Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Prince and the Nexus of Music and Memory.

This poster was my introduction to Prince.

I heard about it before I actually saw it. It was 1981. My girlfriend was getting a new dorm mate at college.  The new girl proceeded to hang the large poster on the wall over her bed.  My girlfriend was repulsed. She thought it was disgusting, and quickly told me as much later that day on the phone.  It would be weeks before I finally got to see the poster myself.*  It was my introduction to the late Prince Rogers Nelson.

I had never heard of him before seeing the poster, although I soon would.  I would become a fan.  Not a big one.  I bought the iconic "Purple Rain" album -- who didn't?  I later got a greatest hits package that filled in most of the remaining blanks as far as I was concerned.  Yet, despite my lack of devotion, Prince's death really hit me hard and I think I know why.

When you're young, I think you are attracted to music that speaks to your immediate emotional needs at the moment. You seek out performers whose words and music impart something into your life. It also helps you build a sense of community with others. You instinctively feel that other people who are attracted to the same music must share your background and needs. Music reinforces your feelings and helps you find your place in life.

It's different when you're older. Popular music from the previous decades speaks to you differently.  It is no longer about what the recording artist imparts to you through the words and music. It is about what you impart onto the music.

Generally speaking, I hated the music of the eighties during the actual decade itself.  I found it gimmicky and over-produced and too heavily-laden laden with synthesizers and electronic drums.  Ick.  Now I love it.  It's amazing how songs I once viewed with disdain can illicit a deep emotional response from me.  Why?  Because the songs themselves no longer matter in and of themselves.  The emotion comes from the context in which I heard them originally.

For example, when I hear Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," my mind races back to a fun company party held at the home of two of the executives at a company where I worked. When I hear "Raspberry Beret," my mind goes back to a sunny, carefree Saturday morning when I first saw the video. It put me in a chipper mood for the rest of the day.  Prince's original intentions with the music are irrelevant to me.  Now the songs serve as little audio time machines -- transporting me back to bygone days.

When I wrote my memoir "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God," I found pop music to be one of my most effective tools.  I created massive playlists of songs from each of the years depicted in my book.  And, for example, when I wrote a chapter about 1980, I only played randomly-shuffled songs from that year.  I was shocked how much emotion and memory those often lame AM-oriented Top 40 songs packed. They recaptured a time frozen in the past.

And that is why I mourn Prince. There was a time when he was positively ubiquitous. His voice rang out from every television and radio and turntable and boom box. Even if I didn't deliberately seek out his music, Prince was always there providing the soundtrack to a sad, crazy, exciting time in my life.  His sudden death serves as an unwelcome reminder that the past that he provided a steady beat for is also gone forever.

I guess the poet John Donne summed it up best when he said: "Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

I do mourn Prince as a person. My prayers go to his family and loved ones. But I also realize he takes a little of me with him. And I know I will soon follow.

Until then, Let's Go Crazy:

*Funny, I never noticed the cross in the poster until I looked at it again after Prince's death.

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

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