Superstardom isn’t what it used to be, but it can still bring us together

On April 21st, CBS aired Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince, a concert special recorded to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Prince’s death. Taped on January 28th, two days after the Grammys aired, the concert is immediately notable for being a throwback to our pre-pandemic world of live (at the time) entertainment. But our current public health crisis hasn’t just given Let’s Go Crazy a new layer of relevance; it also amplified its intended purpose: highlighting how there is truly no artist like Prince and precious few pop culture icons that can capture the imagination of so many.

By now, we’re used to the way pop culture has fragmented along with our interests. Brands are bigger than stars, and few franchises — most of them owned by Disney — can reliably get the vast majority of the public talking. Shared experiences aren’t really extinct. We still have big-ticket sports broadcasts like the Super Bowl, viral sensations on streaming platforms like Tiger King, and the occasional prestige series that generates a lot of buzz (like the first season of Westworld). They’re just rarer.

But with our world in lockdown, pop culture is one of the only things we have left to share with others. The mass culture of the decades prior to the 21st century doesn’t exist anymore, so instead, we’re gathering around remembrances of it: iconic sports games like the 2006 Rose Bowl, celebratory concerts like Let’s Go Crazy, and, in ESPN’s The Last Dance about the life of Michael Jordan.

Superstardom isn’t what it used to be, but it can still bring us together 1

The Last Dance is a particularly surreal thing to watch during lockdown. The 10-part documentary follows Jordan during his 1997–98 basketball season with the Chicago Bulls, which would be his last before his second retirement from the sport and his last season with the Bulls. Throughout, the series flashes back to the beginnings of Jordan’s life and career, and then forward to recent interviews with Jordan and those who knew him or followed his remarkable hoops journey (Including “former Chicago resident” Barack Obama).

As a documentary, The Last Dance is kind of perfunctory, leaning heavily on the fact that Jordan was an unparalleled superstar with a level of fame that’s hard to grasp unless you lived through it. This point is easy to impress. In one memorable bit of archival news footage, a little girl tells a reporter that her parents said, “Do you want Christmas presents under the tree, or do you want to see Michael Jordan?” The implication, of course, is that she is extremely happy to pick “seeing Michael Jordan.” What kid wouldn’t spring at the chance to see the star of Space Jam?

Let’s Go Crazy is similarly bare-bones: not terribly lavish and straightforward almost to a fault, the concert doesn’t do a lot of convincing because it really doesn’t need to. Prince just made damn good music that a lot of people loved, and watching St. Vincent, the Foo Fighters, Miguel, and Gary Johnson cover that music is fun as hell — especially when you hear Dave Grohl say that Prince heard his band cover “Darling Nikki” once and did not like it at all.

As the pandemic continues to reshape the world, it’s also underscoring the ways it already has been changed. Pop culture hasn’t really reflected that, mostly because it takes time for the things we’re processing in the real world to filter down into our entertainment. We’ve gotten a few glimpses of it, mostly in the compromises that have been made to make sure the show continues to go on in a socially distant fashion: movies skipping theaters and going on demand, stars streaming performances from their living rooms, interviews being conducted over Zoom.

Our entertainment has quickly adjusted to the new normal of the world, but the way that it reminds us of the old one remains awkward at best. In watching Let’s Go Crazy or The Last Dance, we can remember another era in a way that lets us mourn what we lost and what we might never get back.

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