Fandom is often misleading. The musicians who once graced your bedroom walls, staring down from colorful teenmag posters or artsy inner sleeves usually don’t stay close to your heart forever. You might defend their honor on karaoke night but their appeal is caged in nostalgia. The ones we still hold dear are the dedicated artists who continue to fascinate, challenge and reassure us. True musical heroes like these are a rare bunch and so, we achingly mourn the loss of a couple of major ones in this hellish 2016.
By and large, the finest musicians and performers rocking our world and blowing our minds can be classified into 3 categories: idols, masters and heroes. Each sect has its own characteristics and bears a unique role in rock mythology. The most misunderstood bunch is the rock idols. We tend to view them as heroes due to their lasting glow. However, idols- unlike heroes or masters- are never defined by the highs and lows of their musical output. Their main feat is channeling a lavish or risky lifestyle we can’t afford. Indeed, many of those exact habits lead them to an early grave. But even if they’re not miraculously dead by 27, idols such as Beyoncé, Madonna or Mick Jagger, hang tough by developing a memorable persona. Their facade is essential as any of their past lead singles. Manifesting empowerment, feminism or sex, drugs and rock’n’roll bravado outshines any dreaded filler-heavy albums or moderate chart performance. Their sheer presence evokes enough interest for the next world tour hitting your hometown. Just look at them. Idols must always be adored in public.
Meanwhile, excellent songwriters take shelter in the studio. They’ve elevated rock and pop to an undisputed art form within a matter of a few decades. The brilliant melodies of Paul McCartney, Carole King and Brian Wilson or the great depths of the Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder songbooks are staggering. Their elaborate chord changes, poetic lyrics and tricky harmonies qualify them as masters, who presented these hallmarks of pop perfection. Their whole talent is devoted to create as many spotless tunes as possible. A master won’t keep you guessing “who’s Becky with the good hair?” as their personal affairs, live concerts and music videos are predominantly irrelevant. A master focuses on universal experiences and collective feelings in song only. We study their work and remain in awe, knowing it will be impossible to duplicate.
Musical heroes usually possess supreme talent as the masters do. Although catchy yet challenging choruses now come second. They are not measured by one song, an outstanding costume or provocative statements. Musical heroes are elevated as such by two distinct factors: conflict and time. They are tested by the longevity of their effort to further explore and articulate the guiding theme of their work. They can slip down the Top 40, they can release awful, indulgent albums but musical heroes must keep at it for us to eventually validate their pursuit.
Two musical heroes gone this year are David Bowie and Prince. Both hailed in their lifetime as musical chameleons, who took many chances with the likely risk of alienating a loyal fanbase. Bowie, who did not necessarily define himself as a musician, used the art form to examine the origins of alienation and the powers which could dismantle it. His faraway galaxies fixation, ranging from “Space Oddity” and “Starman” to “Loving the Alien” and “Hello Spaceboy”, evolved from seeking who might be the ultimate lonely man, the consummate foreigner.
Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character stuck a deep cord for its persistence to make friends on earth. “Rock’n’roll Suicide” wasn’t as bleak as it sounded. Bowie, as Ziggy, provides comfort, singing “I’ve had my share/I’ll help you with pain/you’re not alone”. Bowie embraced strangeness throughout his different phases, believing it is the quintessential human condition. His Ziggy’s rallying call to touch one another and “press your space face close to mine” urged us to see that we’re nothing but aliens. Once we accept it, finding friends and partners would be easier.
By 1985, Prince made a name for himself as a sexual deviant, frightening middle-American moms to support the actions against crude tunes by the newly-formed Parents Music Resource Center. Standing out in its “Filthy 15” enemy list, Prince’s escapades were actually tormented by a deep spiritual angst. Even at his most vicious, Prince obsessed with teenage dilemmas that keep haunting us: “Is it right for me to feel the things I do?” and its subsequent discussion “How can something so good be seen as so corrupt?”
Less than 6 months before the infamous congressional hearing sparked by Prince’s “Darling Nikki”, he chose to close his latest album with its own judgmental proceedings. “Temptation” finds Prince consumed by his sexual drive to a point where he’s lost and faces god almighty. He is told to want someone “for the right reasons” and even when Prince claims to understand that “love is more important than sex”, god sentences him to death. “I have to go now”, Prince sighs to his exhausted, bewildered listeners, “I don’t know when will I return”. In fact, Prince soon peacefully resurrected himself. God, love and sex did not appear in his work as contradicting elements anymore. That revelation set him free and signaled fans to abandon their guilt as well.
Another musical hero, who thankfully still walks among us, is Bruce Springsteen. His conflicted personality is better hidden at first because he looks so damn ordinary. But Bruce quickly unveiled a troubled manchild: old enough to envision things falling apart, young enough to hope he can break away from it. Desire and anxiety are key sentiments in Springsteen’s songs but rarely do they burst as sexual ones. Ending up like one’s parents is the most crippling fear of his protagonists. Uncertainty over the presumed responsibilities of adulthood lingers on since his earliest albums. Springsteen suggests that becoming a “real man” is a crooked deal but still searches for a life of his own.
That very mind state leads to epic, classic showdowns like “The River” (early marriage + a union job= living hell at age 19) “Independence Day” (son escapes father and associated darkness of childhood home) and even as late as 2005’s “Long Time Comin’”, where he unleashes another telling verse: “I got some kids of my own/Well, if I had one wish for you in this god forsaken world, kid/ It’d be that your mistakes will be your own/ That your sins will be your own”. Springsteen’s own work ethic of performing 4-hour shows and playing onstage along with his wife Patti Scialfa make it all seem like your average blue-collar family business. Springsteen so immersed in his art, he emerges as one of his characters with the obvious conclusion: just do your best.
Musical heroes, like those three, become our relatable mentors. Part-teachers, part-drinking buddies, they’ve changed our perspectives and boosted our confidence. In return, we vow to cherish their spirit and respect the path they are on, whether we decide to join or leave them. We always feel that’s a valid option until mortality hits and takes them too far away from us.
Gabi Tartakovsky is a Tel-Aviv based writer and journalist. His previous articles appeared in Popmatters, Films in Review and I.B. Tauris. Gabi currently works at the Voice of Israel record collection and archive. You can follow him on Twitter @Gabitsky and on Instagram @gabitsky.