I hated Prince in high school.
I was a timid, unsure girl. Up until ninth grade I was skinny, wore thick glasses and I parted my freakishly long hair—my dad wouldn’t let me cut it—in the middle and let it fall down my back in one long braid. I attended an all-girl school whose student body was almost exclusively wealthy. Although my family was by no means poor, we were middle class which made me feel poor by comparison. I saw no hope of moving up any rungs of the ladder.
And then I defied my father by cutting my hair slowly, inch-by-inch, at each sleepover at my friends’ houses. And I started parting my hair on the side. And I discovered vintage clothing so I could rebrand myself as vaguely quirky and disguise the fact that I couldn’t afford Agnes B like my classmates. And most importantly, I switched to contact lenses.
Life changed. I sensed attitudes about me shift seismically. The cool girls felt more comfortable talking to me and invited me places. I started going to clubs and bars (carding people was extremely lax in 1980’s New York) and my new friends invited me to their country houses. It was a socially significant improvement.
But the most bewildering byproduct was that boys noticed me for the first time. Fear and maybe a little bit of anger clouded my happiness. Why now? I was the same person I’d always been, only the husk was different. As soon as they got to know me, these guys would see how profoundly awkward I was. If we kissed, they’d understand I didn’t belong, that I didn’t know anything, that other sophisticated, experienced girls would be more compelling, more aligned with their tastes.
I’d always loved acting and maybe one of the reasons I’m good was because I spent a lot of time practicing in my daily life during my teenage years. I’d already figured out my costume, now I just had to figure out how to look and feel like I belonged. I favored the British method: start from outside and work my way in. I hoped with much rehearsal this act would stick.
But I was deeply afraid. I thought everybody saw me as a good girl and I’d put so much effort into that role: I did my homework. I was neat. I was polite. I didn’t make waves. I followed rules. And to me, all these qualities didn’t jibe with sex. Somehow I got it in my mind that I couldn’t be good and also be sexual person, at least looking and feeling the way I did. You’d think going to a single-sex school would have built up my feminine self-esteem, but my high school was not that type of school. So I had these dark feelings I couldn’t parse because they didn’t match my exterior and I felt there was nowhere I could go. I talked to no one and was scared to go searching on my own.
I thought Prince was gross. Repulsive. Tiny, absurd, vulgar and a show-off. But truthfully, he frightened me. He wore sex graphically on his paisley sleeve. Like Bowie, he toyed with sexuality, but unlike Bowie, it wasn’t an intellectual exercise. It was dirty, explicit, flaunting and mocking. It dripped off him. “Darling Nikki” rubbed sex in my face. His music made me want to run away and hide.
In college I made a good friend named Gooey. No, I’m not making this up. Gooey was an honest-to-goodness eccentric and she took pity on me and held me under her wing. She lived in a one-room treehouse. She was from deep, rural North Carolina. She said without irony that her family was white-trash. In fact, they weren’t talking to her because she was dating a black man. She made her own clothes, she hardly drank and didn’t do drugs. She introduced me to her circle of smart and interesting friends, many of whom were musicians. She made me chicken and dumplings. I wrote her a recommendation when she applied to and was accepted into the Peace Corps. She was an extraordinary person.
But perhaps what I associate most with Gooey was Prince. She played his music constantly. Pretty much exclusively and I was too much in awe of her to ask her to play anything else. So I sat in her treehouse and listened to the musician I couldn’t stand while she fed me dumplings.
Then one day I admitted that “Raspberry Beret” was pretty catchy. Come to think of it, “1999” was fun. “Purple Rain” was long and ornate, but the ending was mysterious and beautiful. Hmmm…maybe Prince wasn’t all that bad.
And then Gooey took me to the campus movie theater to see Purple Rain (of course I’d avoided seeing it when it first came out). Personally, I think Purple Rain is overblown and badly-acted (which doesn't stop me from watching it every time I'm flipping channels and happen to see it on TV). But those songs. Oh my god, those songs. I’d never seen any concert footage of Prince before and my mouth dropped to the floor. He played the guitar —and everything else—like an alien. And his dancing was unearthly too. For the first time, I understood Prince’s charisma. He was electric.
He was a virtuoso. He was a genius. Yes, he was strange but I finally realized that with his songs, he was both serious and in on the joke. And it dawned on me I was the one who had been humorless.
I’d been wrong. I didn’t hate Prince at all. In fact, I realized I was actually crazy about him. I’d been running away from him and he was waiting for me all along, quixotic smile on his face, to wise up and realize he was exactly what I’d needed.
Girl, come here and let me whisper a secret in your ear you already know.
Sex. It’s part of life. In fact without it, there’s no life at all. Sex can be dirty and complicated and confusing and twisted and beautiful, sometimes all at once. Oh, also sex is fun! Why cut myself off from that just because I was scared to see it?
