The death of a musical icon affects some individuals more deeply than the passing of any other public figure. Music is a society’s heartbeat, and the loss of one of the culture’s driving drummers momentarily impedes the flow of daily life. It’s akin to slamming on the brakes on the freeway — it’s a jarring, jolting effect that causes the usual traffic to grind to a fractional pace. When a politician faces an untimely death, it’s tragic and has long-term consequences on a global scale — but when a musician dies it has ramifications for an entire universal consciousness.
These musical figures that affect us so deeply break demographic boundaries; we can experience their creativity identically across generations. When I initially heard “Little Red Corvette” in middle school I thought it was a perfect pop song; my dad heard it on American radio during his first few years in this country and had the same reaction. With Prince now a memory rather than a physical entity, we share a collective response to the music he left behind that ties us together in a common sensation.
Yet emotionally, we also experience music alongside unique strata. My sister absolutely loves Prince’s “Kiss,” yet she’ll never have the experience of recording it to a mixtape and giving it to a first love in anticipation of them appreciating her discovery. She was born too late to be included in that cultural moment. She will, however, eventually hold a similar type of nostalgia for the voices behind her own cherished songs of adolescence. Culture varies over cycles, but it always completes a perfect rotation along the axis of an individual.
At the age of 20, I only get to see Prince’s career through a retrospective lens. Meanwhile my parents witnessed his entry into popular culture, where he remained within their worldview until his departure last week. They saw his entire narrative arc, or at least his living portion of it, before his legacy is remastered and redistributed to the public in the coming years. They saw an unknown become an icon, and were there for every step along the path to that conclusion.
Prince didn’t get to be my icon growing up. I can mythologize him, revere him, and pine for the remnants of his artistic zenith, but I can never hold those moments of his social imprint for myself. I was impressed by his final SNL performance back in 2014, and always noncommittally considered attending one of his many Hit n Run dates in Oakland and San Francisco, but I never considered him vital in a contemporary sense the same way I treat everything Kanye West does. Prince never earned my respect; it was a given by the time I became a musically cognizant individual. His greatest moments were already transcribed in the history books, and even though I was alive for the release of Plectrumelectrum or Art Official Age, I don’t get to grieve the same way as the legions of Prince fans who saw the release of 1999 or Purple Rain. Prince is a legend, but as a public figure his greatest impact preceded me.
I still have a long ways to go in building the musical foundation that will eventually create pressure points in which the inevitable passing of musicians will truly trigger me. I understand the gravity of Prince’s legacy, but I never personally felt it beyond the fragments he left behind through his influence. Truly significant artists live on in the way new artists emulate their style, sound, or ideals. The studio version of “When Doves Cry” will forever remain an artifact of an era, but it will continue to breathe through the songs of musicians who were influenced by its innovative pop construction.
Still, the death of Prince is significant because it marks a generational progression. My parents have lost many developmental figures in their musical journeys, and at this point have few remaining. Gone are most of the ambassadors of the 1950s — Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Elvis Presley — and we are approaching the further losses of key figures from the 1960s. That’s a morbid thought, but it’s also natural — and when one generation loses it’s heroes the next generation becomes emotionally prepared for the coming of the same.
My parents will presumably see the passing of the major figures of 1960s rock and roll. They’ll likely see the 1970s officially come to a close with the passing of the major greats of R&B, and then the same for the massive pop stars of the 1980s. With each death my parents are further confronted with the end of the culture that brought them up. To me, however, it’s a reminder of my precious and continually receding youth, and that I have decades to keep building memories before they end up dating me.
Eventually, I’ll be standing in the same position as my parents. I was hardly present for the 1990s, but the passing of the underground rock stars and rappers of that era are going to hit far closer to home than any other deaths on the way. The 1990s is when active artists began to enter the cusp of my development, growing alongside me as they formed my very first cultural experiences. Time will encroach onto me until I eventually face the mortality of the artists that defined my formative years. What’s even more remarkable is that I’ll have to carry on as my culture withdraws further into the past, and watch as new artists take their place on the mantel of the next generation’s engagement with the musical zeitgeist.
And despite my assertions that my musical tragedies are yet to come, Prince also mattered to me; his death has come closer than any other musician to striking me in a meaningful way. I was too young to mourn Michael Jackson — he hadn’t stayed around the way Prince had when I began tuning in. I felt Prince’s presence continuously over the past few years, and when I read the news of his death whilst casually scrolling through my Twitter feed, I was in disbelief. I didn’t know how to process the notion that Prince, who had just a few months ago sold out Oracle Arena and released his latest full-length album back in December, was suddenly no longer going to continue to do so. My parents must have experienced dozens of these reactions over the course of the past few decades. Prince’s death reminded of my innocence, of what little I had already lived through and had still to this point just been living through.
I am too young to feel fully the weight of this loss, but Prince was also too young to have left us. It wasn’t his time. The same way it wasn’t Michael Jackson’s time. The two were defining figures of the 1980s, and the 1980s still has a few decades to go before we expect the markers of that era to erode. It feels unfair when musical deaths skip generations, hitting us against our expectations. How could we be prepared when Michael Jackson had been publicly plotting a triumphant comeback tour, or when David Bowie had just released one of the most spectacular albums of 2016? The same for when Prince was constantly touring and releasing music as experimental and invested as he ever had. All three were restless to the end, and robbed of getting to turn that energy into further evidence of their creative exceptionalism.
The death of a musical icon is the end of an era — it’s another lost voice of a generation that is starting to see few remaining. Prince was a narrative of human time, the same way Bowie was a narrative of human time, the same way Michael Jackson was a narrative of human time. His passing is the period at the end of his sentence — it marks the shift from actively writing history to history having been written.
Our collective reflections of Prince are the eulogy for a culture. As we age, memories slowly change as we revisit them with new perspectives. It’s inevitable that our heroes will at some point leave us, their presence remaining in their imparted influence, but additionally etched permanently into the mental narratives we’ve cultivated over our ongoing associations with them. Of course musicians elicit the biggest outpouring of grief when they pass — no other public relationship is as universally held or as intimately formed. We are made up of the musicians we idolize. When they die, a piece of us reaches the end of its growth. Yet said icon never fades from us. They never could. We idolize because we empathize — we see ourselves in our heroes, because our heroes let us become who we otherwise wouldn’t think to be. When an artist passes away, they don’t become invalid. They become immortalized.