It’s everywhere. From celebrity tributes to social media discussions, the death of Prince has resulted in epic, cross-cultural mourning. There are several reasons to explain this extended period of overflowing public grief; some obvious, some less so.
Let’s start with the most obvious. He was a hit machine through which music seemed to pass, and there was something about him for almost any music fan to like. He was a mulitgenerational music superstar who maintained an enigmatic persona.
Then there’s the nostalgia effect. One of the reasons why the death of a musician has such a strong impact is because the music reminds us of moments in our lives that had meaning — either personal experiences, or shared memories. The hits of an era provide the soundtrack to our lives. And the death of an artist represents, not the death of the music, but in some way, the death of an era and the passage of time. Over the weekend, my wife and I played Prince songs for our kids. We were completely different kinds of Prince fans, and were therefore telling totally different kinds of stories. But the general theme was the same, and one that I’m confident was being repeated by every parent of a certain age. This was a moment. This was why this was important. I want to tell you something about my life that is driven by art; that is pure emotion.
There is also the cultural timing. Like David Bowie, Prince provided us with a constant reminder that it’s not just ok to be weird; it’s cool to be weird. But it wasn’t just any kind of weird. It was gender weird. It was sexual weird. We are at a moment in American history where we are finally having open discussions about various aspects of gender and sexuality. Rock stars and corporations are taking a stand against a transgender bathroom law in North Carolina. Gay marriage is becoming legalized. Millions of people are coming out of the shadows. But long before this was the norm, before it was easy, Prince was pushing the cultural envelope. Prince and Bowie were those kids who got made fun of for acting feminine or dressing like a girl. But they didn’t run away. They ran towards. And they took a generation of fans with them. As Prince wrote in I Would Die For You: “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand.” But when he ripped on that guitar, he was also something you couldn’t help but understand. And the walls against which Bowie and Prince smashed are just now, finally starting to crumble. We mourn their untimely deaths; but the celebration of their lives couldn’t be more well-timed. It is a perfect, purple storm.
And then there’s this. You’re staring at your screen. Your friends are staring at theirs. And your kids are doing the same. We are all locked in our silos of personalized news, information, and entertainment. And that reality has made us long for moments when we’re all talking about the same thing at the same time. It’s not a coincidence that music festivals are on the rise. It’s not a coincidence that our primary use of consumer technology is always aimed at a reconnection. Here’s my photo. Here are my kids. Here’s what I’m thinking about. The selfie is not about narcissism, it’s about connection. We miss commonality. We miss each other.
Sure, it’s nice if it’s something positive that brings us together. One of those few times a year — a Super Bowl, the Academy Awards — when we’re sharing a conversation online, and finally have something to talk about the next day in the spot where the water-cooler used to be. But short of that, we’ll take anything. Even communal mourning feels better than no community.
We often recall where we were at the moment a famous person died. I definitely remember where I was when Prince died. I was in front of this screen. That’s where I was when Bowie died. That’s where I was when Michael Jackson died. That’s where I was when Garry Shandling died.
I liked Prince’s music. But, truth be told, he wasn’t one of my favorite artists. His music didn’t hit me in the gut. His songs weren’t the ones I chose to sing my kids to sleep. But I feel this loss. Deeply. Probably because, like the rest of you, I need to.