Celebrities, like the rest of us, die all the time—with the difference being that our deaths don’t inspire an outpouring of eulogies and remembrances from mass media's every outlet. That kind of outpouring can often create the false sense of a national state of mourning, and inspire in some of us the opposite reaction. For many of us—especially those of us who have experienced the loss of someone actually close to us—the idea that we should grieve someone just because they were on TV or had a hit record can seem ridiculous, obscene even. That’s how I feel about most celebrity deaths.
But then there are those celebrity deaths that make us feel like there is a hole in the world. For me, David Bowie’s death was like that, and now Prince’s. Part of that is due to the way an artist like Prince’s work intertwines with personal memory. Having come of age in the 80s, I have many vivid recollections of which Prince is as much a part as the flesh and blood people who were actually there. These include going to see Purple Rain with a new girlfriend whom I knew was going to stomp on my heart, listening to “Lady Cab Driver” on my roommate’s stereo while she was at work, and playing the cassette of “Sign O’ the Times” over and over in my band’s tour van for an entire Summer. In this way, the hole is a personal one.
And then there is the matter of the imprint that these artists leave behind, which, in the case of Prince and Bowie, is measured, not in memory, but in the actual change they have wrought in the world. Both artists brought about profound changes in pop music--in the way that songs were written, recorded, and performed and, in turn, how they were perceived. A simple decision like removing the bass track from "When Doves Cry" opened up broad new vistas in terms of how a pop song could be produced and even what could constitute a pop song in the first place. That the artist takes with him or her into death the possibility of influencing more such change accounts in large part for the hole they leave behind.
Of course, these kind of ruminations are really a sort of cheat when all I want to say is that the loss of Prince is really hurting me right now. For now, I plan to grieve constructively, filling the hole with music--I already have a playlist planned--and probably a few tears.