When M called me at work to tell me the news, I was in the middle of lugging a bunch of broken down diaper boxes to the recycling bin. I teetered for a moment on the stairs, regained my balance, and then went back inside to get out of the drizzling rain. I don't remember how the rest of the conversation went, but when I hung up the phone, I announced it to my office: "You guys. Prince died."
One person said, "No. No. Prince? The Prince? Our Prince? Not like... some other Prince?"
Another person said, "Who's Prince?"
(To be fair, she was young. Like she was probably born in a year starting with 20xx.)
I don't remember my first Prince song or my first Prince moment. I didn't have the access to Prince's work that others did, so I didn't/couldn't listen to him on the regular, but I loved him just the same. Maybe my first Prince songs were "Little Red Corvette," "When Doves Cry" and "1999." I don't know how they made it into my weird, filtered, rural life, but they did.
Once, I got into an argument with a friend about Michael Jackson and Prince. Her POV was that MJ and Prince were "not that good" and that their music didn't stand the test of time. She argued that more current (white) artists like Justin Timberlake were the real innovators. This line of reasoning was (and is) preposterous to me and I got wound up (I'm getting wound up now, just thinking about it). I tried explaining to her that Prince and MJ changed everything -- when they made music, it was the future. They made music that sounded like nothing else in their era. Without Prince and MJ, pop music wouldn't be what it was today. I remember thinking, What the hell is happening here? What kind of conversation is this? Is she fucking with me?
She wouldn't budge. I got steamed. People told me to calm down.
I didn't calm down. But she and I remained friends (somehow and miraculously).
A couple of my favorite Prince songs, the deeper cuts, are ones I found through other artists. I found "The Beautiful Ones" because Mariah Carey covered it. I found "If I Was Your Girlfriend" because TLC covered it. I found out these were Prince songs because I had nothing better to do than sit in my room and read the liner notes of all my favorite albums. These particular tracks stood out to me because, even though they were covers, they sounded so different from the rest of the albums they were on. Sonically and lyrically, these songs intrigued me because they weren't the straight-up pop songs that I was used to hearing.
Both the original and Mariah's versions of "The Beautiful Ones" bring the melody to a speed that almost gets stuck in its sweetness and simultaneous discordance. The vocals in both the original and Mariah's versions are breathy and spare. The lyrical narrative meanders, gets lost, finds something that could be a chorus, and then loses it. Over and over again. As the song progresses, it spirals into dramatic guitars and pure emotion. It sounds like the speaker can't wear the glossy facade of the song anymore, and they break out into emotional exhortations ("Do you want him? Or do you want me?"). Mariah's version features Dru Hill, so the vocals break from each other into their own separate stories and weave back together, then break apart again. Over and over.
This was probably one of the first songs I ever listened to and loved that didn't have a catchy hook. I couldn't stop listening to it and losing myself in the rich emotional and sonic landscape that both Mariah and Prince had laid out.
TLC's version of "If I Was Your Girlfriend" sounds a lot like the original. The lyrics were nothing I'd ever heard before, whether it was TLC or Prince singing them. When Prince sings in a high and breathy voice, "If I was your girlfriend, would you let me pick out your clothes before we go out? Not that you're helpless, but sometimes, sometimes those are the things that being in love's about," he blurs the lines between lover and best friend, gender and sexuality. When TLC sings those same lyrics, it enters a more heteronormative space, but it still intrigues me, just the same.
Structurally, the song has that catchy hook that I live for, but there are moments where, again, the glossy constraints of the pop song can no longer contain the speaker's emotion. In Prince's version, he breaks out and sings/says/begs, "Please" with such longing, he sounds like a human brought to the edge of their want and is begging to be pushed over.
There are other moments in the song that I love, but I don't have the vocabulary to break them down in any coherent way.
The other thing about Prince songs that I love is how they ooze sex. Even the most poppy and sweet-sounding of his songs -- "I Wanna Be Your Lover" -- is packed with innuendo and lust.
Growing up, my parents wanted to stave off any talk about sex as long as possible. Even through high school, my parents demanded that my brothers and I cover our eyes during movie or tv scenes when people kissed. If there was a sex scene, we had to get up and leave the room until either parent told us it was "safe" to come back.
When I got the "birds and bees" talk in middle school, my parent approached it in the most scientific terms. Even so, I remember being immensely relieved at having a space to finally ask some of my burning reproductive questions, like, Do pregnant women still get their periods while they're pregnant? I had a few other questions that I had saved up because I knew if I didn't ask them during this talk, I wouldn't be able to ask them later. I don't remember having questions about actual sex. It's possible that I did, but I don't remember them.
You can't avoid sex in Prince songs. It's impossible. "Little Red Corvette" is not literally about a little red corvette, but you couldn't have told me that when I was younger.
Growing up in a house where sex and sexuality was so invisiblized left me on my own to figure out what I thought was sexy and what all the stuff surrounding sex should look like. How I figured that out was, in large part, through music. It was through TLC. It was through Janet Jackson. It was through Michael Jackson. It was through Prince.
I believe deeply that without Prince, our music, our culture, our fashion, our gender expression would look so very different. We wouldn't have TLC or Janet Jackson in the same way. I know that in a lot of ways, Prince and MJ were at odds with each other, but I can't talk about one without mentioning the other. Without them, we wouldn't be who we are today.
Prince wasn't perfect. A couple years ago, my BFF mentioned to me that Prince had said some homophobic shit, and that the stuff Prince said had tempered my BFF's fandom of him. I didn't want to believe it, but I googled it, and it was true. It hurt to read the things he said. And even though I read the things he said, I still can't wrap my mind around it -- how could Prince say homophobic things? Prince? The Prince? Our Prince? Not some other Prince?
I thought about googling the news stories again to make sure it was true, to link the stories here, but I can't bring myself to do it. It hurts.
Even our pop culture gods are human.
The point is, I don't have every Prince album in existence. Partly because there's a shit ton of them, and partly because I didn't have the connection to him growing up that I wish I had. I'm definitely not a superfan, and I've never seen him live. Just like (most) everyone, I know all the hits. In the day immediately after Prince's death, "Purple Rain" played on a loop in my head. The day after: "Raspberry Beret" and "I Would Die 4 U." Yesterday: "Little Red Corvette" and "I Wanna Be Your Lover."
The point is, I know just the hits and my love for Prince is still legitimate. He wasn't directly involved in my formation as a human, but that's because he was in the air already. By the time I fell in love with music, he made it possible for all the musicians I loved to exist. He paved the way for them to express their full and complex sexuality through music, and through them, I learned (and continue to learn) my own sexuality.
Rest in power and in peace, Prince. You helped make this world we live in, and you made it possible for others to create and express their true and authentic genders and sexualities. Thank you. xoxoxo