"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life...."
Since learning of Prince's untimely death at the age of 57, I haven't been able to do what millions of other people are doing right now--listen to his music, which is ironic, as Prince's music has been part of my daily life for over thirty years. I think if I listen to it now, it makes this horrible news more real. And I'm just beginning to emotionally unpack just what Prince has meant to me for the past thirty years, and will no doubt continue to mean to me for the rest of my life.
We all know Prince's legacy as a musician and as a star -- musical prodigy, producing his own music starting at 19, recording over thirty albums (that's almost one album per year since he started recording professionally) pushing sexual boundaries, redefining what is masculine and feminine in our culture. Among him and the other two 1958 babies --Michael Jackson and Madonna --together they defined 1980s pop music.
"I had no idea what Prince's sexuality actually was, but I knew he was effeminate, and I was effeminate."
But on a personal level, Prince changed my life. I was eight years old when his first breakthrough hits "Little Red Corvette" and "1999" starting playing in heavy rotation on MTV. I was too young to get all the sexual references and innuendos in those songs at the time, but I knew there was something special about Prince, something different. I had no idea what Prince's sexuality actually was, but I knew he was effeminate, and I was effeminate, and that certain people hated us both for that. The same bullies that pushed me into the locker or threw spitballs at me while whispering "fag" were the same ones who mocked Prince, and those who listened to his music.
But Prince had the last laugh --he never cared what the haters said. He reveled in everything that made him different and weird, and in doing so, taught me to do the same. He taught me to own my weirdness, to own my own queerness, to not feel the need to conform to masculine ideals, to be whatever the hell I wanted to be. And for that, I will always love him and be grateful.
When Purple Rain came out in 1984, it hit like a nuclear bomb, both in my own life and in pop culture at large. It's hard to describe now, in a popular culture that is so fragmented as it is today, how big a deal Purple Rain actually was. Between the album and the movie, it permeated all of popular culture for over a year. It was one of the first albums I HAD to have, begging to get it as tenth birthday present, even if I knew I was too young to see the movie it was a soundtrack too (I would come to find, years later, the soundtrack had a movie, not the other way around).
"When Purple Rain came out in 1984, it hit like a nuclear bomb."
I've owned that album in almost every form since it came out; I wore out the vinyl in short order, then moved on to the cassette tape till that snapped, then the CD, and finally in my iTunes library, where it's free to get played out infinite times with no damage. I'm grateful for that--thirty years later, it's still my favorite album of all time.
But Prince was so much more than Purple Rain. His follow up albums over the next decade all yielded iconic hits like "Raspberry Beret," "Kiss," "U Got The Look," "Alphabet Street," "Diamonds and Pearls," and the list goes on and on. He wrote and produced hits for other artists--usually women he was infatuated with on some level--like Sinead O'Connor, The Bangles, Sheena Easton, Stevie Nicks. Then there were the artists who scored big hits covering his older songs, like Chaka Khan and Cyndi Lauper. He wrote and produced huge hits for Morris Day and the Time, Vanity 6, and Sheila E. His musical influence and footprint were massive.
And Prince as a live performer was simply beyond compare. His Superbowl Halftime Show in 2007 goes down as one of the greatest ever, as he sang "Purple Rain" quite literally in the purple rain. Purple lights reflected on the torrential downpour. As if there was ever any doubt that God was a Prince fan,
"He taught me to own my weirdness, to own my own queerness."
I was lucky enough to see Prince perform on five different occasions. In 2011, Prince played almost a solid month at the Forum in Los Angeles for a mere $25 a show. Prince was making a stand at how much artists were charging for arena shows, and as a fan I took full advantage, going to see him three times that tour. The first night, he performed so many encores that the house lights were up and the janitorial staff was cleaning the stage as he wailed endlessly on his guitar. Prince was ever the consumate performer. He lived for the music, in a way few artists do. He was on tour performing just days before his death.
Maybe the most telling thing about Prince is that he had no easy-to-pigeonhole demographic. At a Prince concert, you'd see young, old, gay, straight, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, you name it. Rock lovers, funk lovers, dance music lovers--I can think of very few artists who cross lines like that. In our world, this should be Prince's lesson to us. Let all these things that divide us become irrelevant. Get a little funky and nasty while you can, because "life is just a party, and parties weren't meant to last."
RIP Prince Rogers Nelson. The world will be a less funky, less glamorous place without you.
Image Credit: Warner Bros.