Normally, I’d start out a post like this here on the ‘Bin with “listen to this track”. But, my subject wasn’t much of a fan of the Internet. And which track would sum him up? As such, it’s hard to know how to start this. Maybe just a fact will do.
Prince is dead.
At the time of this writing, the details of how it happened remain to be sketchy. It doesn’t really matter. He’s gone, and gone too soon. Twenty-sixteen. What gives? And yet too, the fact that the public all across the cultural divide are in mourning shows just how impactful his time on this planet actually was, even if 57 is no age to die.
The eighties, the decade in which he primarily made his name, is much maligned. Prince made it better. He made it better because there was no one on the scene quite like him and he knew it. Part of the reason that the eighties was a troublesome time for music is because it was during this decade that the walls between genres, between audiences, between black and white and in between, male and female, masculine and feminine, seemed so insurmountable. Rock music had become corporatized, close-minded, and cheesily macho. R&B was banished from MTV. We were all locked up as audiences, at a time when genres of music were like islands, never touching each other, and sometimes even at war. This is another way Prince made those times better. His music cut right through all of that bullshit.
Prince was not interested in boundaries. He revealed how ridiculous the racial and gender lines as they pertained to musical styles that the industry seemed to encourage actually were when it came to making art. He was sexual, and not in any hard-coded way that shut anyone out. So, he crossed those lines, too. He dressed like a rock star at all times; silks, ruffles, sequins, high heeled boots. He embraced the feminine in himself and showed it externally in that way, instead of standing outside of it and objectifying it in others like so many other rock musicians at the time. He surrounded himself with women, all of whom seemed to revere him as he revered them, as sexual equals, and as full-on creative partners playing music together as a part of one big Revolution of black, white, man, woman, straight, gay, and in between. In this, he embodied the spirit of what rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to be at a time when the whole industry forgot about it.
He organized racially and gender integrated bands of musicians to play behind him, just like Sly Stone. He moved like James Brown. He played guitar like Jimi Hendrix. And he wrote songs like a one-man Motown. He played everything. He wrote. He arranged. He produced. He wrote songs for other artists, from The Bangles, to Chaka Khan, to Mavis Staples, to Kenny frickin’ Rogers. He collected groups of bands and other acts around him – The Time, Vanity 6, Sheila E, Wendy & Lisa, The Family, even Sheena Easton! – that represented something of a sonic empire with Prince at the center. He created a musical space where rock, soul, funk, dance-pop, psych, even power pop all lived happily together.
Prince was his own 1980s.
He was independent of everything else happening around him, and seemingly beholden to no one on any level. He created his own rock myth; The Kid, coming up in the club scene in Minneapolis, riding around on his motorbike with Apollonia, draped in purple finery. That myth is forever etched into the imaginations of eighties kids like me; an endless, idealized 1984 standing as a funky, sexy, downright purple alternative to any dour visions otherwise associated with that year.
Prince represented a certain kind of freedom, and asked for little else in return. All he wanted was to party like it was 1999, to see us laughing in the purple rain, to read the sign o’ the times, to get a little of our extra time and our (wait for it wait for it, wait …) kiss. He stirred up controversy, with reactionary parents’ groups placing literal labels on his records to ward off kids, as if the metaphorical labels on music at the time weren’t bad enough. That didn’t stop him. He put sex and spirituality, the sacred and the profane, together for the dearly beloved, gathered together to get through this thing called life.
The 1990s had him transform into a symbol in order to retain his identity, and his independence. When he got it back, he was Prince again. And he was funky. He put out lots and lots of records. He recorded just as many albums and then some that he didn’t put out. I don’t envy the person who is now in charge of Prince’s vault (a literal vault, mind you) and the many musical treasures that surely lie within, just waiting to nourish the ears and hearts of his fans. Or on second thought, maybe I do envy them. Still, they have their work cut out for them.
As for Prince, he performed up until the end.
Despite his death, his music and what it means cannot be erased. It meant too much to too many people, and continues to do so. As if to prove that point, the people gathered on the day of his death April 21, 2016 at First Avenue, the club where the film Purple Rain was shot. They partied and danced all night. They left flowers. They did the same at Paisley Park, Prince’s home in suburban Minneapolis. Tributes from musical peers on all levels from Bob Mould, to Justin Timberlake, to Paul Westerberg, to Mick Jagger praised his legacy and mourned his passing. President Obama called him a creative icon. This is what happens when one artist affects so many people so positively, helping them to see how artificial the walls between musical genres and between the people who love them actually are. This is what happens when generations of people across all kinds of cultural lines acknowledge how one artist helped to clear a path for them, not just because of his music, but because of his re-invention of what it means to be masculine, empowered, and self-possessed, no matter what one’s background is.
There will never be another Prince. How could there be?
But the idea of kicking unnecessary divisions between us to the curb, and with them the violence and hatred that they create, is still an important idea to pursue, even if we no longer have Prince helping to lead the charge. Yet because of all the music he left for us, in a way we always will have him.
Rest in peace.