When David Bowie died in January, there was a mass outpouring of emotion. Fans around the world shared memories, re-watched his movies, and listened to their favorite Bowie songs. The international media machine dug up stories about his life and influence. Bowie was, and still is, an icon representing a form of transgressive pop culture. Through that work, he pushed boundaries into the fantastic and was fully embraced for his oddity. In January, The Hollywood Reporter called him a “genre- and gender-bending British music icon whose persistent innovations and personal reinventions transformed him into a larger-than-life rock star.”
Three months later when Prince died, there was a similar collective outpouring of emotion. Once again, fans shared memories, cried, held vigils and shared their favorite songs. Cities and monuments were bathed in purple light; The New Yorker released an issue with a cover image of rain drops dripping down an all-purple background. Like Bowie, Prince challenged social boundaries, becoming an icon of transgressive pop culture, and he was also embraced for this oddity. In April, The New York Times wrote, “[…] his catalog of songs addressed social issues and delved into mysticism and science fiction. [Prince] made himself a unifier of dualities – racial, sexual, musical, cultural – teasing them in songs like ‘Controversy’ and transcending them in his career.”
For most people the two celebrities were only known through their work and fame. When each of them died, fans were essentially mourning someone they had never met. This single human being, who was neither in their immediate family nor in their larger circle of friends, was held in deep regard. After watching this tremendous public reaction, I began to wonder why and how people can mourn a perfect stranger with such a depth of feeling from a point of real truth. How is that possible?
I believe the answer is in the music.Shortly after Prince died, a friend relayed a story to me about how the film Purple Rain was playing repeatedly on the television system in the hospital where her ailing mother had been admitted. Over a period of days, she sat by her mother’s bedside repeatedly watching this movie. Many years later, after hearing the news of Prince’s untimely death, deep emotions stirred within her. The song Purple Rain evoked powerful memories of her mother – both of the many joyful times and the difficulties in an untimely death that happened not long after that very hospital stay.
For my friend and others, the song Purple Rain had become an unbreakable thread that tied the past to the present. And that scenario is not uncommon. Music does just that. It can touch us in places of deep privacy where nobody else can go, and remain there as an indestructible bond, a seductive path, and a powerful trigger. Music can move us into experience, not unlike meditation, trance work and magic.
And, through that emotional constant, we can develop deeply felt connections to the creator of the source. We feel personally connected to Prince or Bowie or whomever. Music creates a sacred internal bond and, in doing so, it turns its creator into a friend and confidant, a lover, a teacher, or a even a god. Someone who really knows us.
” Flames – they licked the walls. Tenderly they turned to dust all that I adore” – Bastille
Growing up, I was surrounded by music. Some of my oldest memories are of my neighbor playing piano as his daughter and I danced to silly songs. “Put your right foot in and right foot out,” we would sing. I eventually was enveloped by music, through piano lessons, chorus, dance and musical theater. Music was everywhere I was and it still is. Every day begins with an overture, and every person has a theme song. I look for rhythm in my writing and in my magic.
Whether or not you live to the beat of music so obsessively as I do, music has been scientifically proven to have many positive effects on the brain. It can create pathways into places we might not readily be able to easily access ourselves, such as past memories, inner drives, and difficult community connections. These are three examples of the way music works its magic.
“Once upon a time, once when you were mine; I remember skies, reflected in your eyes” – Moody Blues
First, music acts as a time machine. It creates powerful, lasting memory connections that can “transport us” to another time and place. According to scientists, music impacts what is called implicit memory, or the type that is tied to emotion and absorbed outside of direct consciousness. It is described as being “robust,” unlike conscious, or “explicit,” memory, which can be more fleeting and easily damaged. Diseases like Alzheimer’s or accidents affecting the brain can limit access to explicit memory, but not affect the more robust implicit memory, which includes music memory. Therefore therapy using sound can be very effective in reawakening lost memories in many patients.
Because of its ability to trigger memory through emotion, music has been used as a therapeutic tool, mnemonic device, calming activity, mood changer, and also a magical time machine returning us to times long gone.
When my grandmother died, I asked my grandfather to write down the story of his childhood. I didn’t know much about his early life growing up as an immigrant in Chicago, and I didn’t want to lose that part of our family history. He agreed, and after two weeks, he sent me a five-page handwritten essay, not about his childhood but about his life with my grandmother. He had probably never wrote anything in his life. But he wrote this – a cathartic tribute to the woman with whom he had spent his entire life.My grandfather opened is story with, “The organ played ‘Because You’re Mine,” just one of the many songs which became a part of their lives. “Only You,” “You Belong to My Heart,” “You Made Me Love You,” “Didn’t We.” In the myriad of songs and lyrics encountered over the years, there was always constant reminder of the commitment.” Alongside each handwritten paragraph, he had scratched in the margins the name of a song. Listening to the songs as I read his story helped to transport me deeper into his memories, which began in Depression-era Chicago and went through his family life in Santa Monica to retirement in Carson City.
