Greetings, all —
As most of you (probably all) know, the world lost another creative genius yesterday. There was — and continues to be — an outpouring of grief and tributes on social media and of course callous and occasionally troll-ish responses. Such is the world in which we live these days.
The first part of that comment goes thus:
I get it. Sometimes the outcry over the death of a celebrity feels phony. You didn’t even know that person. What are you crying about? But we chart our entire lives by art. I remember what I was listening to at every milestone of my life. I define whole years by certain albums.
“We chart our entire lives by art.”
THAT distilled, in one sentence, why the death of an artist like Prince resonates with so many people, and particularly people of a certain generation.
Every generation has its musical icons, and that music means different things to different people, depending on the circumstances and contexts of their lives. Jill went on with her comment to tell a story about how she was running errands and went to various banks and the first two tellers didn’t seem to care one way or the other about Prince’s death, but the third — he got it. He was of that generation that discovered Prince, that found acceptance and refuge in Prince’s music. He and Jill shared a moment of grief, in which the teller talked about his younger coworkers who didn’t seem to care, and said, “they don’t know. They don’t know what he did for me when I was fifteen.”
Before the current era of music, in which it’s no longer “a thing” to purchase entire albums and listen to them over and over again, there are still songs by certain artists that will resonate with people, and that will provide a soundtrack for our lives.
And for many of us who struggled with both internalized and external homophobia in the era before Internet music, or who were just “different” and “weird” and struggled with acceptance in general, Prince’s music provided a port in a storm and for a while, we could lose ourselves in the basslines and the hooks and the playful, gender-bending lyrics and the teasing sexuality that defined so much of his early work. And when the 80s melted into the 90s and Prince took his battles with his record label public and started to redefine how music was conceptualized with the burgeoning Internet, we saw how much of a visionary he was beyond creating music, and how he seamlessly bound creativity with business into a model that would change the face of music as we then knew it.
When the decade changed again, so, too, had Price’s views about music and messaging — they evolved along with him, and the sense of social justice that had been a quieter part of his early work began to infuse more of his modern work, though Prince was more of a “quiet” activist. Musician Chely Wright shared a story yesterday about how in 1999 she founded a nonprofit called Reading, Writing, and Rhythm that provides musical instruments to public schools nationwide — often the only access some kids would have to them. She said that in the 2000s, Prince made a generous donation. “He asked us to not make a big deal out of [it],” she said. “He loved music and he knew that music was the only door some young people would ever have the chance to walk through.”
Prince knew what it was to get a start in difficult and seemingly overwhelming circumstances (the movie Purple Rain is a loose biopic of that start), and he knew how important music can be, especially to kids who have few, if any, outlets.
But ultimately, Prince’s impact will resonate most with those who came of age listening to his music, who delighted in the sheer rebelliousness of his clever turns of phrase about sex and love and how he defied genres yet incorporated so many into his songs. It was because of Prince that we now have warning labels on some albums, and for those of us who remember those battles over the delicate sensibilities of America’s youth, we would play Prince’s music extra loud and dance extra long and extra close and we’d wear the cassettes out and buy them again as adults fretted about the evils of “that” music.
And like that bank teller Jill mentioned in her comments, and like Jill, “I used to lie on my back on the carpet and stare up at the ceiling and cry to Prince. He knew before I did. And I feel like he was trying to tell me.”
Prince and his music made it okay to be weird and different and even joyful, made it okay to acknowledge sex and sexuality, in all its messy, painful, awkward, beautiful glory. He made it okay to feel and grieve and experience, and for some of us, at least, he made it okay to be us.
“We chart our entire lives by art.”
Indeed. And Prince is part of many, many soundtracks to many, many lives.
Happy Friday, everyone. And may you always have art in YOUR life.