Requiem for an ’80s Kid: We’ve Lost Our Prince and Now Our Princess
For the first generation of pop culture junkies—the first kids raised with home video and cable TV galore—2016 has been an exceptionally sad year.
The death of Carrie Fisher was the latest in what has been a merciless year of celebrity deaths. In just the past 48 hours, we’ve lost a pop icon in George Michael, a lesser known (but still beloved) comedian in Ricky Harris, and now, the woman who embodied bravery and strength as Princess Leia. Carrie Fisher was much more than just Leia: she was an accomplished writer and advocate with a brilliant mind whose candor and insight made her one of the most relatable stars in Hollywood. But she was also Leia, and if you grew up on Star Wars, it’s heartbreaking to think of the franchise’s trifecta of mainstays, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Fisher, as a unit no more.
But also, Fisher’s death is another blow to those of us who were kids in the 1980s. Star Wars was born in the late 1970s, of course, but it really emerged as an inescapable juggernaut of pop culture in the Reagan era. After the success of sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, every kid grew up with everything from C-3PO breakfast cereal to Darth Vader lunch boxes, or, in my case, an R2-D2 trashcan that I kept by my bed. At the same time that I was high-arcing paper balls into my droid waste bin, I was watching movies like The Last Dragon and Labyrinth, and both the lovely Laura Charles (Vanity), who I pined for, and the villainous Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), who gave me the creeps, left us in 2016.
For the ‘80s kids, it’s been a year of letting go. We’d already said goodbye to Michael Jackson in 2009, Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman a year later, and his TV dad Mr. Drummond in 2013. Lucas and Lost Boys star Corey Haim also died in 2010. We lost Whitney Houston in 2012, one of the most definitive pop stars of the 1980s, and WWF (before it was the WWE) stars Randy “Macho Man” Savage, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and the Ultimate Warrior have all passed on in the past five years.
But 2016 went into overdrive, with the death of Prince this year wrenching away another one of the most iconic figures of the Reagan era. Alan Thicke, Growing Pains’ Dr. Jason Seaver, died of a heart attack in early December, and George Michael, who was another of the ’80s’ most significant singer-songwriters, died on Christmas Day. Do the Right Thing’s Radio Raheem (Bill Dunn) and former First Lady Nancy Reagan also died this year. My parents forbade me from watching FOX (it was raunchy by 1980s standards), but I would sneak in and see The Garry Shandling Show. Shandling passed in March. I used to be able to quote the first Naked Gun. George Kennedy died in February.
We even lost R2-D2 this year.
This year’s deaths only added to the lengthy list of pop idols we’ve lost as a generation. It’s a sad reminder for those between 35 and 47—the generation of kids who remember watching the Challenger explode on national TV; the generation of kids who begged their parents to take them to see Masters of the Universe only to walk out of the movie theater disappointed and disgusted; the generation who grew up with Choose Your Own Adventure books and Cabbage Patch dolls and Mr. T cereal. Yesterday is gone, man.
As sentimental as it is, there’s something sincere in the way we mourn our childhood figures. You know that all things must pass, but there’s still something about watching a part of your past fade—like when buildings that have been a part of your neighborhood for as long as you’ve known it are suddenly knocked down. Of course they can’t stand forever, but you find yourself feeling wistful about the role they played in your formative years.
Granted, nostalgia isn’t specific to those of us who were kids in the 1980s, but when compared to previous generations, ours is different from our predecessors. We were the first generation of kids to grow up with VCRs and Blockbuster video and cable TV as mainstays of our culture. We were able to watch our favorite movies at home whenever we wanted, we could tape our favorite TV shows, and were constantly bombarded with syndicated gems. Because many of us were latchkey kids, we were largely raised on pop culture—a bunch of little sponges absorbing a deluge of media on a daily basis. Even if you didn’t have cable—and I didn’t for the vast majority of the 1980s—it was easy to be saturated with television, movies, and video games. Multimedia was as much a part of our lives as books and paintings—perhaps even more so.
I was a kid who watched way too much television and was constantly listening to the radio. I loved music videos and kept my cousin’s videotapes of The Goonies and Temple of Doom. Part of why I grew up to be someone who writes about art/entertainment is the fact that I was fully immersed in it from the time I was old enough to have a favorite TV show. So yes, we all know that 2016 is really just another year, and we all know that these public figures aren’t family or friends to us really, and some of these deaths weren’t tragic, as some of these celebs lived full, lengthy lives and it was just their time to leave us. But it still feels like a part of your childhood is gone forever. I know that’s natural. That’s reality.
But it still kinda sucks.