THIS THING CALLED LIFE: Prince and the Nature of Collective Grief

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When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.


William Shakespeare – Julius Caesar


“Style ain’t sittin’ court side with the owner of the team
Style is owning the court and charging ’em all a fee
Style is not lusting after someone because they’re cool
Style is loving yourself ’til everyone else does 2 “

Prince – “Style”



It was just hours since the news of Prince’s death had been released, and social media was already filled to the brim with shock, news stories, remembrances, and a massive outpouring of grief. I was behind the counter at the shop where I work, listening to every Prince song I had on iTunes, which thankfully was several hours worth, when two women walked in. They were fairly unassuming Pearl District types, which by Portland standards generally means freshly scrubbed, gluten-free, Barre workouts, and a mild aversion to tipping. That’s all fine for what it is, but I only mention it because it tempered my expectations for the interaction. They were around my age and nice, and we fell right away into casual, friendly conversation. We were talking as I rang them up, and just then the song “Purple Rain” came on the speakers. The woman who was paying froze, and her face began to twist with pain, her cheeks flushing and her eyes filling with water. “Oh my God,” she said. “I haven’t heard any Prince songs yet today. Oh my God I’m so sad. I can’t believe it, I’m going to cry.”

And that’s exactly what she did. Real, wet, hard tears, right there in front of the register. She wiped her eyes, embarrassed, but that didn’t stop them from coming. In fact, they seemed to flow even harder. Her friend touched her arm, and said “Oh honey,” and she had tears in her eyes too. And then there I was, raw from too little sleep, and those warm, sweet opening chords filling the room and Prince’s wounded but upright voice singing earnest lyrics about sorrow and pain and laughter, which had certainly made me weep before in other distant personal circumstances, and I too felt my throat tighten and tears burning my eyes. The three of us stood there suspended together for a moment, the only ones in the whole place, as the song rose into its gospel-infused chorus, between us the absolute encapsulation of grace and beauty and loss, and the guts and talent it takes to give such a gorgeous gift to the world.

“Unbelievable,” she muttered, sniffling and doing her best to gather herself. We all looked at each other wiping our eyes and laughed. I handed the woman her change, and she said thank you with a trembling smile that I will never forget, and they turned and walked out together, leaving me there, shaking and laughing to myself as the rest of the song played out.

Later, when I thought about what had happened, there were a number of surprising things about it. Firstly, I had not expected a moment of such unbounded intimacy over the far-out, sexed-up artiste. Not there, certainly not with them. I mean, I suppose when I saw them I unconsciously expected them to not care that much. They didn’t seem like outwardly sensitive or musical people, or that the music of Prince would be anything more than a distant soundtrack to their lives, no different from any other dusty, cracked CD in a box in the basement. But then, of course it was. He was such a massive musical force, his divine gift was to create the kind of music that transcended any and all boundaries. It was so contagious, so potent, so emotionally resonant that it made its way into even the most obscure cracks and corners of the world, filling them with his wild, transcendent soul.

But I was further surprised by the IRL naked display of emotion that allowed us to transcend social self-consciousness and grieve in person for even just a small moment. We Americans, the mutts of the world, to paraphrase John Winger, are famous for our unbridled emotionality, and yet our shamelessly hypocritical inner puritans still judge explicit displays of emotion as self-indulgent, or even fanatical. Our public emotions live large on the internet and television, in ways that remove it from our physical lives and of course make it more difficult to express in a visceral way. There is a physicality to empathy, the subtleties of body language and hormonal reactions that arise from millions of years of evolution. When that physical proximity is absent, it becomes a lot easier for emotional displays – an unhinged Twitter rant, vicious trolling, or just your average episode of Jerry Springer – to veer into the gray area between genuine feeling and performance. In return, the response is often detached and judgmental, as if critiquing a piece of art, rather than someone’s actual extemporaneous feelings. This has a political aspect to it as well. To a certain set, John Boehner’s various bouts of tears were heroic, while Obama’s tears over the slain children of Sandy Hook was branded a cynical put-on. Whatever the truth in either of these matters, the digital sphere is still where most of our collective emotional life lives, where we go to mourn together.

