In this case the art form is music, but I believe this to be true of every other genre as well--poetry, drama, novels, sculptures, paintings, you name it. It's also true of the liberal arts disciplines that form the foundation for the expressive and performative arts: the most powerful artistic works are solidly grounded in such fields as history, literature, philosophy, comparative religion. We don't necessarily need to be experts in all those areas to appreciate this fact, any more than we need to be huge Prince fans ourselves (though in my case, I am) to recognize his impact. As I incessantly tell my students, "liking" something and "appreciating" it are not the same thing, and our own personal tastes to the contrary, a significant aspect of becoming educated is learning how to appreciate the value of something even when we don't particularly "like" it.
In the case of Prince, he was one of those gifted artists who managed to draw in even people who normally wouldn't be fans--partly because he challenged our expectations by defying the usual expectations of genre. I remember an all-day workshop I went to back in the mid 80s, an introduction to music therapy that I attended because I was considering that as a career path (a dream I still haven't given up more than 30 years later, and I wish I could sign up for a few more lifetimes to hit this and a few others). Our workshop facilitator was, in addition to a licensed music therapist, a trained classical musician. Throughout the day she played classical works that she'd found to be of therapeutic value with many of her clients, in the process covering many of the "usual suspects" when it comes to music that heals --the inspiring final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Barber's powerful "Adagio for Strings" (this was just before Platoon would adopt it for psychological effect), the gorgeous "Agnus Dei" from Faure's Requiem (now one of my personal go-to pieces in times of crisis).
Then, she threw us all off by saying that, while many people who know little about classical music can gain therapeutic benefits by learning more about it, not all therapeutic music has to be classical. "This new piece I'm about to play really speaks to me, as well as to many of my clients," she said--and that was the first time I ever heard "When Doves Cry."
Decades have passed, but when I heard the news about Prince and "When Doves Cry" played on the radio for days, I flashed back repeatedly to that scene from my own past, in the process speculating about what my life might have been like had I pursued a career in music therapy instead of literature. The main barrier to taking that pathway, in my case, was the lack of accredited MT schools in our geographical area combined with the difficulty of changing locations, since I was already an adult with a spouse, a mortgage, an existing career, and the need to self-fund my education. Perhaps I didn't want it badly enough, since passion will often find a way. In any case, the road I've taken has been a fantastic one. Besides, I can't now imagine life without the particular people I've met, the experiences I've had, the places I've been. It's all good. Still, there are always the what-ifs. For all of us.
As I expounded at length in my blog posts on celebrity deaths following the loss of Robin Williams in 2014 (read here for a long meditation on Michael Jackson and here for thoughts on Dead Poets Society), our mourning when celebrities die is never only about the person who's died. It is also about the farewells we all must say regularly: to our own prior selves, to our own what-once-was, our own what-ifs, our own what-might-have-beens. They are also nostalgic reminders of who-we-once-were, and poignant reminders of what-never-again-can-be (there won't be a live Prince concert in my future).
And when monuments from many different places light up in a single color in honor of a great artist, that reminds us of the power of human creativity to create bonds, even across seemingly unbridgeable divides. That's something we especially need right now, at this moment in history when certain people who have the power and resources to bring about great good are instead choosing to use their considerable gifts to sow seeds of division and hatred by exploiting our prejudices and fears.
Less orange, more purple!