to voice your own two cents below.
This year was hard. This year was taxing. This year was the worst. It was full of pain, suffering, disappointment, humility, and above all, it was full of death. When Motörhead’s triumphant frontman Lemmy Kilmister was laid to rest last December, someone must have forgotten to ring the dead bell, as his loss seemingly opened the door for the Dark Angel. Less than a week later, we lost legendary R&B singer Natalie Cole, and a week after that, the world waved goodbye to David Bowie.
Or perhaps it was the other way around?
“I know something is very wrong,” the Thin White Duke pines on “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, the rousing closing anthem to his final studio album, Blackstar. “The pulse returns the prodigal sons/ The blackout hearts, the flowered news/ With skull designs upon my shoes.” The album fell into our hands less than 72 hours before his death and took on a new meaning immediately after, leading to hundreds of think pieces and reviews that meditated on his sweeping farewell.
Standing here, nearly a year later, the legendary icon sounds more like a doomsayer than he does a poet, as if he not only knew he was going to fade, but that others would soon follow in his wake — and they did. Within a month, the world shed tears for Glenn Frey, Jefferson Airplane icons Paul Kanter and Signe Toly Anderson, Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, and Prince protege Vanity. The fact that we also lost Abe Vigoda seemed like the punchline to some fucked-up joke.
But the joke never ended, and Death continues to haunt everything in 2016. Since that frigid January, it’s claimed immortal legends like Prince, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, and Gene Wilder. It took away two of the savviest producers to ever grace music (Sir George Martin) and Hollywood (Garry Marshall). It vanquished both The Tall Man and The Big Lebowski. It brought the curtain down again on Larry Sanders. It stole America’s favorite mom. It turned off Radio Raheem’s music. It snagged Anton Yelchin way too soon.
Even when Death didn’t succeed, it lingered nearby, especially musically. Nick Cave wrestled with tragedy on Skeleton Tree. Beyoncé nearly buried love six feet under with Lemonade. Chance the Rapper sent out prayers to the dearly departed all over Coloring Book. Meanwhile, Anohni, Car Seat Headrest, Mitski, and Wilco all licked their bleeding existential wounds with dense, moody efforts. And finally, Cohen, as if to bookend Bowie’s fateful send-off, offered his own letter of resignation, ready and willing to leave the twisted world he’d written about for more than four decades.
Film was also no stranger to the unending darkness. It’s telling that the majority of this year’s crop of Oscar contenders involve some sort of outstanding loss or death, from Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea to Pablo Larrain’s Jackie to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival to Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. Hell, the industry alone has been smeared with its own funereal prophecies, what with critics lambasting the burst of the blockbuster bubble and the end of originality and the rise of television.
Speaking of which, is it surprising that one of the biggest events on the small screen this year involved the much-hyped and much-griped death of two major characters of The Walking Dead? Or how about the fact that one of HBO’s greatest triumphs of the year — Richard Price and Steven Zaillian’s incredible mini-series, The Night Of — was centered around the grisly death of a New York woman while also meditating on the demise of the American court system? And don’t even get me started on Black Mirror.
As everyone in your social media feed has already professed a dozen times, and without a lick of self-awareness, our entire life now feels like one disheartening episode of Black Mirror. Between the ever-escalating shootings, this past summer’s Brexit, the boiling racial tensions, the formation of the alt-right, America’s despicable interest in electing Twitter’s Biggest Asshole, and the sobering realizations of climate change, it’s as if Death is about two moves away from screaming, “Checkmate.”
Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves:
Let me tell you something: I’ve always been a cynical guy, but I’ve never been nihilistic. This year changed all that. Lately, I find myself just dazing off, staring into nothing, searching for memories that might ease my mind. Traditionally, that time has been reserved for slices of pop culture, whether it’s a favorite album or a new television series — you know, something that might distract me from reality. Pop culture has made that quite difficult in 2016, and for the many reasons outlined above.
But I’m starting to think that’s a good thing. Rather than coddling our minds and placing us in a fuzzy bubble — like, say, watching another one of Hollywood’s lifeless reboots or turning the clock to something addicting like Netflix’s Stranger Things — the best of this year’s pop culture offerings have, instead, asked us to face our realities, take agency, and conquer our fears. And if you paid close enough attention, you could see it and hear it from all corners of the entertainment industry.
Savages, Tegan and Sara, Solange, and Anderson. Paak celebrated a brighter future by grasping today’s social changes and refusing to look back with all their strength. Filmmakers Barry Jenkins, Andrea Arnold, and Park Chan-Wook offered daring glimpses of ingenuity in an industry seemingly bereft of it. And Donald Glover shattered the boob tube with his imaginative FX series, Atlanta. Each of these pop cultural artifacts offered an exciting challenge, one that simply asked you to entertain the idea of change.
And really, isn’t that what death tends to do? Change things?
Looking back, 2016 has certainly felt like a reinvention of sorts. Losing Bowie was tough enough, but Prince, too? How cruel, how apocryphal, how unwieldy. Without a moment’s notice, two of the most revolutionary forces in modern pop culture just vanished into thin air. Where does that leave us? How do we overcome? What hope can we hold on to? Well, as the Starman professed to us earlier this year: “Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried: I’m a blackstar, I’m a star’s star, I’m a blackstar.” In other words, as Prince once proclaimed, “The gatekeepers must change.”