Overall as a culture, we have less and less connection with traditional communal mourning rites. According to anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, this shift began in England during World War 1, where due to the sheer mass of soldier deaths, families were discouraged from mourning publicly, lest an entire nation dressed in black lose its collective will to continue fighting the war. Our move away from religion to a more secular society furthered this separation from communal rites, but not the need for them. American culture reveres individualism above nearly all else, but it goes against human nature to keep grief to ourselves. We seek out others who share our pain. In the 21st century, this means not only on the internet, but Death Salons and Death Cafes, places that have sprung from the basic human need to come together and explore the primary force that defines life – the anti-matter to our matter, the unknowing that defines all we know. Of course, many cultures within our culture maintain their traditional celebrations of death and mourning, but in general, as Americans we tend to avoid the subject as much as possible. Halloween, for instance, has long passed from any real association with death to a celebration of carnality, clever mischief, outrageous novelty, and sheer excess. Memorial Day is for many just an excuse to have the first great barbecue of the year. This does not make us bad people, necessarily, depending how harshly you choose to condemn culturally ingrained fear, self-involvement, and denial. “Merely, thou art death’s fool,” says The Duke in Measure For Measure, “For him thou labor’st by thy flight to shun,/And yet run’st toward him still.” Face it or not, we all die, young and old, innocent and guilty, heroes and villains, widely celebrated or forever unknown.

* * *

So why is it that we mourn certain cultural figures so deeply, particularly one who would inspire such tumultuous grief that it comes out between three strangers with little warning? Why does it seem to me, as it does to so many others, that at the moment little else is worth discussing on social media other than the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson? On the surface, it certainly seems like this tendency, this morbid revelry over someone few of us knew personally could be self-indulgent and perverse, part of some compulsive need for attention. Indeed, the so-called “grief police,” a decidedly 21st Century phenomenon, are always out in force after the death of someone famous. They are bent on either diminishing the character of the deceased, citing confirmed and alleged misdeeds to counter what they see as the unjustified canonization that comes with collective mourning; or calling out the whole process itself for being disingenuous. After the death of David Bowie in January, the film critic Camilla Long fired off a series of infamous Tweets about how phony she found all of the public grief. Among the harshest:

So many people “crying” or “in bits” over Bowie. FUCK YOU.
You are not ten – you are an adult. Man the fuck
up and say something interesting


and

This is NOTHING to do with Bowie. This is to do with
the utter insincerity of social media grief, the odd
mimicry and circle-jerkery of it.


Long, already well-known for her cold-blooded hatchet jobs as a reviewer, was likely not much of a Bowie fan in the first place, nor does she appear to be much of an expert on the subject of empathy. She’s kept pretty mum on Prince, at least on Twitter, but I can only guess that her feelings about public grief haven’t changed. And perhaps she is correct in some small way that some people stretch the truth of their fandom and grief in order to feel a part of something larger than themselves. But to me, that is far from the worst crime imaginable, certainly not worth the seething rage it seems to inspire from Long and her ilk. I find pragmatic ruthlessness to be a far worse crime, the kind of temperament of which wars and genocide are made. I have also always been deeply suspicious of “authenticity”, and the notion that somehow your allegedly fake enthusiasm cheapens the hard-won purity of my own, and that your falsity is eating into my emotional investment. I believe anybody can love and mourn any damn thing they want for any any reason they want, and it’s none of my damn business. Cry, scream, dance all night. Who am I to stop you, unless I gotta work in the morning.

But as someone who genuinely feels the pain of Prince’s passing, I also know that Long doesn’t have any idea what the fuck she is talking about. I have friends who felt so shaken by the news that they felt nauseous, couldn’t eat or sleep, had a hard time functioning those first few days. Maybe that sounds pathological, but then I think you don’t truly understand art. I would hope that Long, a critic for the London Times, would possess at least a drop of this sort of understanding, but then I remember, of course, that critics are often more painfully clueless than anybody about the true meaning of art. Long’s blanket condemnation of the grieving public is vicious enough that it justifies a “FUCK YOU” right back, as so many did on her Twitter feed after the Bowie incident. But to me it’s just not necessary. Just as any “fake” grief has zero effect on my own, neither does the skepticism of the non-believers. It’s her loss, really. We’re the ones fortunate enough to understand what art can mean, and how deeply it lives within us. We’re the lucky ones who get to have heroes. Those heroes change us, and when they die, we mourn them.

I mean, anyone with a basic sense of empathy would lament the death of a 57 year-old man who seemed so outwardly vital, yet passed away in such a tragic and apparently avoidable manner. But sadly, we hear these types of stories every day, and if each one were to rip through us with the full force of loss, then it would be impossible to function on a daily basis. There is something more personal at work here, a closer kind of relationship we feel with Prince, something not unlike love and friendship. The writer Mira Jacob wrote on Facebook:

Of course you are shattered. That’s the whole deal
with art—it doesn’t give a shit about the boundaries
of flesh. You never held Prince? So what. The way he
spoke to you, the way he shaped you and transformed
you into someone you couldn’t have imagined is
just as real and vital as any relationship you will
ever have.

