Purple Rain, Purple Rain. Purple lights shone over the people in the crowd, who were singing along exuberantly and putting their arms around their neighbours’ shoulders. Life-sized portraits of Prince, who passed away recently, hung on either side of the DJ, as did elegant visuals of the star. Last Saturday a memorial party dedicated to the music legend was held at Annabel’s, where several generations’ worth of attendees danced their feet off to the artist’s sexy R&B. Collectively commemorating an artist is a nice gesture – as well as an excuse for a good party – but what does it say about a fan? How come super stars can evoke so many emotions, both during their lives and after their deaths?

‘A gathering of people who love the same thing’

Simone Driessen (ESHCC)
Simone Driessen (ESHCC)

According to Simone Driessen, an ESHCC PhD student investigating the role of music in a fan culture, becoming a fan is like a veritable conversion. “It’s often a sensation: you see a part of yourself, of what you wish to be. A fan is a person who, at least for a certain stage of his or her life, engages in something every day.”

Driessen is looking into the way in which fans keep so-called fandoms (fan cultures) going in the long term. “As a fan, you’re generally part of a collective. You’re part of a fandom, a gathering of other people who love the same thing you do. In certain respects, you grieve together as well.”

Identification and a T-shirt

The music-loving collective is clearly on the up and up, not just through countless tributes, but by purchasing Prince’s greatest hits. The artist currently monopolises Apple Music’s top 3. In addition, fans buy T-shirts of their favourite bands or collect hard-copy bootleg albums. When she was researching fans of the Backstreet Boys, Driessen often encountered such visual expressions of love. “They used to have band pillowcases and dolls and they used to stick their concert tickets on the wall. Now they may have tattoos of a song lyric.”

Even so, Driessen feels the immaterial developments are more interesting in the long term. “I think being a fan is a psychological process as well, a way to identify with something. You adopt an artist’s viewpoints or imitate his or her way of talking and acting.” In other words, music fans may well continue to identify with their favourite artists in the long term, meaning their idols will always have a special place in their hearts. Driessen encountered this in the Backstreet Boys fans as well: “Many of those girls are no longer really interested in collecting things, but they do find solace in the lyrics. I think that kind of internal sensation comes into play with Prince as well.”

‘The music of your adolescence helps shape your future’

Debora, a memorial party attendee, had the following T-shirt made especially for last Saturday’s party: “Prince taught me that it’s OK to be who you are and his ideas on identity and sexuality have always stayed with me.”

This identification greatly motivates fans and appears to be set in motion during their adolescence. “The music of those years really helps shape your future,” said Driessen. “The first music you really start listening to on your own, this is a moment that will always remain with you and that you’ll remember later.”

First-generation fans of music from the 1970s and 1980s will probably confirm this. They grew up with the musical miracles created by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, and, yes, Prince.

Yet it’s not just this generation that is taking an interest in the music created by these artists: at Prince’s memorial party, young and old people alike were dancing to his music. Driessen emphasised that children are being introduced to this musician by their parents. “In this way you create a loop in which this kind of continuity is safeguarded.” And it is like this that Prince has more or less been transformed into a cult phenomenon.

Legendary status

Of course the era during which these legendary musicians grew into their own significantly contributed to the impact they had on the music industry and people outside the music industry. “The music world was a little less crowded at the time,” explained Driessen. “Now we’re being inundated with new bands all the time, but because those artists were tall poppies for such a long time, they attained that legendary status.”

The mystique of those artists and their deaths only makes them more legendary. “David Bowie, but Prince too, released new songs just before or just after their deaths. The fact that something lives on even though the persons themselves are no longer with us increases these persons’ iconic status.”

Our culture of remembrance

Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that so many different people should congregate at a memorial party, even though they all have their own reasons to attend it. Driessen has noticed that remembrance is embedded in our culture. “Maybe this is tangentially related to people attending 1990s parties. Since such parties are thrown all the time, this may be some kind of spin-off of such parties.” Social media platforms such as Facebook only intensify such collective memorial services. “After all, you do feel more or less pressured into taking part in that grieving process.”

But even if you don’t belong to the exclusive Prince fanbase or recognise aspects of yourself in his work, your parents’ memories may suffice to get you involved, said Driessen. “In a way, you’re connected, and you seek closure somehow. A memorial party can be a good way to find such closure.” When asked if she herself would be attending any tribute parties soon, Driessen provided an unambiguous reply: “No, but I will be attending the future hologram tour.”