Prince died Thursday. That really sucked. There’s been a palpable air of being bummed out since. He was only 57 — younger than either of my folks. Selfishly, I was upset I wouldn’t ever have the chance to see him perform. How shitty it is, to think that way. That possibility evaporated and made its way to whatever sexy heaven Prince Rogers Nelson made his new Paisley Park/Carlos Boozer pad, equipped with a never-ending wardrobe of ascots, overcoats, and heels.
Prince isn’t my favorite artist. He’s not someone whose catalogue I know by heart, able to ooze lyrics to a B-side like it’s my own prose. He wasn’t someone either my parents dug or my older sister significantly exposed me to while growing up. I went in on his discography after becoming a real adult and watching the Dave Chappelle sketch a million and a half times. In the suburbs where I grew up, that skit was a lot of my friends’ takes on Prince: the dude could ball and serve pancakes. There wasn’t ever a Prince subject who pushed me to check his work out. Save Chappelle, the other Prince moment people could casually point to was the “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” performance that flooded social media last week. It’s what my dad predictably emailed after Prince died. Oh, and the Super Bowl. That will never not be dope.
Nevertheless, Prince leaving this mortal world behind blew.
The death of a beloved artist incurs two main reactions. The first is the vocal, overwhelming praise. That happened with Prince, and it frequently happens with actors (e.g. the late Alan Rickman. It’s been a tumultuous year.). People who adored him mourned him the way they would a relative or close friend him. A distant artist who’s remained a close constant over the years is that. Despite the lack of direct interaction, they weren’t any less real or intimate. Prince empowered his fans, a power he didn’t appear to take for granted. In turn, he spawned disciples.
People who might not have given any of his LPs one full spin honored him, because they recognized the impact he left upon the world and culture. There’s a certain aspect of that last act that is an act, making sure everyone knows you’re feeling sad on this day (the Anthony Jeselnik corollary).
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Internet commenters need something to rouse anger, and perceived phoniness is as good a reason as any. Though poptimism has faded, the fight for superiority in fandom still exists in some aspects of music fandom. With social media and the deep trove of information, death seems to bring this feeling that only the “real” fans should be able to express public sorrow because the death potentially begets a particular façade. It’s an invasion set to disrupt and delegitimize someone else’s feelings, as they’re perceived as disingenuous. It’s also an all-around dick move set to control and artlessly diminish another’s feelings.
When I learned he died, I fell into stereotype No. 2 that’s more private than No. 1, but fueled by similar reasons: I scanned my library to put on the perfect song. Since “The Beautiful Ones” makes the strongest men weak on the inside and weep on the outside, that scored my sadness. I screamed along to the middle breakdown when he broke down on. Undoubtedly, those who invested in his discography likely did something similar. Even those with TIDAL subscriptions who only knew “When Doves Cry” and thought it was dope flipped over to that and cranked their headphones to ear-bleeding levels.
Wakes tend to focus on the good times, like the spin moves during “I Would Die 4 U.” Times they made you laugh. Moments that induced tears. Guitar solos that melted faces and annoyed some onlookers. Rain-soaked performances that cemented legends. It doesn’t mean it’s a blinding acceptance of assuredly flawed people. (Neither Prince nor Bowie were perfect without reproach. No one is.) A skew to happiness is the best way to remember and to find a life raft in a flood of sadness, depression, and whatever other emotional terror your brain throws your way.
Does it matter if folks relishing the greatest hits of life or of a career weren’t purple devotees? Of course not. The easiest way to access and learn about and to appreciate an artist is through their work. It holds true with Prince, the singular musician who was so media shy and protective of his image that the best thing to judge him from was his music. The same phenomenon happened with David Bowie’s similarly surprising death. It didn’t matter that watching eight different live versions of “Heroes” is so uncool (should have picked a deep cut, you fair-weather asshole). It’s a phenomenon that only happens with contemporary artist; few to none would expend the energy to begrudge anyone for discovering Ian Curtis, Charlie Parker, or Shakespeare.
The artistic deep dive is what works for some people. It allows them to look back and preserve their favorite moment, that piece of personality in amber. And that’s okay, mostly because people can grieve and honor a public figure in whatever way they so choose; it doesn’t affect you, e-tough guy. It’s the simplest and best way to get to know the person who died and to extract a discrete piece of them to share. That person can no longer add to popular culture or the world; the only way to engage with them is to pick up the artifacts created and left behind. That is how literally every new person in the world would cultivate their perception of anyone departed.
What’s seldom mentioned in the worldwide remembrance is the most redeemable part. Everyone shares stories. Other random stars in the ether humanize themselves with anecdotes that make them sound like your peer. One friend brings up the time they sang with a “Bohemian Rhapsody”-like fervor at a Prince song. Another reveals how it soundtracked a seminal moment with a best bud. Inadvertently, it strengthens not necessarily the connection with someone, but your understanding of them. And that’s what we inherently want.
So people can and should party like it’s 1999 deep, deep, deep into the new millennium. The alternative is never letting Prince into their life, and that prospect is worse than any bandwagon stigma.
Take me away.