Scott Woods, in his powerful eulogy, said:

Like all strong and real friendships, he was there when
I needed a little help, and occasionally I took him to task,
often relentless in my admonishments of his creative
decisions or a weak album. It was all love, a real I-want-
the-best-for-you love.


During his stand-up set last Friday, which he nearly canceled due to grief, Dave Chappelle called his friend Prince’s death “The Black 9/11”. Which might sound like irreverent, possibly even blasphemous hyperbole, particularly if you are not black, and if you are unwilling to stop and think about what Chappelle, one of the most incisive and articulate comedic minds out there, means by that. I’m not black, so I can’t speak to that part of it, but I definitely understand what he means in terms of the monumental nature of the loss, how wide-reaching it is. Prince was such a massive personality, so divinely talented, such a cultural ubiquity that he seemed immortal, and like a skyscraper, there was no possible way he could ever fall.

* * *

I mean, let’s just talk about the music for a minute. The holy crap, you’ve got to be kidding me, where the hell did this guy come from music. That coalescent tornado of funky, shredding psychedelic pop that swallowed every genre into itself and spit it out in all its electric, ass-shaking, rainbow-splattered glory. There is nothing like it anywhere, before or after, though like any great body of music, it comprises countless other great influences and distills them into its own unique style. He soaked up everything, from James Brown to Hendrix to Joni Mitchell to Herbie Hancock to The Sugar Hill Gang to Debussy. The man lived music, was made of it through and through. His dynamic talent was unmatched by all but a very few, the Bowies and the Wonders. But to my generation at least, because he shared our timeline, he always seemed more prolific, more dazzling, more of the times. His discography is monstrous (39 studio albums, 4 live albums), and by no means was every song a masterpiece. Some entire albums were barely listenable, but it was never from a lack of passion or talent, and there always managed to be a gem or two that made it worth digging through the rest. Regardless, every aspect of what he did musically was at a consistently mind-blowing level of genius. We all know how overused that word is, but it has rarely, if ever, been misapplied to Prince. As a multi-instrumentalist, he excelled at them all, from his ability to sing in almost any manner he wished (bluesy growl to the thinnest falsetto spire), to his widely heralded guitar playing, which was as flashy, soulful, and technically bewildering as anything produced by the all-time greats. Guitarist Billy Gibbons, of ZZ Top told the Washington Post:

[S]ensational is about as close a description of
Prince’s guitar playing as words might allow. I believe
that the feeling one was left with, if afforded the luxury
of actually seeing Prince perform … we’d be looking for
other superlatives. Because it’s almost got to the point
of defying description.


Gibbons then mentioned that for years he has been unable to untangle and emulate the guitar intro to “When Doves Cry”, and in reading that it occurred to me that it was indeed so seamless that I never even realized what an elaborate, technically masterful piece of work it was. Which seems as apt a summary of Prince’s musical talent as there could be: so virtuosic that you never see the strokes.

On his recorded output alone, he would have been a legend, but as a performer he was just as monumental. On stage, he was a man in utter possession of himself, as confident, daring, and creative as a man could be in the spotlight. The combination of music, dance, fashion, spectacle, and his ability to jump back and forth between all of these elements – going from a choreographed dance routine to an elaborate theatrical sequence with dozens of props and extras, to getting the audience to sing the chorus by themselves, to a searing, sorcerous guitar solo, all in the span of a single song – gave him an electrifying stage presence, and created so many irreverent, unforgettable moments that it further pushed him into the realm of superlatives. He never quite had Bowie’s acting chops, and his movies are notoriously campy, but they still offer such scintillating musical sequences that all is forgiven until the camp itself becomes not just fun, but part of the beauty of the whole experience. It is the measure of his theatrical brand of confidence that he is so fully able to inhabit his various personae, but always appears a little stinted and self-conscious when playing himself.

Of course, to those who mourn him, the most important thing about the music was not so much its virtuosity and genius as the ways in which it became part of our lives. When the three of us were collectively moved to tears, it wasn’t so much due to the incredible musicality of the song as to what the song meant to each of us individually, and how those individual meanings fused to form a greater meaning. We had come toward each other down different roads of memory, but when we met in the middle, that song, that singular musical moment helped us recognize the deep human echo that informs all of our lives. For most of us Gen Xers it was the kind of music that came about when we were young and just starting to come into ourselves as sophisticated, emotionally complex beings, and his music was there as a part of so many firsts: first dance, first kiss, first time sneaking out, first time getting drunk, first time getting to third base.

