LONDON – The year 2016 has so far witnessed the death of three musical greats: Prince, David Bowie and Merle Haggard. When Haggard died, National Public Radio felt comfortable announcing “Country Music Legend and Icon, Dies at 79.” Those two terms are often considered interchangeable, but are they? Is there a difference?
Many entertainers have been labeled icons — Britney Spears is a prime example. But the three musicians who just passed seem to be in a different realm. Not just their artistic genius unites them. It’s the fact that 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 a wide range of instruments, explored daring erotic themes in his music. He played with new ways to be a man of color in America, putting on theatrical stage performances in which the musician/sex symbol showed off his feminine side in purple silk.
Creating a style never before heard, Prince blended pop, funk, blues, jazz and rock. 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 committed Jehovah’s Witness, broke with pop tradition to include frequent religious motifs in his songs, such as the messianic “I Would Die 4 U.”
Philosopher and Princeton professor 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, he 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 justice 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 hilariously named Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, the 17-year-old announced himself as an impish subvert, someone who was not going to take society as he found it.
That attitude was evident in Bowie’s 1983 challenge to 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 like “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 — as well as his memorable turns in films like “The Man Who Fell to Earth” — Bowie became known as an innovator and a surprising shape-shifter. According to music journalist Joe Lynch, Bowie influenced more musical genres than any other rock star. “Without David Bowie,” the singer Moby said, “popular music as we know it pretty much wouldn’t exist.”
Prince and Bowie not only transcended the particularities of the decades most closely associated with them (Bowie, the 1970s and 1980s; Prince, the 1980s and 1990s), but they also transformed their art form. They created fresh outlets for expression in music, as well as in the spheres of fashion and gender identity.
Prefabricated categories could not hold them. They broke down barriers and blazed trails. Their surges of creativity could barely be contained in their astonishing output. Both Prince’s and Bowie’s bodies of work contain patterns of unexpected twists and turns.
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 indelibly etched into your brain. She launched a new phase of teen pop, grew to be world famous , and her songs became ubiquitous ear worms. But is she a legend? Maybe not.
While an icon mirrors and captures certain impulses and trends in society, a legend offers something more. Spears may be more a product of a specific time than an artist who transcends the moment and whose legacy is more lasting. The word “legend” has its roots in notions of 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.
Merle Haggard is credited for helping to create the raw-edged Bakersfield sound of country music in the 1950s — which, in turn, influenced rock ‘n’ rollers like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He brought the roughness of his hardscrabble background (including prison stints) to the genre and expressed solidarity with the plight of the working man in songs like “Big City,” which rails against economic inequality in a way that resonates today: “There’s folks who never work and they’ve got plenty / Think I’ll walk off my steady job today.”
Haggard is notable because he became iconic for reasons that almost run counter to his legendary status. 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 President Richard M. Nixon. If he’d stayed in this mode, his status as a cultural icon for conservative whites would have been more than secure. But he didn’t.
Because he is also the musician who wrote “Irma Jackson,” a song about a white man’s thwarted love for a black woman in a world that doesn’t understand that “love is color-blind.” He released that song in 1972 — years after he wrote it — because his record company feared it would hurt his image. Hag did not care. He was also open to change and admitted when he had been wrong. He explained his evolving political views and thoughts on “Okie” to writer R.J. Smith in 2000:
“At the time I wrote that song, I was just about as intelligent as the American public was. And they was about as dumb as a rock. About Vietnam, about marijuana and other things. When you get older, you find that things you were absolutely, positively sure about, you didn’t know nothin’ about.”
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 as a society.
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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