When Elvis Presley died in 1977, I was 12. I didn’t care. I had no connection to him or his music. I certainly understand the impact Elvis had on popular music and musicians who were inspired by him, but to my 12-year-old ears, KISS was everything, and Elvis was a guy who appealed to my parent’s generation.
In 1980, when John Lennon was killed, I was 15. I was shocked, but not devastated. The Beatles’ music was part of my childhood, but they had broken up a decade earlier, and my emotional connection to the members of the band wasn’t all that strong. By that time, I was casting about trying to find “my music” and was enthralled by many New Wave artists and Rush.
When I watched the outpouring of grief over the death of The King and John Lennon, I didn’t fully understand why people who never met Presley or Lennon could feel so sad that they were gone. Their music was still around. The films, interviews, and photos of them weren’t going anywhere, so it was kind of odd to see such wailing and gnashing of teeth over public figures. When you’re in your tween to teen years, the world outside your orbit can seem so insignificant. What’s important to those older and younger than you is just a tiny blip on your radar — or so it was to me. I think Neil Peart kind of caught that attitude when he wrote the lyric, “We’re only immortal for a limited time.”
After David Bowie and Prince’s death, it’s clear from what a few people have written that it’s not necessarily the death of the musician that’s so upsetting, it’s also the realization that whatever connection to one’s youth is gone because that touchstone to one’s salad days is no more. The bubble of immortality that comes in a particular sliver of time frames our view of the past. Maybe that’s why older generations always look at “their” music as “better” than the garbage the kids are listening to today. That window of being open to what’s current and new (even if it’s discovering older artists for the first time) closes as we get older. Our ears are tuned to a style that reflects a particular time, and what comes after it (or even before it), isn’t as warmly greeted as what we consider “our music.”
With Prince and David Bowie, both artists put a lot of effort in transcending identities that signaled to the world that they were more than a “black musician” or a “white British folk singer.” As a teenager who didn’t have a “tribe” that I could call my own, I found these individuals unique because they confused people. They continually pushed notions of identity out of preconceived boxes by creating personas that deliberately shocked, outraged, and made the mainstream uncomfortable. That’s what rock-and-roll used to do. But — and I’m not the first person to note this — since rock, hip-hop, punk, funk, metal, and any other genre that comes out of deviance is now embraced by the mainstream, Prince or Bowie aren’t novel anymore. Or, as a guy I went to high school with — and now runs a tattoo parlor — recently said to me: “There’s not a lot left to show the world that you’re a rebel. I mean tattoos are mainstream. Piercing is mainstream. What’s left?” One could say the same for Prince and Bowie. Their personas that combined gender-bending with unique twists in the genre of rock, funk, and soul is now so…mainstream that’s it’s become passé.
There was a time when their music (and music of many of their contemporaries) would genuinely shock, anger, and outrage people. But now? Now Prince and Bowie are geniuses whose work is embraced by the President of the United States right on down to grandparents. But what’s often celebrated is “Purple Rain” and “Let’s Dance” rather than “Chaos and Disorder” and “Outside.” What gets lost in the repetition of “Let’s Go Crazy” or “China Girl” is that both artists moved away from milking a “sound” for hits until that cow couldn’t produce. However, right before their deaths, both Prince and Bowie were creating music that was greeted with a collective yawn by those but the most dedicated fans — until death made people sit up and take notice of their final statements. With Prince, his death was sudden, so, his final record wasn’t his final artist statement. With Bowie, he planned “Blackstar” as a goodbye.
It’s that goodbye that hurts those who grieve for people they never knew personally. I’m not sure I would have liked Prince as a person, nor would Bowie be nearly as charming as he was in TV interviews, but the music both artists created serves as a reminder of when we were young, trying to figure out who we were, and being attracted to that which was different and unique. For me, their deaths are reminders of a time of awakening. A time of being unique (even though I was looking to others for inspiration). A time of creativity (even though what I was creating at the time wasn’t any good). And a time when life seemed full of possibilities. Of course, those moments in time went away long ago. But it seems only now do I fully feel their passing.