What Prince’s Death Means

I was so lucky to see the last show that he did…just piano and microphone. I am astounded that he’s no longer with us. He just seemed so fit, he seemed so into it, so pleased to be there. I’m just really shocked in fact that he’s no longer with us.

– Myf Warhurst speaking on ABC News Breakfast the day of Prince’s death.

Prince riding a bike near his compound, Paisley Park.

There has been a public outpouring of grief since Prince’s unanticipated death just over a week ago. Listening to and reading the gushing praise on television and the internet, it’s clear that he touched generations of people with his music, talent and image – indeed, touched them deeply.

As I write, the rumour mill is in full swing with unverified claims that Prince had full blown AIDS, that he had overdosed on opiates allegedly used to manage symptoms of the virus. A delicious eyewitness account from staff at a Minneapolis based Walgreens, a North American pharmacy chain, stated that Prince, who dropped in to fill a subscription the day before his sudden death, looked ravaged by illness. Anyone who cares about the artist’s fate is eagerly awaiting the results of the autopsy report for confirmation of the cause of death.

Whenever a figure of global renown abruplty dies, be it Princess Diana, David Bowie, Michael Jackson or Prince, there are some of us, of the sociological persuasion, who are just as interested in the public reactions to death as the death itself. Why, for example, do we collectively mourn someone we never knew personally?

The answer is seemingly obvious. We did know them! We knew them because we were personally touched by their philanthropic actions, by their talent, by their strange beauty, by their Dorian Gray youth, by their emotional display – staged though these personal attributes may have been. It doesn’t matter we reasoned that Bowie or Prince couldn’t personally reciprocate the love and adulation that was directed their way by millions of fans around the world. It was good enough, we reassured ourselves, that they shared their larger than life lives with us from the stage, that they gave us everything they had to give – well at least it seemed that way.

But wait, not so fast! Is this the only reason why Prince fans, for example, are so shocked and upset? I don’t think so. What each of these figures of world renown have in common is the disturbing manner in which they died. Their unexpected deaths were like the violent ripping away of a mask, a mask we had confused for a real face, revealing a human being as naked, pathetic and vulnerable as the rest of us. The Princes and Princesses that promised so much, failed to live up to their side of the bargain. Prince’s lonely death in an elevator in the bowels of his personal compound is antithetical to everything he represented: youth, freedom, vitality and sex, in other words, an irrepressible life force. The same applies to the sudden and unglamorous deaths of Princess Diana and her good friend, Michael Jackson.

The flip side of the coin is that what all these abrupt terminations share in common is that we never had a chance to say goodbye. The universal ritual of mourning the gradual decline of an ageing or ill loved one is cruelly denied us. That is why we are distraught. We are devastated by the suddenness of death, not just the death itself. Compare Prince’s rude departure for example with Freddie Mercury’s long goodbye, who died of AIDS in 1991, or our quiet but sad acceptance of the deaths of Amy Whitehouse and Whitney Houston – deaths we all dreaded but prepared and braced ourselves for well in advance.

Prince’s inflight health scare on his private jet a week before his death may have been a harbinger of things to come, but who knew the gravity of what this event portended? No one except his closest confidants would have known how unwell he was, but now that Prince is literally dust, the veil of secrecy he shrouded his personal life with for decades, may (for what it’s worth) be lifted in the days and weeks ahead.

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