I was surprised when Prince Rogers Nelson died, but I didn’t grieve for him. Never cared for Prince’s music or figured out the source of his appeal. As far as I knew, Prince was this rhinestone-studded entertainer who’d become part of the cultural wallpaper. He had legions of fans who saw and heard something in him that I didn’t. What can I say? Whatever turns you on.
But when Prince died I dutifully listened to Purple Rain from start to finish for the first time. I didn’t get it. So I listened to When Doves Cry and a few of his other songs. They didn’t do anything for me, either.
Watched some videos, and had to admit that Prince’s guitar artistry was magical. He was a transcendently talented musician. But neanderthal that I am, Prince’s music was too slow for my taste. I like something fast with a hard pounding beat.
It was like what happened when a friend sold me on the merits of Jim Thompson’s hardboiled fiction. I read The Killer Inside Me and Savage Night and decided that Thompson wasn’t my kind of writer. (I’ll know what I think about James Crumley when I finally manage to finish The Last Good Kiss.)
Back to my lack of appreciation for Prince’s music. Could it be that physiological factors prevent me from feeling or hearing things that other people feel and hear in his songs? Can it be that the musical receptors in my head are analogous to the eight-bit color graphics that limit you to seeing 256 (instead of millions of) colors?
I’m not one of those people who listen to the words of songs and try to divine their meaning. It could be because of the way my brain is wired. Or because I hate poetry. Having been force-fed poetry in elementary school, I developed a strong dislike for Wordsworth and daffodils. It took me years to appreciate the lupine, California poppies and other wildflowers I saw on backcountry hikes.
I love AC/DCs Back in Black, Problem Child, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Whole Lotta Rosie, Soul Stripper and Highway to Hell. I have no idea what those songs are about and I don’t care. The beat and guitar riffs are what make me feel good. And God, those drums.
I’d be the first to admit that I have primitive tastes. I’ve been a Rolling Stones fan forever, and can listen to Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Paint It Black over and over again. But Bob Dylan? You can have him. And I’d rather be strapped in a dentist’s chair than listen to John Lennon murmuring Imagine.
I love bands like Iron Maiden and Megadeth. I’d like Metallica — probably the most musically accomplished band out there — but I can’t stand James Hetfield’s portentous voice. I wish the dude would just shut up and play.
Which brings us back to Prince. His death didn’t cause the kind of public grief that followed the tragic death of the Princess of Wales. The aftermath of Lady Diana Spencer’s passing remains the gold standard for public mourning. As Christopher Hitchens drolly observed, it caused “a titanic outpouring of kitsch.” Still, it’s a cultural high-water mark, an event that touched people around the world.
The question is, since when did we start thinking more about people we don’t know than about people we do? And why do we think we know people we’ve never met?
Blame it on movies, television, the recording industry, the paparazzi and the celebrity culture they spawned. The gutter press, its digital counterpart, and social media over-sharing have woven celebrities into the fabric of our lives.
We’re more preoccupied with what Gwyneth Paltrow had for breakfast and Kim Kardashian’s steatopygian charms than we are with what’s going on in the lives of the people closest to us. This is a relatively recent development in human history. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Just a new thing.
And for the record, I didn’t get David Bowie, either. I always confused Bowie with Billy Idol. Who’s still alive, I think.