I’m fairly agnostic and Prince clearly was not, but we both agree that sex is a divine gift and maybe the closest most of us can come to god. Ecstasy makes us both intensely aware of our bodies but also transports us outside ourselves. In the moment it’s impossible to think of anything else but that light. Prince may have seen purple, but I see blue. It’s the brief Rapture that allows us to return to Earth. And in the Church of Prince, it’s not a sin. It’s a duty. Fucking, for Prince, is a way of praying. Prince’s glorious music is the choir and his lyrics are the prayerbook.
The Ladder. Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. Take Me with U.
And while Prince was sincere, he also toyed with and mocked sexuality. He looked both sensual and ridiculous. It was like he was daring us to try to classify and compartmentalize him: “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay/Controversy”
The hair, the make-up, the clothes - they were costumes. They weren’t how he dressed privately. Prince was genuinely eccentric, but his eccentricity also had a purpose. With each album he had a new look and a new sound, but one message he repeated over and over was this: we are complicated people. No matter what sex we were born into, we are composites of both man and woman and sex lets us explore how we fit into the world.
In the song “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” Prince tackles all of this: If I was your girlfriend, would U tell me?
Would you let me see U naked then?
Would U let me give U a bath?
Would U let me tickle U so hard U’d laugh and laugh
And would U, would U let me kiss U there
U know down there where it counts
I’ll do it so good I swear I’ll drink every ounce
And then I’ll hold U tight and hold U long
And together we’ll stare into silence
And we’ll try 2 imagine what it looks like
Yeah, we’ll try to imagine what, what silence looks like
Despite his bravado, it’s clear that Prince loved women. As you can see from those lyrics, he seemed very generous. He wrote very few fuck-and-run songs. He’s bold without being macho or sexist. Most of the artists he mentored and wrote songs for were women and most of his songs were about them. He put women on a pedestal but he was also more than happy to knock that pedestal over so they could get down in the mud and have fun together. His opinions altered when he became a Jehovah’s Witness, but when I began loving him, this was the message he gave to me:
You can be a Madonna and a whore at the same time and there are no judgments.
Maybe I would have explored this anyway during my college years, but his music in my consciousness encouraged me not to define and limit myself to being a chaste, “good” girl. Good has nothing to do with denial. If I were truly good, I could search the deeper, darker parts of myself by myself or with other people and not compromise my essential nature in the least. This journey has gone in fits-and-starts and it’s not over yet, but despite never meeting him in person, Prince was one of the first to open my eyes to the notion that sex was crucial to my happiness and well-being.
There are so many reasons I love Prince other than his otherworldly talents. He was loyal to his fans, the people he worked with and his hometown. He could have lived anywhere but he chose to stay in Minneapolis and give back to the community. Despite his enormous fame and draw, he always played small, surprise venues to allow himself intimacy with his audience and to experiment musically. He honored and elevated the musicians who had influenced him not by copying them, but by filtering their music so that it was reminiscent but was its own transformed, unique creature. He also nurtured and promoted new artists. His battle with his record company was epic and brave. He was nobody’s slave. His music was for everybody, but he was always deeply committed to his community. He had a clever and sly sense of humor. For example, HE KICKED KIM KARDASHIAN OFF HIS STAGE BECAUSE SHE REFUSED TO DANCE!! How can anyone not love him for that?
I had hoped to see him perform. I thought there was plenty of time. As with Bowie, I stupidly believed, because he seemed superhuman, that Prince was immortal. He never lost his energy, his creativity or his edge. He almost looked the same as when he was nineteen and first appeared on American Bandstand. I can’t imagine anybody ever said “You know, it’s getting embarrassing. Prince should retire.” I never saw him live and I should have tried harder.
Perfect pop songs are almost impossible to write because they should be taken seriously but should also be catchy to reach a wide audience. My conservative guess is that Prince probably wrote at least 100 great pop songs (that I know of), appealing to people who liked not only that genre, but blues, soul, funk and rock n’ roll and music I can’t define. Black and white and all shades in between. “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” “Anotherloverholeinyohead,” “I could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” etc. That’s insanity. There’s a vault in Paisley Park with thousands of Prince songs we’ve never heard. I’m overwhelmed by the thought of what gems are lying inside waiting to be loosed upon the world.
I’m crushed by Prince’s death. I can’t believe I feel this much sadness for someone I didn’t know in real life. I’m worried about what medical examiners will discover from his autopsy. I think he was in deep physical and psychic pain. Although I couldn’t hold Bowie in higher esteem, when he died I didn’t cry. I felt Prince’s death viscerally because he is partially responsible for teaching me how to live my life viscerally and with more passion. He sent a scared girl on her way with a gentle push to explore a dark, vast forest, like a benevolent version of the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. I’m sure I’m not alone in my feelings and I’ll keep him and his music alive in my heart for the rest of my life.