My earliest memory of Prince was in 7th grade gym class. There was this 8th grader who was in love with Prince. She would bring her posters of this silly little man in his underwear, standing in a bathtub. I knew he was from Minnesota and she would talk about how her mom took her to see Purple Rain that summer. At the time, I was obsessed with John Taylor and Duran Duran and wasn’t sure what to make of Prince and his love for purple.
But, then I heard him sing. Prince created a sound that was sexy and haunting and raw and rough all at the same time. He was mesmerizing. From the moment I heard him perform, I was hooked. Prince and his band, The Revolution, carved out a music space that had not existed before he came on the scene.
You couldn’t grow up in Minnesota and come of age in the 1980s without knowing Prince. His mix of funk and rock and R&B crossed genre lines in ways that had never been done before.
I could tell you stories of seeing Prince for a canned food item, or watching him walk around First Avenue, but, how do you adequately express a relationship to an artist who was instrumental in defining and creating the music scene that changed your life?
It was because of Prince, the work he did in Minnesota and the music world, the scene he created at First Avenue because of Purple Rain, that I listen to the music I do today. Prince paved the way for bands coming out of the Twin Cities to be heard on the national music scene. He opened up doors for well-known bands to want to come to the Twin Cities and play First Avenue or other events and venues. Being a teenager in the Twin Cities throughout the 1980s gave me a rich and diverse appreciation for music that in no small part was due to Prince.
But, it was not only his influence on the music scene that I admire.
It was Prince’s music that pushed Tipper Gore to form the PMRC (Parents’ Music Resource Center) and in doing so challenged ideologies of indecency and censorship.
Prince’s work with female musicians has always been something I’ve respected. Starting with Wendy Melovin and Lisa Coleman as members of The Revolution, and his continued work with artists such as Sheila E. and would play with various female musicians throughout his career, Prince has always been known for promoting female musicians and performers.
Prince’s seeming ease of gender fluidity and his unspoken fragileness were aspects of his persona that appealed to me. You could be raunchy and sexy and vulnerable all at the same time. The use of his Love Symbol, bringing together Mars and Venus, created a gender fluid symbol that Prince is known for, but represents so much more. It represents a strategic way to say “fuck you” to a powerhouse in the industry in a way that managed to gain him press and independence. It’s a way to meld identities and sexuality in ways that are continually symbolized by Prince. It showed just how calculated Prince was about his work.
My relationship with Prince has continued throughout my adulthood. Conversations about where I grew up and the music I listened to, where I saw music when I was younger and what the Minnesota music scene meant to me would always return to Prince. Usually in a version of, “Yeah, you know that club in the movie Purple Rain? That’s where I would hang out, see bands, go dancing.” I could tell a great deal about a person who didn’t know Purple Rain or couldn’t relate to Prince. Although I would not label him as my favorite artist, in many ways he was the cornerstone of my music history.
When I lived in Philadelphia I would spend lots of quality time at the post office. One of my favorites was the South Street Post Office. There, one of the postal workers was a diehard Prince fan. She had pictures of Prince all over her little cubicle. Every time I went in and mailed something I hoped she would be there so we could talk Prince. And, whenever she was, it made my day.
Last spring I taught First Year Composition with a focus on music. The first reading I had my students do was a chapter of Michaelangelo Mato’s “Prince’s Sign O’ the Times” from the 33 1/3 Series. I played Purple Rain and talked with them about how much Prince impacted my life. One of them asked me if I really liked Prince, and I said, “Of Course. How can you not?” Later in the semester I assigned them to watch the Grammy Awards so we could do a rhetorical analysis on them. Prince walked out on stage to a standing ovation. He didn’t need to say a thing. It was a moment of genuine honor and respect for an artist that is valued across genres and generations. When we returned to class, my students loved that all my talk of the greatness of Prince culminated in his being honored in a small, yet not insignificant, way.
I’ve spent the last few days thinking about all the ways Prince has impacted my life. One aspect of music that I will always value is the ways in which it connects you to people and places and creates nostalgia. There are times when those artists we admire do not always live up to the expectations of being in their everyday lives. I struggle with that often when we start to celebrate and mourn celebrities and celebrity culture. But, for me Prince is an artist who created something unique. Something that had not been done before in popular music. And, I hold him dear because of his ability to stay away from scandal and expose his vulnerability. All while being one hell of a musician. Prince, you will forever be missed.