Politics & Policy

Prince Was an Idol, Not a Hero

(Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty)

Prince died last week, and America overreacted. No, I’m not diminishing Prince’s talent. He was one of pop music’s most gifted songwriters and musicians. As millions shared his more memorable performances, I realized I’d forgotten what a great guitar player and showman he was. He could write hit songs like few others, and he shared his talent freely, “gifting” songs to other artists. In short, he was one of the few pop stars whose fame was fully justified.

But to spend time on the mainstream and left-wing Internet last week — or to listen to some of the web’s more popular podcasts — you would have thought America lost a national hero, and not merely an immensely gifted artist. Comedian Dave Chappelle called Prince’s death the “black 9/11,” and he didn’t seem to be joking. Think pieces proliferated to the point that Gawker poked gentle fun at the phenomenon with a “Prince Thinkpiece Generator” that allowed you to “give meaning to your feelings” with the touch of a button.

Yes, I know that I’m contributing to the madness, but here’s the blunt reality: In our post-virtue culture, we worship celebrity and talent not for its own sake but for ourselves. Their talent is all about us. Their fame is for our amusement. Pop music fills the hymnals in the temple of the self. We are the stars of our own biopic, and we just lost someone who wrote part of the score.

The sentimentality is understandable, given the millions of people who could remember some significant moment in their lives that happened to the sounds of “Lets Go Crazy” or “When Doves Cry.” But helping Americans make memories isn’t the same thing as living a truly significant life. As if recognizing the hollowness of their tribute, pundits began searching for something, anything to make Prince more heroic. He wasn’t just a musician, he was an activist, and we “dare you not to break down” watching his tribute to Baltimore’s Freddie Gray. He supported Black Lives Matter. He was said to be nice to people he encountered in his private life. (His faith and alleged opposition to gay marriage, needless to say, were mostly absent from the tributes.)

#share#Our country doesn’t lack for heroes, but our true heroes certainly lack for fame. Even on the Left’s terms, valorizing Prince for his transient activism disrespects those who spent their lives in the trenches, fighting for their vision of “social justice.” For conservatives, Prince was ultimately just another talented and decadent voice in a hedonistic culture. He was notable mainly because he was particularly effective at communicating that decadence to an eager and willing audience.

Valorizing Prince for his transient activism disrespects those who spent their lives in the trenches.

Playing a guitar doesn’t make you wise, and it certainly doesn’t make you brave. But it can make you famous, and for a very long time too many of us have admired fame as the ultimate human accomplishment. After all, when everyone is the star of his own biopic, then everyone’s story has a climax. And we admire those with the most triumphant ending, to the point that triumph becomes its own reward.

RELATED: Prince: Most of All, He Did It His Way

I don’t say any of this to denigrate Prince or his talents. And I don’t say this to shame people out of listening to music they enjoy, though not all music is worth hearing. Rather, it’s time for a dose of perspective. Music has its place, and gifted musicians undeniably enhance our lives, but if our hearts are given to these songs and those who make them, then our lives are unnecessarily impoverished.

Marx famously declared religion to be the “opium of the people.” But it’s clear that tens of millions of Americans sedate their souls with a different drug: pop culture. Prince’s death is sad, but for everyone but his family and friends, the pain it causes is the pang of withdrawal, not the ache of true spiritual loss.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.


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