This is part of its magic. It transports you, if you let it.
Music attaches itself to our experience and remains dormant there until we hear the song again. Then, it acts like a trigger, taking us back in time. And, frankly, sometimes you have no choice. As noted earlier, it affects our implicit memory; it seeps into our brains often without us consciously knowing. Ever start singing a song that you don’t like? I spent many years going to sleep listening to Air Supply. The walls of my parents’ apartment were thin and my neighbor was a big fan. To this day, I know the lyrics to “I’m all out of love.”
Even when the song is not attached to a memory, music can reach deep into our souls, opening up doorways of perception that allow us to relax into ourselves. In magical circles, chanting and other sound-based rituals often help open the senses for deeper workings. But this type of connection is not relegated to spiritual work. For example, primary school teachers will use calming music in the class to settle young students and create a more effective learning environment.
This illustrates the second way in which music works its magic. Through our emotional connection to music, we can derive personal empowerment and the expression of our own deepest longings, thoughts, pains, struggles and ideas. Artists with a musical gift help us to tap our inner world. The songs in my grandfather’s story helped illustrate his emotions better than his own written words.
“Strumming my pain with his fingers, Singing my life with his words” – Roberta Flack
Music reminds; it informs; it empowers. It makes us want to act and sometimes it even explains why. Music is magical in the way it dances through our lives, enticing us to join along. In doing so, it asks us to not be afraid of what it is, who we are, and what it evokes within our spirit. Just as music triggers memories, it triggers creativity. Just as it can transport us back in time; it can transport us to places of personal secrecy. Music can make us cry when we can’t, and dance when we are too tired.
“And now we got a revolution, Cause i see the face of things to come” – Nina Simone
Music can also help with magic. The very first magical working that I did was long before I ever picked up a Witchcraft book. This was long before I knew another Pagan. I was a secular atheist with no interest in religion, but I knew about magic, and I knew it worked. How? Because as long as I could remember, I felt the magic in the music. From a very young age, it transported me through its sound, and I was lost in its beauty. Therefore, it was a natural progression go from music being magic, to magic being music.
For that very first working, which I did as a preteen, I used the music of Madonna, which brings me to my next point. Whether music is rock, pop, classical, folk, alternative, punk, mystical or Pagan, it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s comprised of drum beats, flutes or an entire orchestra, it doesn’t matter. Rhythm, sound, instruments, vibrations, voices and words…. If in any combination, the resulting product opens a doorway into your personal being-ness, then it can serve the purpose and be your magic carpet into the past or an altered magical state.
“I sing the Body Electric. I glory in the glow rebirth, creating my own tomorrow, when I shall embody the Earth.” – Fame
Now to return to the original question of why we mourn pop music icons, such as David Bowie or Prince, we must look to the ways in which music affects our lives. These two artists, like many others, are the ones who, in essence, wove that “magic carpet.” They are the ones who were able to create the experience of music, which in turn allowed us to connect to ourselves, to our past, to our history, to our ancestors, to our gods, and to our magic.
A Psychology Today article accounts for the mourning saying that “When artists with decades-long careers like Bowie, [Whitney] Houston, or Michael Jackson die, they take a little piece of our pasts with them.” This applies to non-musical artists as well, such as Robin Williams or Alan Rickman. If a deep part of them can touch a deep part of us, we mourn their deaths just as we would our intimate friends, family and lovers.
In that same article, the writer also points to the third way in which music works magic. It bonds us together through a language that transcends the spoken word, even when there are lyrics. Music can unite us in a sort of social harmony, unlike anything else, because it does so through our sense of universal humanity. Psychology Today writes, “Discovering a shared fondness for a particular film or song brings us closer to others, because our cultural tastes often reflect our values and worldviews.” And when the artist dies we find ourselves in a “collective mourning [that] reminds us that we’re part of a [something] and helps us to celebrate the cultural touchstones that define us.”
Both David Bowie and Prince will live on through their music and their art. Their sound will continue to transport us, empower us, and connect us to others worldwide. Their music will continue to work its magic. As we say, what is remembered, lives.
That is the magic of music.