Hail to the Prince, Gone Much Too Soon
Prince is dead.
Prince is dead and I don’t know how to start talking about it.
There has been, and will continue to be, a tendency to make bold and sweeping statements about Prince’s undeniable genius and thoroughly individual place in pop culture. Prince redefined black artistry in the ‘80s, made it safe (as David Bowie had a generation before) to express any kind of identity (sexual or otherwise) you wanted to, used his global superstardom to champion unknown artists (mostly artists of color), and maintained a prodigious, peculiar and often brilliant level of output up until his final days. From first to last, Prince did exactly what he wanted to do, and he had the astonishing talent to back up that confidence.
Prince was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of musician, once who could stand tall with (and usually surpass) the greats of pop and rock music. He was Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown rolled into one. There’s a great video going around of Prince tearing into the guitar solo in an all-star tribute rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” simultaneously showing up and delighting Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and George Harrison’s son Dhani. It’s prime Prince – he strides into the song like he strode into pop culture, with a grin and a swagger and the chops to go with it, and he basically redefines that performance, wrapping it around himself before tossing his guitar and bounding off stage as quickly as he arrived.
Lots of people have been and will be talking about all of these things, and they’re all true and worth talking about. Others will do a much better job than I would of saying all of that. For me, though, the loss of Prince is a more personal one. Prince has provided a consistent soundtrack to my entire life, and knowing that I won’t get to hear any more new music from him hurts more than I expected it would.
I think I can safely say that “1999” was my first Prince song. I was eight years old when it came out, and I vividly remember hearing both that and “Little Red Corvette” on my mother’s car radio as she drove me to whatever sporting practice I’d been enrolled in that year. I was never an outgoing kid – before music, I had books, and I was quite all right with that – and my parents, with the best of intentions, tried to make me more social by signing me up for soccer and gymnastics and basketball and Cub Scouts and on and on. The best part, for me, of all of these things was the drive back and forth, with the radio on.
As it happens, I can’t remember a world without “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” in it. 1999, which turned out to be Prince’s breakthrough record, was released the same year as Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and I similarly cannot remember a world without “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” and “Thriller.” It was a great year to become musically conscious, I can tell you that. Two years later Purple Rain came out, and Prince was everywhere, and even though I was only 10, I knew “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry” from the radio.
I know we had MTV by that point, but the first Prince video I remember seeing was "U Got the Look", from his 1987 masterpiece Sign O the Times. And holy hell, did 13-year-old me love that video. Prince was like no one I had ever seen before. Those sunglasses. That white fur coat. There was something seamy and sexy about the video – as a good Christian kid, I was pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to be watching it, even though I had no idea what “this love is good, let’s get to ramming” could possibly mean. I was thoroughly intrigued.
Sign O the Times was the first Prince album I heard all the way through, too. My cousin Carol, a few years older than me, had it on cassette, and during one of our family get-togethers in New Hampshire that year, I snuck away with my Walkman and headphones and listened. (This is also how I heard The Joshua Tree for the first time.) It was awesome and befuddling. I couldn’t wrap my little mind around songs like “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” kind of scared me. Prince was always at his best pushing at the comfort zones, being explicit and vulnerable and frank. That song is all of those things, and I’d never heard anything like it.
I didn’t buy Sign O the Times, because I was 13 and had no money. I had a job by 14 and could have bought Lovesexy, but I didn’t, because it was called Lovesexy and featured a naked Prince on the cover, and both of those things confused my still-developing mind. (I really missed out. Lovesexy is awesome.) But I did buy the Batman soundtrack, making it my first Prince album. If Batman the film was for kids, Batman the soundtrack absolutely was not. I knew by then what songs like “Lemon Crush” and “Scandalous” were about, but I still felt sort of embarrassed by them.
But I was still drawn in, and I think I know why: Prince’s best material is usually his sexiest, and his very best examines the tension between his deep religious convictions and his desire. Throughout his career, Prince looked at this dichotomy through many different lenses, and tried again and again to bring them together, to treat sex as holy and sacramental, to equate the ecstasy of sex with that of being close to God. His entire catalog can be seen as an extended dissertation on this act of reconciliation, his nearly 40-year attempt to bring the sacred and the profane into harmony.
As a teenage Christian, I was going through a similar thing, and Prince gave me the most sexually upfront art I’d ever encountered. (Keep in mind that I was still listening to Petra at the time.) Prince loved God (you couldn’t listen to a song like “The Cross” and come away with any other conclusion) and he loved sex. This was new to me, and it resonated. (Also, “Batdance” was freaking great.) Naturally I bought all of Prince’s prior records as soon as I could, which means I heard Dirty Mind and Controversy while in high school, which is pretty much the best time to hear Dirty Mind and Controversy.
At the same time, I was growing as a music listener, paying attention to credits and figuring out how it all worked. Prince’s albums contained a credit I’d never seen: “Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince.” The man did literally everything on the majority of his material, and even at 15, I was pretty impressed by that. (Still am impressed, for the record.)