I was ten when I first heard the record 1999. It was a family vacation at my uncle’s house in Great Falls, Virginia and my 14 year-old cousin, on whom I had a desperate crush, played it on constant rotation that summer. It was so funky and weird and dangerous, and the raw sexuality of songs like “Little Red Corvette” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” stoked unknown parts of my mind and body that were thrilling in a way I had never experienced. I associated every delicious note of those songs with my cousin’s swelling curves and glossed lips, the impunity with which she sipped beers by the pool and the way she described French kissing her boyfriend. The promise of that music and that summer was all the fire of grown-upness, its freedom and desire and urgency. See, in 1983, the year 1999 was a long way off. Pre-Perestroika, we still lived under the dark clouds of nuclear proliferation and the constant threat of annihilation, and the possibility that the world would even be around to mark a new millennium seemed remote at best. The time to live and to love was now.

* * *

Of course, all that music, all those videos and films and performances still exist. And the mysterious vault at Paisley Park, containing mountains of unheard musical gems, is apparently very real. So Prince will never make any new records, and we certainly won’t get the chance to see him live again, outside of some elaborate music festival hologram or other futuristic party trick. Yet, just like Tupac and Bowie and all the others, he will live on eternally, through his recorded music and films and performances, as well as what will continue to be released posthumously. Personally, I was never waiting with bated breath for his next record or performance to drop. His existing discography was always way more than enough for me. I never expected that I’d have the money to see one of his infrequent and usually prohibitively expensive live performances. So if I already have pretty much everything I ever wanted from him, and it’s not going anywhere, then what exactly has been lost? Where does the grief come from?

Certainly, there is a sense of my own mortality, the fact that if someone as seemingly immortal as Prince can go at any time, then my own time is fleeting as well. The memories inspired by his music will always be there, but something about his passing adds a certain stamp of finality to the past. Yet there must be even more to it than that. I have thousands upon thousands of deeply personal musical memories, with countless different musicians. Many of those have passed on, some even recently. While they all inspire a certain reflective melancholy and are worthy of tribute, very few have triggered such a monumental sense of loss, both for myself and the world at large. So the grief comes from not only the brilliant music, and how meaningful it was to us all, but something about the man himself.

prince-sky

Well, what kind of man was he? He had a reputation for being mysterious and eccentric, difficult and aloof, and a megalomaniacal control freak. While this description is not entirely inaccurate, it is a mythical portrait dreamed up by a zealous media. Indeed, he was a very private man, which he certainly can’t be faulted for. One of the reasons he chose to stay in Minneapolis his whole life was that for the most part he could go where he pleased and people more or less left him alone. For a famous exhibitionist, he did tend to be rather quiet and shy in person. But regardless of how much the media conflated his personality with the damaged, clowny weirdness of his contemporary Michael Jackson, he consistently comes off as level-headed, humble, and articulate in interviews (though no one would ever accuse him of being chatty). Prince took himself pretty damn seriously, for sure, but he also had a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor. He loved Dave Chappelle’s famous sketch about him so much that they ended up becoming friends. Other friends say he loved stand-up so much that he’d finish watching a set and start riffing on it himself, expanding it, making it funnier. The man always knew how to have a good time.

He was also incredibly generous, always mentoring young artists and extending countless opportunities to other up-and-comers, expanding his community. He was deeply devoted to his band and crew, whom he treated like family. He was Minneapolis’ favorite son, contributing money and supplies to schools and churches and libraries. His millions of dollars of charity contributions were rarely made public, because as a Jehovah’s Witness, to which he converted in the early 2000s, he was bound by his faith to not speak publicly of his largess. His faith also prohibited him from speaking too pointedly about political matters, which at one point got him falsely branded as being against gay marriage. But as a life-long speaker of truth to power and a lover of justice, he often lent his art and influence to important movements – notably and most recently, the Black Lives Matter movement, for which he played numerous benefits.

He kept a notoriously tight control of his brand and his musical output, from the writing to the recording to the distribution. He allowed very little to none of his music on Pandora or Spotify, while any and all infringements from Youtube and other file-sharing sites were taken down with ruthless efficiency, and continue to be after his death. The battle for Artists’s Rights, in the ungraceful mouths of overgrown adolescent numbskulls like Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, can come off as tyrannical and greedy, particularly as we become more and more accustomed to getting any and all media for free, or close to it. But with Prince, the battle feels much more like a sacred mission. Art, and the intellectual copyright that represents it, are the full property of the creator and when it is given away, a contract forms between the creator and the listener, ideally an exchange of mutual value for both parties. From the beginning of anything resembling a music business, the purity of that artistic contract has been spoiled and corrupted by interlopers and third parties, the rights and profits being taken away from the creators and lining the pockets of managers and record executives, or more accurately these days, copyright lawyers and software CEOs. Prince’s career exploded during a time when the major record companies had a near monopolistic control of the music industry. Like many others, he could have easily coasted indefinitely on the riches and prestige of his superstardom and not fought so hard to control the machinery that housed his vision, but he knew if he didn’t, something sacred would be lost.

