The key to longevity is to learn every aspect of music that you can. — Prince
Here we are again, mourning the death of yet another music legend. If I had any purple left in my wardrobe I might be wearing it today. Maybe. Earlier this week, I listed Purple Rain as one of the top five songs that everyone needs to hear. Now, that’s all anyone wants to play. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon when an artist dies.
There’s also a temptation to curse 2016 for being unreasonably evil in killing off people who mean a lot to our culture and in whom we have a great deal of invested emotion. I saw one tweet yesterday that claimed the aliens were calling all their spies back home before the disaster of this fall’s presidential election. While unlikely, that explanation comes about as close to making sense as anything else does at the moment.
Yesterday just plain sucked for everyone except, possibly, Queen Elizabeth II, who turned 90. And even if her day went as badly as everyone else’s, the Queen gets a do-over in June when her birthday is officially celebrated.
The rest of us, however, started the day with news of Chyna’s death. That was bad enough. Chyna was one of those people who always seemed to be struggling against public perception. Few people paid attention to women’s wrestling before Chyna got into the game, and she changed that. She made it more sexy, more entertaining. That wasn’t enough, though, and she kept looking for something I’m not sure she ever found, some level of acceptance that alluded her.
When the news began to filter onto the Internet that Prince is dead, the initial tone was one of disbelief. After all, he’d been the target of false death announcements before and having TMZ break the news is like asking for a giant here-we-go-again eye roll. Only when the Associated Press joined in on the story did the shock and sadness really begin to set in and spread a purple wave of sadness around the globe.
Were it a more quiet news day, we would probably be talking about the death of Brenda Soto, a 16-year-old Fairfax county, Virginia student who was beaten to death by other girls while at school. There are multiple issues there that need to be discussed, including the accusation that multiple students stood by and recorded the beating on their phones instead of doing anything to help.
Our collective attention can’t seem to handle more than one topic at a time, though, and for the moment, all our attention is on Prince. The rock star’s death is bound to become one of those “where were you” moments for a lot of people. I am seeing in the global reaction’s to Prince’s death a pattern similar to what happened when Elvis died unexpectedly in 1977. All the shock, all the despair, mostly coming from people my age and a wee bit younger, those for whom songs like Purple Rain, Raspberry Beret, and When Doves Cry influenced some formative part of their adolescence, is very similar to that of women of a certain age when Elvis died.
I remember being in the car with Poppa, on my way to a piano lesson, when the news of Elvis’ death came on the radio. I wasn’t of the generation that worshipped him, though, so while I appreciated the impact he’d had on music, I wasn’t necessarily a fan (which hasn’t changed). Similarly, teens today are not overly familiar with Prince and the various iterations and changes he went through. Those who are really into music appreciate his impact, but they’re not as likely to be fans and most won’t understand why their parents and the rest of the world are turning everything purple.
What I expect to come next are the conspiracy theories. Prince led a life that is ripe for speculation. After all, since his 2001 conversion to Jehovah’s Witness, Prince had acted less like a rock star and more like a delusional cult member (which is the most accurate way to describe all Jehovah’s Witnesses). Even though he had returned to performing and seemed to be in good form when he rocked Atlanta earlier this month, one has to wonder if the strange religious beliefs, particularly that part about not allowing blood transfusions or organ transplants, might have factored into his death.
There’s also the fact that Prince died a mere two months after one of his more famous girlfriends, Vanity. That there might have been some connection between their deaths is already a tale that is gathering some steam and, given the romantic twist, could quite likely take off.
Or maybe he’s out golfing with Elvis and Bowie in Bermuda.
With the tremendous number of deaths among music legends and other celebrities this year, one might find it interesting that just this past Wednesday The Guardian ran a story about the possibility of digital immortality. The theory here is that while it might be impossible to preserve one’s body forever, given the natural decaying of biological tissue, one might be able to digitally preserve all of one’s memories, experiences, personality, and wisdom in a digital form, and then present that back through some type of chat bot with an avatar resembling the face of the deceased. The name of the company is Eternime and the product isn’t quite ready for prime time. Their website says they hope to be in beta sometime “next month,” without any indication as to which “next month” that might be.
But what if we could preserve the personality, the spirit, and the essence of people like Prince or Bowie or Elvis? Would we really want to keep them around in that form? We have their music, which is influential on their own. Do we really need a digital Prince to repeat back some of his previous questionable statements? Regardless of how great his music was, this was the guy who said, “When I found out that there was eight Presidents before George Washington, I wanted to smack somebody,” and “Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you.” Do we really need that nonsense lingering around? I’m not sure immortality suits everyone terribly well.
And that’s why I might not wear purple today, even if I had some. All that was great about Prince happened before 2000. In fact, one could easily, in my opinion, make the argument that after his 1998 album Lovesexy everything else pretty much sucks. To return to an earlier analogy, think young Elvis versus “old” Elvis (he died when he was 42, so “old” is a matter of perspective). With both artists, the songs that made them famous and for which they’ll always be remembered are the ones at the front of their careers. Prince hasn’t had a number one hit since 1989’s Batdance. After that, the highest any song ranked on the charts was The Greatest Romance Ever Sold, which topped at #63 in 2000. He hasn’t had a song hit the top 100 since 2004’s Call My Name.
So, as great as he once was, maybe it’s best that we let Prince and everyone else go. Immortality isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be and sometimes the more we know about our heroes and legends, the less likeable they become. We’ll miss what we liked about them, that part of them that touched our lives, but that doesn’t mean we should keep them around forever.
And hey, maybe the movie Men In Black was right: They’re not dead, they just returned to their home planet.