Some facts that appeared over the weekend on the tidal reaction to Prince’s death from Brian Stelter, the “senior media correspondent” of CNN: Friday’s top-rated show was ABC’s 20/20 special about Prince.
Saturday’s top-rated show was the “Saturday Night Live” tribute to Prince. Per Variety, it had “the … top overnight scores in both young adults and households in (the past) two months.”
As of Sunday, eight of the top 10 selling albums on iTunes are Prince’s albums. Half a million views and counting for Bruce Springsteen’s rendition of “Purple Rain” in Brooklyn. (That number is now well over 2 million.)
Nightly news broadcasts led off with the story of Prince’s shocking death at 57. Cable news networks were full of it for days, with corresponding metric bumps in audience numbers.
It was the latest seismic shiver in the ghastly parade of rock and pop deaths in the past couple of years: B.B. King, Ben E. King, Percy Sledge, Cory Wells, Scott Weiland, Lemmy Kilmister, Chris Squire, Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, George Martin, Maurice White, Dan Hicks, Keith Emerson and, most traumatic of all, David Bowie and Prince.
What now has to be understood about our culture is how radically the stature of rock and pop music has rocketed up public esteem in the post-Woodstock era.
Some of us well remember when the subject of rock and pop was considered negligible frippery by America’s “respectable” journalistic media. I even remember when editors at this newspaper found it amusing that younger writers had nothing but reverence for people who were named Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
The radical change in esteem that the Beatles and Bob Dylan began was clinched forever by Woodstock in 1969. When the editor of this newspaper sent me, almost at the last minute, to be among the horde covering it, he had an inkling from wire stories already that something immense was happening. What he didn’t know quite yet is that the event would close down the Thruway.
Nothing that did that could, thenceforth, be considered negligible frippery by any assay.
Understanding its raw demographic power is one thing. The rocket ride ascent in public esteem is another.
Now that postwar baby boomers are senior citizens, rock and pop musicians are universal landmarks of cultural experience. And the grim parade that has walloped at least three generations in 2016 is a relentless portrait of their icons’ mortality.
Mine was the first rock generation. We were the ones buying those first 45s of Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was music I loved but it wasn’t the music most important to me. That was, and remains, jazz and classical music.
The greatest of all jazz generations is now largely gone. Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor are still with us among authentic jazz giants. And the number of truly great younger musicians is by no means small. But the majority of those I grew up following closely – from Gerry Mulligan and Shelly Manne to Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Dave Brubeck – is gone.
Something like that is beginning to happen in the world of rock and pop music.
A few of the great primal rock figures (Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry about to hit 90) are in their 80s but many are hitting 60 and 70 with some of their more disreputable habits and appetites persistent, if not intact. And mortality has not been kind to them since 2016 first rang in.
What American mainstream culture can’t avoid now is the recognition of just how seriously rock and popular music in general have gripped many generations’ very sense of themselves. We’re way beyond Allan Bloom rants here in “The Closing of the American Mind,” not to mention mere nostalgia. And the reaction to the deaths of Bowie and Prince merely underscores it for all time.
I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life here. When I reviewed Prince in his movie “Purple Rain” in 1984, I was attentive enough to refer to the “wild, bold, amazingly varied, rock, raunch, and Superfunk world of Prince … Part Jimi Hendrix, part David Bowie and part Little Richard.” (I’d add Rick James now, 32 years later.)
I haven’t always paid such accurate attention, believe me.
What I could never have foreseen reviewing that movie – or later, escorting my teen daughter and friends to Prince’s concert at Memorial Auditorium – was the immense national mourning that would swamp American media over one weekend in the 21st century.
I watched much of it in amazement. Yes, I wish that less popular forms of cultural endeavor didn’t seem sometimes as if they were expected to retreat apologetically from public attention.
But finally, it seems, the world of American media at large may actually be doing something very right.