When doves cry: Parents and the passing of pop stars

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood  of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 4-year old daughter Viva, who, like Prince, had a paisley crib.

2016 isn’t even half over yet, and it’s already killed, in no particular order, classic rocker Glenn Fry, country outlaw Merle Haggard, junior Frank Sinatra Frank Sinatra, Jr., psychedelic rocker Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane), funk soul Chicagoan Maurice White (Earth, Wind, and Fire), rapper Phife Dawg (A Tribe Called Quest), spaceman goblin-king David Bowie, Bowie protege Dale Griffin (Mott the Hoople), inscrutable pop royalty Prince, and Prince’s protege, Vanity.  There are still 8 months left, so if I were Morris Day, Apollonia or Sheila E., I’d definitely be buying more insurance — they say these things come in threes.

Most of my friends and I found Prince’s passing especially saddening. I’ve been listening to deep cuts all weekend and have gotten in touch with my inner analogue by busting out CDs, which are now sliding all over the inside of my car, and reminding myself that physical media was a huge hassle. My wife, who rarely seems particularly phased by celebrity deaths, was rattled by this one. Owing to Prince’s decades of hits and his appeal across racial lines, I’m seeing a broader outpouring of grief for Prince than for Bowie months ago. Meanwhile, my Dad was just taking off his black armband from Joe Cocker’s death when Glenn Fry died, and he still needs a little space.

My students and my own cohort’s children, on the other hand, are less rattled by these deaths. I’ve done some informal polling of millennials to see where they stand on the topic of the death of favorite musicians. I also spoke to my grandmother, a stalwart of the greatests, to see if freaking out over pop star deaths is mostly a baby boomer and Gen X thing, and what it is that makes the generations born in the second two-thirds of the 20th century so hung up on their music stars.

Identity

Here’s where the boomers and the Xers split with the kids born in an Internetted world. Our social subcultures are inseparable from what we listen to — jocks and jock rock, burn outs and metal, goths and … goth, etc. We dressed in the uniforms associated with our musical tastes, and we behaved the way good listeners of each genre behaved. Same with the boomers and their older surf stuff and car rock, and then hippie folkie stuff, and then their guitar-driven classic rock, coke-fueled disco freakouts, sell-out yacht rock, and whatever the hell Neil Diamond was supposed to be. (And that’s just my non-country but still honkey-centric music list. We could do that whole paragraph again with Motown, soul, funk, hip-hop, etc.)

For boomers and Xers, our music is who we are, and who we are determines our music. The current teens and twenty-somethings with their boops and beeps tell me that taste and identity is much more fragmented now, and that the young folks are more likely to have hip-hop and indie rock and dance pop all mixed up on their phones, as opposed to the single genre-heavy piles of cassette tapes that cluttered their parent’s rooms in the ’80s.

My students told me they just aren’t as close to any one artist as we olds are, though they all agreed that “they’d probably cry if Beyonce died.” Beyond her, they said there’s aren’t many monolithic musical figures for them to freak out over. Then they went back to Snapchatting, probably about how I suck.

So when a boomer or a Gen Xer’s musical idol dies, a piece of our identity dies too. Phife wasn’t just part of “A Tribe Called Quest,” he was part of a like-minded tribe of listeners who will never again leave their wallets in El Segundo.

Familiarity

We mourn celebrities because we felt like we knew them. Some celebs, like Prince, are more opaque than others — was the guy who wouldn’t let Weird Al spoof him really as funny as his friends say? We might never know, but we still feel close to him from watching hours and hours of videos, and of course our VHS collection of “Purple Rain,” “Under the Cherry Moon,” “Graffiti Bridge,” and “Sign O’ the Times”… just kidding, nobody owns all of those.

This feeling of closeness is where the boomers and subsequent generations pull away from previous generations. It’s not like humans from the dawn of time through the greatests didn’t like music, but they weren’t inundated with the musicians themselves and their images and backstories. Music was an enormous part of my grandmother’s life, but her generation didn’t know nearly as much about the singers’ personalities and home lives. (Would they have loved Bing Crosby so much if they had?)

When talking about the WWII generation, of course, one must remember that World Wars have a way of dominating one’s brain space. When Glen Miller went down over the English Channel in 1944, the nation mourned in its way, but it still had the Axis, rationing, scarcity and a steady stream of casualties and injuries to deal with. When Lemmy from Motörhead died last December, it was the only thing we were thinking about that day.

Mortality (and vitality)

We best remember the music of our teens through our twenties, owing to a neurological phenomenon known as the “reminsicence bump.” We best remember everything that happens from that period, and music binds itself to memories. That’s why we can remember exactly who we were making out with the first time we heard “Gett Off” (and whether or not we did). Most of us were our healthiest, happiest (and horniest) in our youth, and that’s also when we listened to the most music. The more musicians of our youth die, the more we’re reminded that our days in the hotel lobby with Nikki and her magazine are behind us.

My father, who associates with music above most things, just retired, which means he’s got a lot more time to garden and watch the Eagles die off. It hits him pretty hard, but I don’t think it’s because he actually misses Glenn Fry as much as Fry’s death is a reminder that he’s getting to the age where having a “Heartache Tonight” means reaching for the Prilosec. As we get older and more of our actual friends, colleagues and family members shuffle off this mortal coil, it is more emotionally manageable to mourn our musical idols than our peers. And we aren’t really mourning those artists so much as we’re mourning our past youth.

So, is it silly to feel sad about Prince’s passing? Absolutely not. And not just because “P Control” is a better get-money, empowerment tune than Queen Bey will ever muster. Not because he could rock a James Brown get-down like “Pretty Man” as well as he could churn out bedroom jam after bedroom jam. And not because “Purple Rain” can sit alongside any tune in the American songbook as a masterwork. But because, more than most generations prior and more than generations to come, our generation’s music helps us feel like who we are, who we’ve been, how we’ve lived and that we’re still alive for a while longer, even if some of our idols are rocking man heels in the afterlife.

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