“We could all die here today…I don’t wanna die, I’d rather dance my life away…”
Deep down, I always thought you had to love an artist who made a party record about the possible end of the world. And now, looking back at my original introduction to Prince, for the purposes of this essay, it occurs to me that of course I was a Prince fan: Prince is the perfect pop star—who’s artistry and fame pre-dates the overwhelming nihilistic glamour of rap culture—for a bright, curious 80s era adolescent with raging hormones and a slightly askew way of looking at the world to embrace as his own personal Pop Saviour.
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I discovered Prince—in a serious way—early in high school, when my cousins down south introduced me to a track called “Free” from 1999. I’d been familiar with the Minneapolis kat’s radio hits like “I Wanna Be Your Lover” but I hadn’t yet discovered the kinky majesty and sonic sensory overload that came from the deep album cuts, the insistence on rhythm meeting melody and colliding up against harmonies that defined the true meaning of a Prince record.
“Free”, with it’s lighter-than-air groove that nonetheless felt almost orchestral in its martial sturdiness and its quasi-political bent, sounded like news to me; it was also the first time, I believe, that I heard Prince scream. And when you hear that sound for the first time you even give in or step away.
Here’s what I did: I bought 1999 as soon as I got back to New York and lived in that record like a trappist monk, to quote another obsession of mine back then, lives in his faith.
Again, the hits were great—“Little Red Corvette” is, simply, one of the best car songs of all time—but it was a song called “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” that seduced me into eternal fandom. I hadn’t ever heard pop music so brazenly funky, a keyboard line so creamily expansive, a lyric so earth-shakingly raw yet so poetic: Right in the middle of the song, as the groove is growing to an apocalyptically orgasmic frenzy, Prince’s voice emerges from the mix to intone: “Marsha, I’m not saying this just to be nasty, but I sincerely wanna fuck the taste out of your mouth.” Did he really just say that?, I remember thinking. I was fifteen years old, probably lying on my bed reading a V.C. Andrews novel instead of doing my homework. Yes, he had said it.
But it hadn’t seemed crude or vulgar. It was so right for the groove, so to-the-point real, that it shot through me like an arrow and showed me that pop music was most definitely a purely primal thing, an experience both personal and tribal. Prince made music you wanted to dance to by making music you wanted to whisper to yourself (or someone else) in your most private of moments.
I was hooked.
The worst fight I ever had with my freshman year roommate in college—the only one that came, almost, to blows—was over Prince. By then, having discovered the strange paradise that was Dirty Mind and the hidden intricacies of Controversy, I was, of course, the biggest Purple Rain fan in the world, convinced that there would never ever, in my lifetime, be a better pop song than “When Doves Cry” (of course there was, two years later, Prince fashioned a ditty called “Kiss”; then a year later buried “Forever In my Life” deep in the tracks of Sign O’ the Times, but I digress).
My entire side of that small room I shared with Matt in Perkins Hall was covered with Prince posters and paraphernalia: Appollonia 6 posters and The Time album covers and Sheila E. magazine clips. One Friday night, having finished my French homework, I was blasting—for the third time—“Happy Birthday, Mr. Christian”, the opening track of the Appollonia 6 album and Matt, my roomie, wasn’t having it. He asked me to turn it down; I told him, basically, to fuck off. He was sick of everything Prince, he told me. I was sick of him, I said, because anybody who didn’t love Prince and his artists the way I loved Prince and his artists had more taste in his mouth than in his heart. Soon, the Resident Counselor had to sit us down and make us apologize. I apologized, but I didn’t mean it.
This argument was about the best artist in the world, the man who tackled politics and sex and religion, who liked girls but sang about possibly being bisexual, who lived and breathed music in a way the rest of us could only imagine. Matt’s Pink Floyd obsession couldn’t compare…
If I had more room I’d write about the time I was in London and saw “Sign O the Times” in the Virgin Mega Store and, because I’d be damned if I was gonna wait til I got back to the US to buy it and hear it, made one of the salesgirls put it on and stood there and listened to it while my friends went on about their lives. Or I’d write about the time I was assigned an interview with Prince and spent one afternoon at Paisley Park listening to Diamonds and Pearls right at the man’s side before watching him and the band run through the set of their upcoming concert, in front of just me, sitting on a folding chair with my stomach in my throat the whole time. Or maybe I’d write about the time I was at a Grammy party back in the 90s and the man himself waved me over and said, “I heard what you said about me on TV,” then smiled from the confused look on my face. He was kidding me. I was still shocked that he even remembered my name.
As I’ve gotten older, my Prince obsession has lessened a bit; it had to, it’s hard to be a fanatic when the thing you’re fanatical about stops being sublime and starts to seem bored—which Prince did seem, to me, in the mid-90s, even though—“Curious Child”? “The Sun, the Moon and the Stars”?—every Prince album since the beginning always has that one shining sublime moment of pop mastery that first drew me in showed its colors. and reminds me that there was a time when I knew that I’d found the weird, crazy, brilliant, eclectic, sexy, bold genius every true music nerd like me needs to remind himself that he exists—and that his existence is shared and understood by at least one other soul. Perhaps Prince said it best on “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)”:
“You think you’re special?…So do I.”
The Black Rockstar: Prince