“Albums matter, like books and black lives matter,” he declared during his brief presenter’s speech for Best Album at the 2015 Grammys. The artist’s vision matters, and his art should be given to the world as he intended it, in all its fully-realized complexity, not in bite-size, easily consumable chunks that fit neatly into the relentless stream of our breakneck, disposable culture. We learned this lesson immediately after his death, when we went to the usual catalogue of free music we could share with our fellow mourners on social media, and found that there was precious little to be had. At first it seemed unfair, almost ungenerous that he would leave us without such unfettered access during our time of grief. But in that moment, I realized indeed how valuable a piece of music really is. Instead of a knee-jerk search on Youtube, we were forced to either pay actual money for what we wanted, or more fittingly, go back to our old records and cassettes, the actual objects that had given us the gift of his music in the first place. Even in death he gave us a lesson about the simple value of art.

So I feel safe in saying that his desire for control was less about greed than his own rigorous, highly developed sense of self-empowerment. Though his ego was certainly not absent from the picture. Creatively, he had a relentlessly domineering streak for which he was often compared to tyrants like Brian Wilson, Miles Davis, and Phil Spector. He was an obsessively detail-oriented composer, and he often recorded every single instrument and vocal track on an entire record. He even did that on other albums that he produced, such as The Time’s eponymous debut, on which no member of the band actually appears except Morris Day, who was forced to follow Prince’s “backup” vocals nearly note for note. He extended this creative control to even non-musical areas, basically directing all of his early videos for MTV. He even made Larry Williams, the nominal director of “When Doves Cry” sit outside the room with a stack of magazines during all of the principal filming. He was notorious for spending hours on sound-checks, and for demanding unprecedented changes to the rooms he played to get the sound system and acoustics to fit his standards. He was demanding and difficult and uncompromising, but for the most part the results speak for themselves. As a collaborator, if you wanted Prince’s true genius to flourish, often it was best to just get out of the way and let him rip. I’m willing to bet that far more often than not, it was the right thing to do.

This unwavering confidence and sense of himself is how he carried himself in the world. For someone who expressed himself so prolifically, he still always remained a bit mysterious, because he lived in a realm that was never easily classifiable. In the oft-quoted lyrics to “I Would Die 4 U” he declares “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand.” His true magic was his ability to not bend to anyone else’s rules and expectations, but to inhabit his own assertive, nebulous humanity — beyond the narrow confines of gender, race, sexual preference –- and express the full force of his beautiful, brilliant autonomy through his art so that it could become ours as well. He was any and all of the above, and also none of your goddamn business… unless you were coming along for the ride. He did all of this at the time when there was a widespread revolt in music culture against perceived societal norms, but he was singular in the way he inhabited his unassailable and true self with such grace and power. His supreme talent and trailblazing bravery, not unlike the talent and bravery of Jackie Robinson or Barack Obama, burned a path for the rest of us to follow. That is the true measure of his greatness, that by being brave he allowed millions of us to be brave as well. Whatever we were marginalized by – our own (non) gender, skin color, sexual preference, or just our own awkward adolescence or general non-conforming misfit nature – we had the world’s sexiest motherfucker to show us that we would not only be okay, but we could thrive with the best of them.

Prince loves you, but he doesn’t need you to thank him. If you did, he’d probably demur and change the subject. He lived how he lived because it was the full essence of who he was. He just wants you to do the same. To live unapologetically, to start fires, to praise, to make music, make art, make love, to long with grace and kindness, to never let the elevator break you down, to sing along, to give, and to give, and to give some more, to look out for people, to laugh at yourself, to believe in the sacred, to be as goddamn humanly wild and beautiful as you truly are, and to dance.

You wanna thank Prince for what he did? All you really gotta do is dance, girl. Dance like the Sexy Motherfucker you are. Dance till the stars come falling down.

Like it’s 1999, or 1983 or 2016.

Party over oops…

So little time we have, Beautiful Ones. And only so much mind.

Go crazy.

 
 

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About Todd Gleason

Editor-el-Heifer of DMC. Head Drunk. Big Sinker. John the Conqueroo. Like a knight from some old-fashioned book. View all posts by Todd Gleason

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