2016 was the fucking worst: Looking back at the year in music

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Miss you, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie. Allegra Lockstadt

After this past year, the music world will never sound — or look — the same again.

Losing true icons like David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen in 2016 — as well as Merle Haggard, Alan Vega, Guy Clark, George Martin, Phife Dawg, Glenn Frey, Bobbby Vee, Sharon Jones, and more — leaves the musical landscape forever changed.

Bowie, Prince, and Cohen were all singular musicians who we’ll never see the likes of again. They each brought distinctive skills and styles to their songs, to their stages, and to their lives, forever redefining pop culture in the process. Now we just have their music.

As each gut-wrenching headline hit, music fans bound together in the comfort of that music. These artists provided pivotal soundtracks to our lives, so each individual’s grieving process played out uniquely, but the public acts of mourning and celebration struck a universal chord.

Bowie, Prince, and Cohen’s songs rang out from bars, bedrooms, radios, and street corners in the days, weeks, and months after their respective deaths. On April 21, the day we lost Prince, First Avenue scrambled to put on a memorial concert and threw all-night dance parties that lasted for days. Three months earlier, when we lost Bowie, tribute shows began popping up all around the Twin Cities. Ditto for Cohen, who left us in November.

Falling in love with music is often a solitary experience — quiet contemplation at the altar of your home stereo or blissfully losing yourself in a pair of headphones. The international outpouring of grief for Bowie, Prince, and Cohen, however, provided proof that we weren’t alone in our anguish or our admiration. These losses were significant, and our pain was real, but impromptu tributes around the globe showcased a collective strength and unshakable unity among fans, dancing and singing their shared blues away.

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The deaths of Prince (seen here grimacing), David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen contributed to the dumpster fire that is 2016. David Brewster/Star Tribune

We were all lamenting the loss of musical heroes, sure, but we were also mourning for parts of ourselves that were lost forever. The songs and albums these artists gifted the world are inextricably linked to significant moments in our lives. Once you’ve taken them to heart, these songs — their indelible melodies, insightful lyrics, and catchy hooks — can instantly transport you back to a school dance, a house party, a first car, a college dorm.

Wherever you were and whatever you were doing when you first heard “Life on Mars,” “Purple Rain,” or “Hallelujah,” you’re transported back as soon as those initial notes strike. That flood of emotions doesn’t coincide with every song, but it absolutely happens with theirs. That’s what makes Bowie, Prince, and Cohen so unique, and it’s also what makes their losses so profound.

Music is indeed a time machine. Putting on a specific song can make you feel young again or make you fall in love again, make you feel invincible or vulnerable. But that feeling, as special as it is, is only temporary. It’s fleeting. It’s ephemeral. It’s illusory. That’s part of why losing so many musical greats in 2016 proved so painful — it’s an unshakable reminder that none of us are getting out of here alive, and that music, or anything else, can’t save us.

Bowie, Prince, and Cohen felt indestructible; their flames would surely burn longer and brighter than ours. Seeing them extinguished was a shock few were prepared for, no matter how many warning signs had surfaced. In the case of Prince, there was the emergency plane landing six days prior to his death, and Bowie and Cohen all but predicted theirs with powerful farewell albums.

Through their music, all three legends challenged listeners to think — think of the world, think of love, think of sex, think of ourselves — in bold new ways. They brazenly dismantled societal norms about what a modern musician — and a man — could sound, look, and act like. They redefined expectations about masculinity, dismissing generations of macho posturing with behavior that was far more sensual and real. They blurred the lines of sexuality so that all the freaks and outsiders felt emboldened, welcome to join whatever peculiar parties suited their true selves. 

Losing icons is something we’ll have to get more accustomed to. Many music superstars of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s spent their careers living, playing, and partying hard — ingredients that don’t mix well with age. Moments of loss will increase in frequency, a sorrowful reality for music fans clinging to fond memories spurred by songs, especially as the political climate appears increasingly grim. And therein lies the paradox: The music and artists we turn to for comfort will eventually leave us heartbroken when they’re no longer here to take the stage and heal us, even for a night.

The world was simply a more hopeful — and magical — place with David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen in it. The stars indeed look very different today, but at least music lovers can gaze upon them together, with a common soundtrack that will never die.

Counterpoint: Click here to meet eight local music-makers who rocked 2016. And to see all the good, bad, and in-between, click here for our timeline of the year in Minnesota music.


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