2016 has been a year of traumatic losses for the music world—David Bowie, Merle Haggard, George Martin, and, most recently, Prince. It is to this latest and tragic death that I turn my attention to now—specifically, to its cause. Although initially it seemed that Prince’s untimely death was attributed to an illness of some sort the artist had displayed symptoms of in the weeks leading up to his death (described as flu-like symptoms which also led to an emergency landing during a flight the artist had boarded), it now appears that the doves are crying a drastically different, yet no less depressing story. Like so many other musicians before him, it seems that Prince may have succumbed not to a disease in the physical sense, but to a much more serious affliction—drug addiction, followed by overdose.
None of these reports have been confirmed as of yet. The DEA is conducting an investigation and an autopsy report is forthcoming, so all the noise surrounding the circumstances of his death is just that: noise. Nonetheless, the noise is hard to ignore. Multiple sources report that prescription pills were found at the artist’s home. It also seems as though Prince was not prescribed said medication by a physician.
As more and more rumors begin to circulate regarding the precise circumstances of Prince’s death, one can’t help but begin to compare it with other, similar declines and demises of talented individuals never to grace the world with their music again. How many voices in the music industry have been silenced by drug overdose? Kobain, Winehouse, Mikey Welsh, Mike Starr. Now Prince, it seems, may be joining this tragic line-up.
As depressing as the news of yet another potential celebrity overdose is, it is difficult to categorize as a shock. We are so used to seeing the mental and emotional decline of musicians in the limelight that chocking up Prince’s death to opioid abuse is somehow easier to come to terms with than accepting that such a unique musical talent was snuffed out by something as mundane as the flu. Celebrity overdoses are, in a sense, a societal norm—something we briefly mourn but accept as expected of those who live the lifestyle of the rich and the famous.
It is impossible for the humble collective us to imagine the kind of stress and questions of self image that a phenomenon as engrossing as celebrity can have on your average individual. Suddenly and in perpetuity until the day you fade from deemed importance, everything and anything you do is international news. Had an argument with your significant other? Boom, it’s on YouTube within the hour. Instagrammed a picture of your mac and cheese from dinner? It’s making headlines on Buzzfeed before you’ve finished digesting. Or possibly even chewing.
Combine that kind of public transparency, the complete deletion of your private life, with the personality quirks and defaults that typically accompany the highly gifted (seriously, watch David Byrne getting interviewed sometime if you don’t know what I’m talking about) and the rapid decline of artists like Prince and those before him becomes more than understandable–it becomes expected.
Can we expect anything else? How do you possibly go from toiling away in relative obscurity like the rest of us, going about your day to day, waking, working, sleeping, repeat, to commanding a sea of screaming admirers, many of whom consider you some kind of musical god? How can you possibly transition from one norm into the other extreme without being altered in some irrevocable way, more than likely not for the better? How can you feasibly reframe and re-contextualize your idea of yourself after a change like that and stay sane?
Short answer? You really can’t. Sure, you can cope with the repercussions of fame and fortune in a sane way, you can appear to all the rest of the world even under even severe scrutiny to be holding it all together, but the truth of the matter is that something as all-consuming as international renown cannot possibly leave an individual artist or group in the same mental state as when they were still playing to an audience of fifty or warming up in the garage.
The price of fame is a heavy toll to exact, and it looks as though yet another musical genius may just have paid it.