This has been a tough year for celebrity deaths — and a sad week for fans of Prince, who died Thursday at age 57. But as flashes of purple filled my social media feeds from friends mourning Prince’s death, I just felt numb — and like an outsider, watching a ritual I couldn’t fully join.
That’s because I grew up in a conservative evangelical home in the Midwest in the 1980s and ’90s, with pop culture kept carefully at arm’s length. We were told — at my charismatic church where the faithful “spoke in tongues” and believed in miracles, and at my strict Christian school where girls wore skirts below the knees every day — that rock ‘n’ roll was “the devil’s music.”
After a decade-plus of adult life on my own, I’ve learned to blend in, to laugh off the references I don’t get, to shake off the embarrassment about not really knowing much about evolution or falling silent when friends swap prom stories (no dancing at my high school). But this week brought back some of the old feelings of isolation that I first felt in the workplace and around peers from outside my evangelical cocoon — a sense of being out of place and maybe not quite right.
Instead of David Bowie and Prince, I grew up on contemporary Christian artists like Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant — and some others you’ve probably never heard of. Even those artists who occasionally scored crossover hits that made it to the pop charts were viewed by some in my parents’ circles as too “worldly” because their lyrics didn’t always mention Jesus. There were also concerns about Grant’s choice of red leather pants when she performed on stage.
As a result, I missed many of the cultural icons of those decades. Being a rule-follower, unlike some of my evangelical friends, I mostly toed the line and avoided forbidden “secular music.” That’s until I realized that being the only kid in junior high who doesn’t know about the Casey’s Top 40 hit list from last Sunday night makes you an even odder duck than you already are at 13 with braces and bad skin.
So each evening, I began saying goodnight to my parents, slipping my Walkman under the covers, turning my headphones down low and straining to hear the local radio station run through the “Top 4 at 9” or “Top 5 at 10.” I needed to fit in, and part of that was cultural literacy.
That must have been when I first heard Prince and maybe even Bowie, although to this day, I can only name a handful of their songs. I couldn’t even hum a line of “Purple Rain,” if I’m being honest. But there are a few memories I managed to sneak into my teenage experience. “The Most Beautiful Girl In the World,” came out the year I was 14. I remember listening to it on the radio when my parents were out of the house, staring in the mirror and feeling, in my 14-year-old awkwardness, that maybe I was beautiful, just for a minute.
Then, there was “1999,” which came out when I was an infant but quickly became an anthem for my high school graduating class — the Class of 1999. You couldn’t avoid it in the year or two leading up to the turn of the century. My driver’s license, that universal symbol of freedom, meant free reign on the car radio, and I’d dance in the car each time it came on, dreaming about graduation and the road ahead.
That road meant a lot more freedom — but for whatever reason, I never really got caught up on some of the things I missed. I still have a mental list of ’80s movie classics I need to see and rockers I should probably learn more about, someday. But life goes on, and pop culture keeps churning out new material, and somehow listening carefully to “Purple Rain” just never happened.
So when I heard the first reports that Prince might have died, while on a conference call with colleagues, I tossed off some sort of callous joke like, “Wait, is he currently known as Prince?” I was vaguely aware that he was still performing, but hadn’t absorbed how much he still meant to so many people. So while my friends were quoting Prince lyrics and reminiscing about going to Prince concerts, and strangers were gathering to mourn in Minneapolis, I just felt … like I was peering in the window of someone else’s wake. My friends were all in the same funeral procession marching by, and I was standing by watching.
After Prince’s death, and Bowie’s a few months ago, and Michael Jackson’s several years back, I recognized, cognitively, their importance. I felt sympathy for my friends who felt their loss. But mostly, I’ve felt isolated from all of you who share these ties, and regret for what I missed. These cultural figures don’t just speak to us as individuals; they join us together as a community. They create touchstones — without which, it’s easy to feel like an outsider.