Popular culture seems like our only culture in 2016, but it wasn’t always that way. Thirty years ago we had to seek and find pop culture. We had to pursue it; it wasn’t thrust upon us via 500 cable channels, the internet, or social media. We were lucky enough to see a glimpse of an artist on MTV or Friday Night Videos or hear them on the radio and become curious. Explore. Know them, and in turn, know ourselves.
My first cassette tape was Whitney Houston’s Whitney Houston. For some reason I either had money or was allowed by my parents to pick out a cassette, and that’s what I picked for myself. Though that was the first cassette that was technically mine and mine alone, I had begged my parents to buy me Thriller a couple years earlier. Dad appeased me by buying the tape but said it was his and I could listen to it when I wanted. Which happened to be all the time.
Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston are gone now. And I felt it in my stomach when I heard the news. I was sad, but not completely shocked because their lives had gotten a bit screwy. They had become unusual people but not in a good way. The respect they once had was tarnished by some of the situations they’d put themselves in. Their art and influence remained, but they had been exposed as being mortal.
When Kurt Cobain ended his life, many people my age were devastated but it was different. He was one of us. He was leading the charge. We cheered for his angst and anarchy and basked in the nakedness of his lyrics. Though he was the one who died, we were the ones exposed as being mortal.
But Gen X didn’t give up on music. We held on to our alternative rock, embraced the pop and hair bands of our younger days. As we’ve aged, we have only grown more attached to the music of our youth and have placed on a pedestal those artists who have been amazing our whole lives. Who, by following their own creative genius, allowed us to learn more about ourselves. Who took us to another place. Who helped us dance our lives away even it was only for three and a half minutes at a time.
Prince was not like the rest of us. And he was not like the rest of the artists in his generation. You didn’t have to be a super fan of his to respect his work, enjoy his music, and appreciate the gravitas his name lent to any project.
He gave us rock you wanted to dance to. Dance music with killer guitar riffs. Lyrics that made us blush. You didn’t know if you wanted him or wanted to be him. His appearance was both sexy and quirky. There was no one else like him.
Intriguing till the end, he was more like us than we realized; he was mortal.
Generation X, now firmly planted in adulthood, was just reminded again that we are, too.