Looking back, the list of grievances waged against 2016 was near abysmal. We soldiered through tragedies, terrorism, and political upheaval, racking up so many battle scars that our misfortune became a meme. As we begin anew, one can’t help but reflect on the many visionaries we lost along the way: David Bowie, Prince, and Carrie Fisher were among the talented celebrities who died in 2016. These people stood for difference and they stood for strength — things that we could’ve used a lot more of as we bore the brunt of one of the most divisive times in recent memory. But while we may have lost some of our most impactful icons, it's important to remember that we didn't lose what they left behind.
In fact, their messages have never been more relevant. Over the course of their decades-long careers, each made great strides in things like diversity, feminism, and identity — all issues at the forefront of modern society. Last year, their reach was cut short by mortality, but not before they left an indelible mark on generations to come. The battles that they helped propel are far from over, and now they’ve passed the torch to their successors. It’s up to us to keep it lit.
When Prince died in April, singer Frank Ocean admitted the legend helped him accept his own sexuality simply by being himself: defiant, original, and free. Those ideals shaped Ocean as he forged his own artistic path. He’s built a reputation as one of music’s foremost vanguards, pushing back against gender and sexual conventions just as his idol did before him. In 2012, Ocean announced his first love was a man, a major leap for the hip-hop and R&B community, which has a history of homophobic commentary.
Many likened the revelation to the similarly trailblazing Bowie, who made the headline-stirring proclamation that he was bisexual back in the '70s — right in the midst of his revolutionary portrayal of Ziggy Stardust, his androgynous alter ego. Ocean credited Bowie as an influence on his sophomore album, August’s Blonde, and both he and Prince seep through the record’s evocative, emotionally bare expanse. Even the title seemingly takes aim at the gender binary, presenting with both male and female versions: blonde and blond.
As the year pressed on, stars continued to pass. Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sharon Jones — these are just some of the many names we were forced to give a final commemoration. Then, just before we slid into 2017, pop veteran George Michael died on Christmas Day. The former Wham! singer was a prolific musician, but he also lent much of his influence to AIDS prevention and gay rights. On Twitter, Sam Smith, who came out in 2014, wrote that he wouldn't be the artist he was if it weren't for Michael, and vowed that his music and message would live on.
James Corden, too, revealed Michael had played a profound part in his career: he'd helped him create his renowned Carpool Karaoke segment, which later thrust the late-night host to stateside fame. Michael may have meant different things to his admirers — to Smith, he was an inspiration, to Corden, a catalyst — but both were deeply impacted by his time in the world, and that's something they'll carry closely as they march forward.
Of course, that wasn't enough for 2016, and it ended with a one-two punch: Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died within one day of each other on Dec. 27 and 28, respectively. It was a devastating end to such a tragedy-ridden year. Yet the news had a touching, though still heart-wrenching, detail: The two had been inseparably close, and it was comforting to know they'd left the world side by side, just as they'd always been.
Together, they left a lasting stamp on Hollywood: Reynolds for her incomparable contributions to films like Singin' in the Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Fisher for her dauntless turn as Star Wars' Princess Leia, but also for her honest, irreverent, and resilient life off-screen. Fisher's candid approach to drug addiction, ageism, feminism, and mental health helped give voice to many who didn't have one. Both women left behind one very important person: Billie Lourd, Fisher's daughter and Reynolds' granddaughter. At 24, she's only just beginning to make her way in the industry, but it's tough to imagine these women — tenacious, unflinching, effervescent — won't shine through her as she does.
Fisher, Michael, Bowie, Prince, and the numerous other luminaries that fell victim to 2016 will be remembered for disparate reasons, but they all had one thing in common: They left the world with something to strive for. As we head deeper into 2017 and begin to piece together the fragments of a broken year, these stars serve as a perennial guidepost. We may have lost some of our favorite people in 2016, but we didn't lose their legacies, and that's something worth remembering as we charge ahead.