The world was shocked on April 21 to learn of the sudden death of Prince. Many were heartbroken at the loss of such a dependably innovative artist, but also deeply curious. If any other famous musician were found dead unexpectedly in an elevator or at home, you would assume it had something to do with illegal drugs, or alcohol, or both. But Prince was a clean living fanatic who would never allow alcohol or drugs into his parties, let alone his body.
Today, we finally have an answer to the nagging question of what killed Prince. After the news was leaked to a local paper, the Midwest Medical Examiner's Office came out with a terse tweet of the one-page investigation results. It contains this one-sentence explanation: "The decedent self-administered fentanyl."
If you're not familiar with fentanyl (I wasn't), it's an extremely powerful painkiller, related to morphine but up to 100 times more potent. It's known to cause respiratory distress and even death when taken in the wrong dose, and it's highly addictive as well. Why on earth was Mr. Clean Prince taking something like this? Because he was in severe pain from his hips and had been for a long time, according to The New York Times.
The whole thing reminds me in a very eerie way of the death of another iconic pop star, Michael Jackson. He too died at home, his system loaded with prescription drugs--in his case, a potent cocktail of anti-anxiety and sedative medications, one of which was so powerful it could be used for executions. Jackson was in rehearsal for a new tour at the time of his death; Prince was in the middle of one. Both were in their 50s. Both, I feel sure, died of doing whatever they had to do to keep their no-longer-youthful bodies performing onstage the way they had 30 years earlier.
Shortly before Jackson's "This Is It" tour, the performer was looking so haggard that a journalist asked him whether he could still dance and moonwalk like he used to. "Why wouldn't I be able to?" Jackson shot back.
As for Prince, less than a week before he died, he was flying home from a performance when his plane made an emergency landing, apparently because he'd become unconscious. He was treated with a drug that counteracts opioid overdoses, which seems to suggest he'd been taking painkillers that were too powerful to be good for him. Both Prince and Michael Jackson pushed on because that's what the world expected of them. In a way, it's what it expects of all of us.
Would you admit to being in your 50s?
I turned 56 last month. It's not an admission I make lightly, because as a tech writer, an online columnist, and someone who writes for and about entrepreneurs, being in your 50s doesn't seem quite right. I can only imagine how wrong it must seem for a pop star. We may not exactly lie about our ages, but we all seem to have accepted the idea that we should seem as youthful as we possibly can. I've had women ask, "How did you decide not to color your hair?" And, indeed, my natural gray seems to be the exception and not the rule. Not trying to appear younger than I am makes me an oddball.
In a world focused on continuous improvement, we're all supposed to be getting stronger, smarter, and more capable every day. So here's another uncomfortable admission: There are lots of things my 20- and 30-year-old body could do that this 56-year-old one can't. That's upsetting, but then again I make my living sitting in a chair and typing. If I made it by singing and dancing...well, I'd probably be popping the same pills Prince was.
Fred Astaire announced at 51 that he was retiring from dance, saying he saw no reason to be "the oldest performer in captivity." But that was in the 1950s. Today, if you've achieved huge success, you're not supposed to go on to something less demanding. And you're certainly not supposed to simply stop and enjoy life. You're either at the top of your game, or you're a has-been.
That kind of thinking has cost us two of the most creative pop stars the world has seen in the space of less than seven years. As well as countless other less-famous people who've burned out or self-destructed in various ways because they couldn't keep up with their younger selves.
How many more will we lose before we change this way of thinking?