PRINCE: June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016
I was just getting to a place where I was able to accept that we lived in a world without Merle Haggard when I got the news that Prince was dead. Merle’s death was sad, but not unexpected. He’d been in poor health on and off for a couple of decades. He was a man who had lived a rowdy life and he was nearing 80. But Prince was totally unexpected, even in light of his recent emergency hospital visit. I’ve been a Prince fan since junior high, originally drawn to the 1999 album by a friend relaying a rumor – in hushed, half-amazed/half-terrified whispers – that “Prince has sex with women on stage… during concerts!” I remember checking the album out from the local library and being afraid of what I might hear. After all, music so powerful it could lead a woman to public sex in front of a stadium of people? That must be powerful music. But it wasn’t. It was “Little Red Corvette” and “Free” and “Delirious”. Good music, no doubt, but not some siren song that could lead women into a pan-sexual frenzy. It was pop music. Pop music that I enjoyed, but that was all. It wasn’t until a Prince-obsessed friend explained the complexity of Prince’s music that I began to truly appreciate him. I started buying all of his albums, and held Prince in the rarefied high regard reserved for the very few singer/songwriter/musician/producer in existence. In my opinion, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys is the only other true master of all four roles, and his tenure came with huge gaps in productivity, wide creative misses, and mental illness. But Prince was not only productive for over 35 years, he was consistently impressive. And while he and Brian Wilson both weaved amazing complexity into (what appeared to be) typical pop songs, Prince’s career always felt edgier. More dangerous.
When I thought about writing something about Prince, I started where so many things about Prince start: sex. It’s not unsurprising that my initial introduction to Prince was a rumor about sex, instead of actually hearing one of his songs. It’s probably not even uncommon for children of the ‘80s. But I knew from the start that Prince was much more than just sex; I just couldn’t figure out how to articulate the powerful sway Prince’s career held over me. Which is probably why the common perception of Prince was primarily sexual. When trying to define something powerful that we don’t understand, we go to the most obvious powerful element. In Prince’s case, it was his open celebration of sex and sexuality - which was both freeing and intimidating, depending on your perspective. But as elegies poured forth in the wake of the man’s death, it was obvious that Prince was so much more than just libido and sexual freedom. After being a Prince fan for nearly 35 years, I came across a quote from the man himself which summed up why Prince was so fascinating, so inspiring, so important:
“Cool means being able to hang with yourself... All you have to ask yourself is 'Is there anybody I'm afraid of? Is there anybody who if I walked into a room and saw, I'd get nervous?' If not, then you're cool.”
That was why I’ve always loved Prince. Not because he’s cool. But because at the center of cool is fearlessness, from which everything else stems. The fearlessness showed through in Prince’s work. If the song called for a falsetto, he sang it with the same gusto as the soulful baritone sections. The rash of tribute videos in the wake of his death prove that his guitar solos were no joke; Prince’s willingness to play inverted chords or chords that required seemingly-superhuman feats of manual dexterity was a fearless seeking of the right sound for the feeling he was seeking. His appearance, his demeanor, his sense of fashion, all was cause for commentary from those who didn’t know him and cause for amazement from those who did. Either way, it was fearless. (Showing up at the 1991 VMA’s in ass-less pants? Just three years post-Reagan? Please…) All art is a search for truth and understanding, and Prince was no different. Except, of all of the creative pilgrims seeking truth, Prince was arguably the coolest. And by extension, he was the most fearless.
So why does that matter to me?
- My favorite clip of Prince at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2004