David Bowie, Prince, and Merle Haggard were more than icons, because they taught us about what it is to be human, says Lynn Stuart Parramore
Three musical greats have died in 2016: Prince, David Bowie, and Merle Haggard. When Haggard died, US National Public Radio announced that ‘Country music legend and icon, dies at 79.’ The terms are considered interchangeable, but are they?
Many entertainers have been labelled icons — Britney Spears is an example. But Prince, Bowie, and Haggard seem to be in a different realm. Our culture, and our world, are different because they existed.
An icon can show us who we are. But a legend shows us who we could be.
Prince, a child prodigy who taught himself to play more than 20 instruments, explored daring erotic themes in his music. He toyed with new ways of being a black man in America, showing off his feminine side in purple silk and diamonds. Prince blended pop, funk, blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. He set his own rules and branched out from music into film. His songs could be explicitly raunchy ( ‘Darling Nikki’), but could also bring passion to a spiritual plane (‘Adore’).
Prince, a Jehovah’s Witness, broke with pop tradition to include religious motifs in his songs, such as in the messianic ‘I Would Die 4 U’. Philosopher Cornel West noted Prince’s strong social consciousness, which channeled rebellion against oppression, and care for society’s most vulnerable, into his art.
In 2015, Prince wrote ‘Baltimore,’ a song lamenting the death of Freddie Gray, the unarmed African-American whose fatal encounter with Baltimore police sparked riots in the city and widespread outrage nationally. Prince’s lyrics became a mantra for protesters: “If there ain’t no just, then there ain’t no peace.”
Prince not only remade the sonic landscape, but also left us with expanded notions of what it means to be male and female, black and white, erotic and spiritual.
Bowie, too, changed musical and cultural paradigms. In his first TV appearance, in 1964, as the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, the 17-year-old announced himself as an impish subvert, who would take society as he found it.
For example, in 1983 Bowie challenged MTV to include more black musicians. Upon the news of his death, rap artist MC Hammer tweeted: “Salute and Thank you to #DavidBowie for standing up for #BlackMusicians.”
Bowie’s views on society’s wrongs emerged in songs such as ‘Under the God,’ which depicts the rise of neo-Nazis and the horror of racism.
From his incarnations as the glam Ziggy Stardust and the avant-garde Thin White Duke, to his nimble turns at rock ‘n’ roll, disco, new wave, folk rock, industrial rock and electronica — and his roles in films such as The Man Who Fell to Earth — Bowie was an innovator and shape-shifter. “Without David Bowie,” electronica and dance musician Moby, said, “popular music as we know it pretty much wouldn’t exist.”
Prince and Bowie not only transcended the particularities of the decades associated with them (Bowie, the 1970s and 1980s; Prince, the 1980s and 1990s), they transformed their art form. They created fresh outlets for expression in music, in fashion, and in gender identity.
The word ‘icon’ comes from Latin, meaning a picture or statue, and from the Greek ‘eikon’, referring to a likeness or portrait, but also to an image in a mirror. Spears’ status as pop icon is easy to justify.
If you were watching MTV in the 1990s, her pigtailed debut as a sexy Catholic schoolgirl, in ‘Baby One More Time’ is etched into your brain. She launched a new phase of teen pop, grew to be world-famous, and her songs became ubiquitous earworms. While an icon mirrors trends in society, a legend offers something more. Spears might be the product of a specific time rather than an artist with a lasting legacy.
Whereas the word ‘legend’ has its roots in storytelling and map-making, of understanding and finding our way. Legends do not just reflect the culture; they reveal it and point society in new directions. Haggard is credited with helping to create the raw-edged Bakersfield sound of country music in the 1950s — which influenced rock-and-rollers, such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
He brought the roughness of his hardscrabble background (including prison) to the genre and expressed solidarity with the working man, in songs such as ‘Big City,’ which rails against economic inequality: “There’s folks who never work and they’ve got plenty/Think I’ll walk off my steady job today.”
In 1969, his hippie-blasting hit, ‘Okie from Muskogee’, became the anthem for Americans angry with the left for protesting the Vietnam War. The song brought him wealth, fame, and the appreciation of US president Richard Nixon. But he wasn’t just a cultural icon for conservative whites, because he also wrote ‘Irma Jackson,’ about a white man’s thwarted love for a black woman in a world that doesn’t understand that “love is colourblind.”
He released that song in 1972 — years after he wrote it — because his record company had feared it would hurt his image. Haggard was about healing wounds as much as challenging wrongs.
Through their art, Prince, Bowie, and Haggard not only showed us new possibilities for our individual identities, but they also revealed to us how to better connect to one another.
Such is the power of true legends.
Lynn Stuart Parramore is a contributing editor at AlterNet, co-founder of Recessionwire, and founding editor of New Deal 2.0 and IgoUgo.com.
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