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Generation X

To Gen X, it was More than Purple Rain

The world is still reeling from the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, the multi-platinum-selling music legend who died on April 21. Prince was an influential artist in a recording career spanning 38 years, and his music became the soundtrack for Generation X (1965-1981) who grew up listening to his music.

The world is still reeling from the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, the multi-platinum-selling music legend who died on April 21.

Prince was an influential artist in a recording career spanning 38 years, and his music became the soundtrack for Generation X (1965-1981) who grew up listening to his music.

Prince was, for many Xers, a musical and cultural touchstone — you’ll notice it’s your Gen X friends bearing the pain of his passing more than most. After all, Xers were born at the tail end of The Beatles and Bowie eras. The majority of this generation came of age as pop-culture began to challenge the common social mindset — and Prince was the one leading the social revolution.

The authors of Prince: The Making of a Pop Music Phenomenon wrote about the 1980s Reagan era when being defined by gender, religion, and ethnicity was expected and society was experiencing high unemployment and the very real prospect of nuclear war.

From 1982 to 1992, Prince was at his creative peak, releasing a new album every year and his music challenged these social conventions and offered a “safe space for his fans to explore their place within a confusing socio-cultural context.”

In other words, to Generation X Prince was more than a musician; he was someone who rejected labels and inspired an entire generation to live beyond them, too.

While we can look back and realize how visionary and talented he was, at the height of his fame Prince was trying to differentiate in a world that wasn’t really ready for differentiation. Nevertheless, he never conformed to what others wanted him to be.

Prince brazenly blended rock, R&B, funk, pop and jazz like few artists before or since. He sat at the edges of race, gender, and sexuality and rejected all borders, seeking to avoid categorization and be a genre unto himself.

Prince was one of the first artists to make his bands black and white, male and female. A former band member reflected on the experience in an interview:

“There were women in the band who were lesbians. There were whites and blacks in the band, and several of us who were Jewish in the band. There was this image Prince was trying to present to the world that it’s not about the differences in us, so let’s celebrate the diversity.”

In 1993, Prince engaged in a war with Warner Bros. Records after the label refused to release his music when he wanted. At one point he wrote ‘slave’ across his face and changed his name to a symbol.

“People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face,” Prince told Rolling Stone in an interview. “But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I? When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave. If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”

Reflecting on his lengthy career, it seems that Prince was never afraid to stand out, stand up, or stand alone. He challenged conventions and he did so at a moment in history when many people most needed to hear it.

Many Xers admired Prince for his brutal honesty, creativity, and work ethic, and they even respected his anti-social personality offstage. In so many ways, Prince was a spokesperson for the generation came of age at the crossroads of cultural and social change and faced their own identity crises.

Very few artists had a bigger effect on the music industry than Prince and even fewer were as widely respected, which is why the world turned purple on the day Prince died.

National monuments, landmarks, and even planes radiated a purple glow, as the world paid tribute to one of music’s most distinctive geniuses. Google and 3M modified their logos. The Weather Channel’s Weather Underground changed all the rain icons purple, NASA tweeted a purple nebula in honor of Prince, The New Yorker announced a Purple Rain cover, and Snapchat introduced a Purple Rain filter.

Chevrolet’s Corvette tribute was among the best — a full page message from the brand the singer helped to immortalize with his song “Little Red Corvette” in 1982. The ad which appeared in USA TodayDetroit News/Free PressLos Angeles TimesMinneapolis Star Tribune, and The New York Times simply stated: “Baby, that was much too fast. 1958-2016.”

And indeed, it was. Especially for Generation X.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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