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Why We Care So Much When Icons Like Prince Die

A sociologist breaks down the mechanics behind the public displays of grief after a cultural hero dies.

We've been through the ritual a lot lately. First the confusing first reports of a death somewhere, the anxiety of a tragedy anticipated. Then the confirmation, the reality settling in, social media becoming a firehose of grief. The sound of every stereo and laptop and phone playing the same songs, the gathering together at bars and clubs. Obituaries are assembled and published. Writers sit up at night listening to those well-worn riffs, tapping out tributes, shows become spontaneous cover nights, the passing of an era is marked by gestures on porn sites and subway signs. Prince is gone, and we're still here, with his music.

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Most of the people who turned out in spaces online and real to celebrate Prince's life and death last night didn't know him. They didn't know David Bowie either, or Robin Williams, yet the reactions to their deaths were spontaneous, emotional, bone-felt. Everyone seems to instinctively know how to publicly mourn, to break from the mundane to celebrate a figure who towered above us. But why do we have this kind of instinct? What fuels the familiar beats of grieving when a cultural figure dies?

To sort this out and talk it through, I called up Theresa Martinez, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah who teaches a sociology of rock and roll class. Here's how our conversation went:

VICE: Why are people so upset by Prince's death?
Theresa Martinez: I think a lot of people feel connected to Prince because they listen to his music. Even if they don't listen to his music week to week, they connected to one of his songs years ago. Purple Rain is an iconic album, and so many people listened it for so many years. There are diehard fans, there are people who really love "When Doves Cry" or "Little Red Corvette"; there is a generation of people who grew up with his music. Then there is a generation of people who learned about it from their parents, their uncle, their grandparents. Then there's also people who, even though they may not connect with Prince's music, they understand his influence on R&B, on hip-hop, on all these different things. And he's been very visible lately.

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He's been doing concerts, he's been performing. It's not that Prince died, it's that an icon died. When David Bowie died, same thing, when Glenn Frey [of the Eagles] died, same thing—or when Robin Williams died. All these people are related to our understanding of ourselves, as a culture. We feel like it's a family member. I mean, people cried when John Lennon died. They didn't know him personally, but he was like a friend in their head, a person that they listened to and they absolutely loved and felt connected to.

With Prince, Purple Rain is still out in the ether. As I tell students in my rock and roll class, when something's introduced it never goes away.

And he was only 57!

Do you think people mourn deaths like Prince's differently now, because now everyone can post about it on social media?
Well, yes, because everyone is changed by social media. But also, people are hearing about it quicker, everything's quicker. Prince has been very visible in the last five years—if he had been more of a recluse this would still have been tragic news, but probably less discussed. Prince has performed with Alicia Keys, he's performed with other people that are contemporary artists. He hasn't faded away.

Do you think that some people are more affected than others by celebrity deaths?
Oh yeah. Some people think they're above it all and that they're not connected to this kind of thing. But I don't see it as a "celebrity death," I see it as a person who's an icon in our culture, an artist who's created important work. John Lennon's death was an immense event, it was the death of a Beatle! At least in my circle, we weren't thinking, Oh, wow, a celebrity died! It was more like, I grew up listening to this guy. I grew up listening to "It's a Hard Day's Night," "I Want to Hold Your Hand." It was John Lennon—he wrote "Imagine," you know what I mean?

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I had all my students in my rock and roll class write who their very favorite artist was at the beginning of the semester, and they all wrote things like, "I connected with my father over this artist," or, "I connected with my mother, my mother died and she shared this with me."

You're saying this grief we feel is often connected to the connection we formed with an artist when we were very young.
The thinking is, I loved that song! I loved that film that he was in! Awakenings is one of my favorite films and I can't believe Robin Williams is dead! As opposed to the people who are talking about "celebrity." That thinking is, to me, very douchey.

For me the death of Prince is about when I was dating my ex-husband and we were listening to "Little Red Corvette" and Purple Rain and going to see Purple Rain in the theater. That's a memory for me. It's a memory of family. It's a memory of America, of American culture. That's why I think Bowie's death and Glenn Frey's death and all these deaths are significant to us. Not just because they're celebrities but because we've been listening to them since we were children, since we were adolescents. It's bigger than a celebrity question, and more important: It's an ethos question, of what our culture is.

It seems like posting about Prince on social media, or talking about him, or listening to his music, is a way to reaffirm what made him valuable to the culture in the first place.
Exactly. Why do we have a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Why do we have people induct them and talk about their lives? One of the coolest inductions I've seen was Bruce Springsteen inducting someone, it might have been U2, and I was thinking, These people are talking about their lives, their impact on the culture, the things they accomplished as artists, the things they gave as a person to the world. That's what's important.

This interview has been edited for clarity.