In 1992 I graduated high school and went north to Maine for college. Some albums very definitively remind me of that year – Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, for instance, or (lord help me) the Spin Doctors’ Pocket Full of Kryptonite. One of those albums is definitely the one Prince named after an unpronounceable symbol, a symbol he would soon adopt as his name.
This record is amazing. It’s the apex of the New Power Generation, and of Prince’s dalliance with rap, and it simply glows with ambition. I worked at our college radio station, which was unlike other college radio stations in that it had a constricting top 40 format, and I would always look forward to playing “7,” one of the strangest smash singles I can think of. The album was progressive and slinky and sexy, and I adored it, even if I would still listen to songs like “Blue Light” and “The Continental” on headphones, blushing.
At that point, that was it. I was in. I’d fully recognized that Prince was an absolute genius, a musician unlike any other I could name. I was a committed fan, which means I was paying rapt attention as he started writing the word “SLAVE” on his cheek and vowing never to record for Warner Bros. again. I graduated from college in 1996 and started working at Face Magazine in Portland, and The Gold Experience was a big part of my soundtrack. (This one’s impossibly underrated.) And I was amazed when, mere months after completing his contract with Warner, Prince issued Emancipation, a three-hour album of new songs. Three hours! I’m listening to it right now, and it ranges from pretty good to very good. It’s quite an achievement.
And yeah, I joined in the ribbing when he started calling himself the Artist Formerly Known as Prince (or just The Artist for short), but I still tracked down his b-sides set Crystal Ball just to hear The Truth, the wonderful acoustic bonus disc. I suffered through Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and reveled in the jazzy wonder of The Rainbow Children, Prince’s first album after converting to the Jehovah’s Witness faith. This conversion brought his lifelong dichotomy into sharp relief – he stopped playing his more explicit songs, and sang more openly about God. I was 28 and working for a weekly newspaper in Indiana, and I remember calling up my boss, a fellow Prince fan, breathlessly excited by how good The Rainbow Children was. (I made her a copy. She didn’t like it.)
I’d fallen on difficult times by 2004 – I was working in the HR department of a spice factory, of all things – but Prince’s almighty comeback record, Musicology, made things more bearable. I’ve never lost track of him since. (I even imported 20Ten, an album he released for free over in Europe, and loved it.) Prince has been such a consistent presence in our culture, he was like the atmosphere – we took him for granted. I never saw Prince play live. “He’ll be around forever,” I thought. I even failed to hear what turned out to be his final album, HitnRun Phase Two – I’d been waiting for a physical release. There was no rush for me. He’s Prince, he’ll have another record out in six or seven months anyway.
Prince died last Thursday after a weeks-long bout of the flu. He was only 57.
And so now I’m left to look back at all this history, and all this incredible music, and figure out what Prince has meant to me. He’s been with me my whole life, and I’ve never really thought about what I would say when he was gone. Part of me thought I’d never need to consider that, and another part thought I wouldn’t need to for at least 30 years. To lose him so young, and so suddenly, is a crime. This year has been particularly brutal to artists and musicians. 2016 has taken David Bowie, and now my generation’s David Bowie. And it’s only April.
So what does Prince mean to me? What have I learned from 30-plus years of listening to his work? Why am I so deeply affected by his death? Could I possibly put it into words?
Not yet. But here is what I know.
I’m never going to find another musician like Prince. He was one of a kind, and deliberately, determinedly so. He played two dozen instruments, possessed a versatile and powerful voice, made great-sounding records, wrote hundreds of tremendous songs, mapped out complex arrangements in his head, and to top it all off, was one of the best guitar players who ever lived. He made nearly 50 albums in his 37-year recording career, and even the worst of them feels authentic and sparkles with originality and musicianship. As a live performer, he was unbeatable, a force of nature. My generation only produced one Prince, and no one could top him.
But more than that, Prince was always wonderfully, magically himself. He did everything with an almost superhuman confidence, gliding through the world like a visitor from some other plane, warping reality around him. He was sexy because he believed he was sexy, cool because he believed he was cool. And if that helped a shy and awkward kid to embrace the weirder parts of himself and live more openly, I imagine that helped millions of other shy and awkward kids just like me. And for that I am immensely thankful.
A friend of mine made the point that Prince’s death hurts, in part, because he was still so vital, so at the top of his game. We’ve been cheated out of the 20 or 30 albums he would have made in the coming decades, and the years of live shows, and all the music in the vault that we will no doubt get to hear now won’t make up for that. Prince’s death is senseless and cruel, and has robbed the world of everything he would have done in his later years. It is, in many ways, the deepest cut in a year full of them.
But I’m choosing to be thankful for the enormous amount of music he did gift us with, and for the years we had him. It’s going to feel very strange never buying another new Prince album, never hearing another new Prince song. The air has changed, the world is different, the things we take for granted seem less certain. Hold tight to the people you love, cherish the things you enjoy. Life goes by, and baby, it’s much too fast.
Rest in peace, Prince.
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