Gone but Never Forgotten: The Impact of Musician Deaths on the Individual

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With the recent death of beloved rapper Mac Miller, we are once again reminded of the fragility of life and how no person, regardless of fame and celebrity, is immune to it. Miller’s death is but another tragedy that has me wondering what it is about musician deaths that seem to leave such a lasting impact, even more so than the death of any other public figure. To try and understand this phenomenon, I turned to some residents of the Lansing area to share their thoughts on the power of music and the kinship we seem to form with musicians.

Avrie Herrera, a senior at Michigan State University, recalls how she was first introduced to the music of Mac Miller.  

“It was freshmen year of high school when I first discovered him. Instantly I was drawn to his style. I felt like his rap wasn’t dark or derogatory, it was just fun and upbeat.” Herrera described how Miller’s humorous personality really appealed to her growing up, and she even remembered going to see him in concert her sophomore year of high school.

On September 7, 2018, Herrera received the news of Miller’s passing as she was getting ready to celebrate her 21st birthday and felt utter disbelief.

“The circumstances of Mac’s death definitely make it harder to accept. He had a real career, and he was on the rise. He had just put out a new album and trying to listen to that album now really just feels like it was some kind of weird goodbye,” she said, “It hurts that we won’t get to see what he would’ve done. And he’s only barely older than me. It feels like he was everywhere and then just gone all of a sudden. It’s still hard to wrap my head around.”

Miller’s overdose came as a shock to many people like Herrera who grew up alongside of the come-up of his music. But Mac Miller is just the most recent in a long line of musician deaths that always seem to feel like a tragedy no matter the circumstances. For example, when David Bowie lost the battle to liver cancer in 2016, fans all over the world came out in numbers to express their devastation and grief.

Conner Stapley, an MSU alumnus who has been a lifetime fan Bowie’s work since childhood explains his early draw to Bowie. “I was really into progressive rock as a teenager and used to explore the music of that genre on YouTube growing up. Once I found David Bowie’s music, I really fell into the rabbit hole. I’d always known of him since my parents were fans and I always loved the movie Labyrinth. But once I got older and started experimenting with making my own music, Bowie became a bigger inspiration.”

Stapley was inspired by Bowie’s risk-taking style of music and expressionistic lyrics. “His music is something that I can enjoy both intellectually and viscerally. You could always tell the context in which his albums were based, they would feel like snapshots of the man’s life. It’s easy to tell that the music he was making was related to what was around him and the mood he was in at the time.”

Stapley reflected on his favorite Bowie album, ‘Low’ which was produced in Berlin, Germany, and perfectly exemplified what made his music special. “I always felt like you could hear the city through that music, they really embraced the culture in production,” he said,  “David Bowie may have been known for all of his different personas, but I felt like ‘Low’ was the closest to who he really was. It was experimental and dark and beautiful and strange. The album was very reflective and real.”

The death of David Bowie deeply affected many people who found solace in his music. “I didn’t feel devastated when I heard he died,” said Stapley,” “But it was sad. Like if times are tough you can comfort yourself knowing that David Bowie’s somewhere out there making music. But then he was gone and so goes that comfort.”

The music world was hit with the news of another shocking death in the summer of 2017 when Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell committed suicide after a show in Detroit. I discussed the special mark that Cornell has left on the world with Zach Sundin, a 23-year-old graduate of MSU.

“I found Soundgarden when I was 14,” Sundin said, “this was before iTunes when we would go to the library to check out CDs so that we could take them home and download them on our computers. It was there where I picked up the album Superunknown for the first time. I was immediately in.”

Sundin was drawn to Cornell as a writer and as an overall performer. “His voice was so unique and impressive. As a vocalist, Cornell is truly an all-time great. Regardless of the band he had around him Cornell would have been a stand-out.”

When the news of Cornell’s death reached Sundin he felt struck with a harsh sense of reality. “It forced me to realize that he was a real dude. I mean he played a show at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. And then he killed himself. It was so crazy to me and all of a sudden, he became just another human being, despite already being the grunge music legend that he is. Despite all the fame and success, he was just another person with problems. And I heard of his death before I really started pursuing anything serious with my own band, so Cornell’s passing was one of the first moments that made me realize that you can be just a normal person struggling and make music at the same time.”

Lansing resident, Laura Potter-Niesen had a similar experience in January 2018, when news of Dolores O’Riordan’s accidental death at age 46 became public. This news brought Potter-Niesen back to her first experiences with O’Riordan, the lead singer of the Cranberries.

“The album ‘Everyone Else is Doing it, So Why Can’t We?’ had just been released when I was in my early years of high school. My group of friends and I added this to the rotation of music we listened to, we couldn’t get enough of ‘Linger.’”

Potter-Niesen was drawn to O’Riordan’s unique sound that could range from “incredibly sweet with songs like ‘Linger’ to powerful and forceful like with ‘Zombie.” Potter-Niesen’s ever-changing music tastes growing up were greatly inspired by O’Riordan’s versatility as a performer. “Not many female singers can pull off being serious and sweet, both political and commenting on relationships, and Dolores was great at that,” she said.

Hearing of Dolores’ tragic passing took Potter-Niesen back to the time when the Cranberries’ music first became an integral part of her teenage years. “It was a shock, and not because I was a super fan, but because she had so much influence on my musical genres growing up. Like at a time when you’re exploring what type of music you call your own, The Cranberries helped shape the direction in which I would go.”

At the end of the day we are still left with the music that Miller, Bowie, Cornell, and O’Riordan gave us which was our main source of connection to them in the first place. So why do the deaths of these four musicians that we’ve never met impact us so deeply? I believe it has to do with the power of music and its ability to help us connect and empathize with others. When I asked Herrera her thoughts on this she said, “I mean you don’t know these people but you feel like you do. I listened to Mac Miller’s albums so many times doing so many random things that his music became a part of my life. He became a part of my life.”

We can all agree that music is a special form of entertainment. It’s much more than a hobby, and much more than a noise. “Music is primal. We as humans, are social creatures and we are orientated towards connection. We are always better when we come together, and music is one way that we do that. Music can be almost like a photograph, in that it can depict a specific moment in time, but that snapshot can be interpreted differently and mean different things to different people,” Stapley said.

I think the music we love stays with us because it comes from us. We are drawn to the music that reminds us of a part of ourselves. The death of a favorite musician can sometimes feel like the death of one period of our lives, when that music was introduced to us or when we needed that music to get through hard times. There is often comfort in listening to an old favorite band, and revelling in the nostalgia of who we used to be. Since music is a documented artform that doesn’t fade with time, the artists we love begin to feel as permanent as their music does. This is part of what makes the realization of their deaths so shocking and impactful. So, it is now that we will turn to the music to help us heal because music will always have the power to bring people together, even in the most divisive of times.

Stephanie Tkaczyk is a senior majoring in Kinesiology who enjoys stressing herself out by taking unnecessary writing classes in order to satisfy her creative side. She loves listening to, talking about and finding new music more than anything, in addition to traveling to every place on the planet and spending time with other people who watch too many movies. You can follow her on Instagram @hotsteph24.

Tags: Chris Cornell, coping, David Bowie, death, Dolores O'Riordan, loss, Mac Miller, music