Deaths of celebrities like Prince speak volumes about their fans

Posted April 26, 2017

Many fans still mourn the loss of the musician Prince even though a full year has passed since his death. While the face of fan worship may have changed over time, people have been honoring celebrities for many years, according to psychologists.

Prince’s unexpected death shocked not only his home state of Minnesota, but the world.

“The day after Prince died there were thousands of fans at Paisley Park,” said Matt Clark, a journalism student at UW-River Falls and the music director of WRFW, the campus radio station. Paisley Park, in Eden Prairie, was Prince’s home and recording studio.

“Celebrity worship has been around since antiquity,” said Bruce Hinrichs, a psychology professor at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

Hinrichs is the author of the book, “Brain Desire: Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Brain.”

“People were worshiping the pharoahs of Egypt — and that was a very long time ago,” he said.

Music celebrity worship is a modern phenomenon, said Hinrichs. There is a deep — and at times strong — connection between music and people’s lives.

“I suspect it is because we have come to an age where people create a soundtrack for their own lives with the music they choose to listen to or that they are exposed to,” said Craig Hara, who teaches music history at UW-River Falls. “It would seem only natural to connect particular pieces of music… with the occurrences in their lives. From there, it’s not much of a stretch to understand how emotionally attached a person can become with the musicians providing them with their (life) soundtrack.”

The emotional attachment to celebrities can be very strong and is more typical in young people.

“Social-psychological dynamics. Wanting to belong and to be a part of something bigger. Also, it is most young people who do this. Their brains are still developing,” said Hinrichs. “They have power feelings. It is quiet often related to testosterone levels and can drive group behavior. You become more part of the group, which is human nature.”

In 2011, the North American Journal of Psychology published a paper on celebrity worship and how it has become pervasive in modern culture, whereas in the past people were more likely to worship a hero figure.

The more fans there are the easier it is to become one, according to Hinrichs. The digital era has made it easier to get more information about musicians.

An extremely large amount of information is available about the musicians, Hara added, and it’s easy to create comprehensive knowledge about them, and then inadvertently or purposefully develop what can be perceived as a personal connection to them.

People have different reasons as to “why” they become fans.

“I got there (Paisley Park) the day after Prince died,” said Clark. “People weren’t there as gawkers, they wanted to be part of that Prince memory.

“I have been a groupie or obsessed with music since I was in 7th or 8th grade,” said Clark. “It’s the feeling I get from music. I will have a song come on and it matches perfectly to my life. It’s the musical connection I get — I can create my own sound track to my life.”

Without fans musicians wouldn’t be celebrities.

The ease of access to information about almost anything and anyone, and even the ability to contact anyone, makes it even easier to get wrapped up in a celebrity, said Hara.

“I can connect with a musician on Twitter. They may respond back and that is amazing,” said Clark.

The death of Prince for fans wasn’t about the actually physical death, but more about what part of their own lives died with him, said Clark.

“It’s the part of my life. Prince helped make you who you are and you don’t realize that. He helped make us who we are and now that chapter of your life is closed,” he said.

Hinrichs said people should talk to others if they feel their feelings for a celebrity are becoming overwhelming. Studies have shown that talking things through with someone else helps keep things in perspective.