Alright 2016, that’s quite enough. It’s only April and already the In Memoriam rolls that will play at next year’s award shows are going to have us on the floor balling.
There will no doubt be countless words written about Prince this week. I hardly think I can say it all, but maybe we can collectively grieve together.
I’m old enough to remember the very beginning of MTV, the timing of which coincided nicely with musicians who were performers as much as artists. In the early days of MTV, it was all music videos and VJs who were former radio DJs who genuinely cared about music. I’m not saying that as some GenX nostalgia “back in my day it was better” bullshit. It’s just how it was. If anything, we could use that kind of earnestness now.
Because radio had not been on TV before MTV, there was a period in which the channel just had a few videos in rotation. Then came artists such as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, and of course David Bowie and Queen, who seized the opportunity to create fully actualized performances. It wasn’t enough to just make a song. A visual story was part of the package of new albums.
Still, Prince made great use of the emerging idea of personas as pop currency. He used them to tell his stories in a way unlike anyone before or since. And he used them to sublimate the dominant themes of the day. For a musician who could play at least 27 instruments (possibly more), it meant something that he found, nurtured, and promoted female artists.
Prince did not invent music videos, but he used the medium well and not principally to sell a brand or to move units. Prince performed music for the camera. Prince sold art on a medium known for selling beer and potato chips. He was a serious musician who ebulliently entreated us to go crazy. He transcended genres (and genders).
As a child in the 1980s, what I remember most about my first exposure to Prince was that he looked right into the camera. He looked right at you and sang about a woman in a raspberry beret – who was not portrayed as a slut just because she liked to have sex. She was not a conquest. In the context of the song, it was Prince’s first time – sexy and sweet.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic in 2009:
One thing I’ve appreciated about Prince, as I’ve aged, is that he knows how to sing about sex, like a man honestly singing about sex. Much of the misogyny in hip-hop (and I suspect in other art forms too) comes from, forgive my profanity, a deep-seated fear of ass. Men—and especially young men—fear what they will do to be physically involved with a woman with whom they’re infatuated. They compensate by turning this fear on its head and projecting. They make women into temptresses, gold-diggers, and villains, and make themselves into conquering heroes. Pussy don’t rule me, they’ll say—even though pussy ain’t thinking about them. Which is the problem, or rather their problem.
But Prince was never afraid of himself, or what he’d do. On the contrary, he embraced it. … He revels in the wanting, in the potential for rejection, he does not fear it. And having done that, he goes out and makes his own demands: Women, not girls, they rule my world/I said they rule my world/Act your age, not your shoe-size, Mama/And maybe we can do the twirl.
That is just great. It’s all there, and so confident—a mixture of his own power (“Act your age, not your shoe-size”) and vulnerability (“they rule my world”).
Prince was a sex-positive feminist performer in an era that did not have any idea how to handle that. Hell, we still don’t know how to handle how seriously sexy Prince’s songs are without trampling on consent or the agency of those he’s (lyrically) having sex with.
And then came Purple Rain, and nobody knew what to do with any of that. He was not the first to create a rock opera (The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall had already broken that ground) or a soundtrack to a movie (see his 1989 Batman) – but he did win a fucking Oscar for writing the soundtrack to his own movie! Nobody does that!
Like so many my age, I’ve grown up in a world that has always had Prince in it. When I met my now-husband in high school band class, our first dance was to Prince’s Cream. I know that sounds dirty, but that’s only because every Prince song is at least a little bit dirty.
Selfishly, I have always loved that Prince comes from (and stayed true to) the Midwest. What an incubator the Midwest was that it created Michael Jackson (Indiana), Madonna (Michigan), and Prince (Minnesota) all at virtually the same time! We think of the cultural and artistic centers of America as being in LA and New York – not flyover states. Somehow, Prince made being from Minneapolis a strength in the pop culture imagination. He could incubate his art there on his schedule and in his own way.
One of the things I have appreciated about Prince as I have struggled to become my own kind of artist, as a writer, is the total confidence that permeates every ounce of Prince’s work. Because, when you are someone who creates things for a living, you understand innately how much confidence it takes to put something you made out into the world – especially in the age of internet trolls and viral memes. It’s why artists of all kinds play it safe or even stop producing. But Prince never stopped. He was vital and creating music right up until his last breath. (I like to think that somewhere there’s a recorded jam session with Prince, Beyonce, and Jay-Z. Just them riffing after Prince signed to Tidal.)
We should all hope to be as brave and centered in our identities as Prince was. He gave zero fucks if people were confused by the complexity of his art, if they didn’t care for his taste in quasi-Victorian purple clothing, or if the kind of music he wanted to make was popular on the radio.
You know that meme about how we should be what we want, unless we can be Batman – because then you should be Batman? I say, be Prince. Because he could be a sexy motherfucker in a blouse, he could make fun of himself (and make pancakes), and he inspired generations – while always being true to himself. So be Prince!
And never forget that if the elevator tries to break you down – go crazy and punch a higher floor!
Original image source: Prince at Coachella in 2008, via Wikimedia Commons