Musicians' Deaths Hit Us Where it Hurts--Our Nostalgia for Adolescence

May 4, 2016

When Prince’s death followed just two months after the death of David Bowie, some music lover’s bemoaned that the year 2016 was cursed. Indeed, both deaths seemed to cause an outsize outpouring of grief from across the U.S. and around the globe. Doug Gentile, associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, says while both figures were undoubtedly influential to all generations, part of that grief has to do with when fans first discovered it.

“It’s about a sense of identity. Not only how are they similar to other people, but really what makes them unique. The music that people are listening to from 13-25 often becomes a core part of that identity.  … Something is really magical about the music we’re listening to in our teenage years.”

Gentile says that because people form relationships with celebrities, they feel that celebrity is part of their social circle.

“That’s called a parasocial relationship, where, if you have a favorite TV show, have favorite characters, have favorite musicians, you actually form a real relationship for yourself with that person, even though they may never meet you, you may never meet them. And that’s actually an important relationship for people.”

But while we may get sad about any celebrity death, the emotionality of music means musicians’ deaths mean something special to us.

“The friends that you like best, the people you have the deepest connection to, are people who make you feel something. And music, that’s its whole power is about feeling something. And, of course, musicians often tell you personal things through their music, and so you feel like you really get to know something about who they are, and you feel like they connect with you because, of course, you have similar feelings.”

Another important factor? The shared experience of fandom. He singles out the experience fans of The Grateful Dead had when grieving the death of Jerry Garcia

“The Dead had a culture. It isn’t just ‘I’m listening to a band,’ [it’s] ‘I’m part of this collective. I’m part of this group. I’m part of something that’s not only meaningful to me, but meaningful to other people.’”

In this hour of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Gentile and Kyle Munson, Iowa columnist and long-time former music critic for the Des Moines Register, about the impact musicians’ deaths, and the music they leave behind, have on us.