I’ll never be able to listen to Wham’s Last Christmas the same way again. There’s no small amount of irony in the fact that George Michael, the man who wrote and sang one of the most loved Christmas pop songs ever, should die at the age of just 53 on December 25th.
We were watching Michael’s obituary on BBC Breakfast yesterday morning when my mother turned round to me and asked me who he was. Initially I wasn’t sure whether or not I should be surprised by this gap in her knowledge.
Mum was in her mid-40s – the same age I am now – when Wham were at their peak, so I suppose it would be similar to me knowing not who Adele is. Although maybe that’s not a fair comparison as my mother has never been interested in music, whereas it has always been a big part of my life. It’s perhaps more akin to me not knowing who’s who in EastEnders or The Only Way Is Essex, both of which I am largely ignorant of. This despite being a self-professed pop culture fiend – you’ll find music, TV and film references littered throughout posts in this blog, for instance.
But then I’m part of a generation who have grown up through the transition from a time when we were reliant on traditional media – TV, newspapers and magazines – for information, into the internet age where the latest news and gossip is available 24/7 via online sources and social media.
Take the news of George Michael’s death, for example. This was announced late in the evening on Christmas Day. By midnight, anyone plugged in to Facebook or Twitter will have seen the news and started sharing their reaction to it via social media.
Compare that to the death of Princess Diana in 1997, less than 20 years ago. Here the news broke in the small hours of a Sunday morning but, with online news in its infancy and the first smartphones the best part of a decade away, it took much of the day until many people knew. Today, that initial wave of dissemination would need only an hour, two at most.
Greater speed and greater ease of access means we now have a much wider range of information at our fingertips. Whether it is a celebrity death or Kylie Jenner’s latest Instagram post, news about even Z-list celebs is reaching hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people around the world in minutes. 15-20 years ago it would have taken hours, if it even registered on our consciousness at all. Today we can know everything about everyone almost instantly if we want to.
And here’s the challenge. In the space of half a generation we have moved from information scarcity to information overload. How do we keep up with it all? How do we stay informed about a world which keeps throwing more and more information at us?
A generational divide exists – and it’s only getting wider. Our children already are more able to cope with this constant tidal wave of information in a way that I can’t. It’s not just about knowing the difference between Matt Terry and John Terry or between Little Mix and pick and mix. It’s about keeping up with an always-on world which (as much as I deny it) is fast becoming as alien to me as the concept of Facebook is to my mother.
In many ways, I’m already as far off the pace in my mid-40s as my mother now is at almost 80. Despite being a huge music fan, I know next to nothing about most of the acts in the top 40 any more (other than to guess that they probably started out on X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, which seems to be correct more often than not). I stopped watching Big Brother years ago and can add up the number of episodes of TOWIE, Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore or Love Island I have ever watched on the fingers of, well, my feet. The kids are now just as likely to find me things online – Isaac, our eldest, has only just turned nine – as I do for them.
In short, despite my best efforts, I’m falling behind. And that’s a problem in a world where kids are getting older younger and where many of the dangers that they can face come from further afield than the playground or the walk home from school.
How can we keep up? It’s like trying to compete in a contemporary Formula 1 race with a car from the 1970s, or trying to add up a long list of numbers by hand rather than using a spreadsheet. Even if you understand this new and ever-changing world and can adapt to it, you’re still unable to compete on the same level as those for whom it is second nature.
So should I be surprised that my mother didn’t know who George Michael was? Maybe a little but that’s really the least of my problems. I – and I guess most parents – are facing a world in which there are a hundred pitfalls around every corner, all waiting to catch out the baffled and unsuspecting.
I’m going to miss George Michael though, even if neither my mother nor my kids know who he was. But how long will it be before my children are mourning the death of one of their idols and I have to ask them who they were?