A Primer on Prince for the Uninitiated, Like Myself
Get to know the fallen icon who inspired millions.
Prince performing at Coachella. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
In the event of most major celebrity deaths, I often find myself on the periphery of the cultural moment. These days, I have a healthy interest in pop culture. As in, I follow all the Kardashians on Snapchat. I know who Grimes is. I can mumble along to most Beyoncé songs. But growing up, in a strict Arab-American home, I lived in a silo of sorts. We didn’t get cable until I was in high school; the only radio in our home was in my parents’ room. Most of what I gleaned from pop culture of the time came from schoolyard discussion or pilfered copies of Teen Beat magazine. When I got unfettered access to the internet, I caught up on all the essentials: Roswell, Dawson’s Creek, the entire Beatles catalog. This is what I thought people cared about! So other things slipped through the cracks, like who Bruce Springsteen is, most Judy Bloom books and 80’s music.
But here’s the thing: I know who Prince is. Such illiteracy, in 2016, is unforgivable. I understand his cultural significance. But I’ve never listened to his music. This is, in some ways, a matter of pure laziness. If I have to search too hard for something, I usually just give up on it. As a music consumer who came of age in the Limewire era, the idea of paying for music seemed absurd to me for a long time. (The only CDs I ever owned as a teen were Hilary Duff’s Metamorphosis, which I won in a Radio Disney contest, and Green Day’s All-American Idiot, which someone burned for me illegally). These days, I pay for the privilege of a Spotify account, but I can’t access Prince’s music there, either. He’s never been accessible to me. I’m not blaming Prince, of course, for my ignorance. If anything, as a content creator, I can see why someone would want to exercise such control over his work. But I can also understand why, in 2016, young people maybe recognize him—even maybe love him—without having an intimate knowledge of his music.
As a torrent of public emotions were sublimated into tweets, Facebook status updates and Medium essays when Prince died yesterday, I could only watch from a distance. This is also how I felt when David Bowie died and when Garry Shandling died and when Phife Dawg died. My cultural experiences are admittedly narrow. But I find myself moved, every time, by the way fans mourn and celebrate these kinds of heroes. Culture, for all of us, is extremely personal. Our icons are often vessels for our own aspirations and ideas about the world. And, even though I never got to enjoy Prince while he was alive, these past two days have allowed me to catch up, just a little bit. I’ve put together a short list of pieces I’ve read and listened to that have helped me understand who Prince was—as a musician, a performer and a cultural force.
“In general, artists forge one of two career paths for themselves early on. Either they reject the world in order to become the romantic hero of their own imagining, or they embrace the real, transmuting what they find in the streets and in people’s homes into tales an audience can readily identify with. Growing up, Prince did both. And he used urban black music and black gay attitude as it filtered through and got mixed up in his predominantly white Midwestern environment to express his quintessentially American self. And it was this self—which, visually, at least, he played as male and female, gay and straight, black and white—that Prince used to remake black music in his own image.”
“I think that there is a category of legend that transcends time, that transcends generation, that transcends age. We put Prince in that category. We put David Bowie in that category. We put Michael Jackson in that category. And I want to point out that in each of these instances, these people were still producing [when they died].” – Doreen St. Felix
“This is why I needed Prince: because he celebrated garish, goofy, unrestrained emotion. He made it OK to slouch dramatically over a piano and blink flirtatiously while trying to look sad. He made it OK to be a fantasy version of your own self. It’s not that he denied the true meaning of pain. It’s that he thought it better for pain to be beautiful.”
“The Love Symbol proved frustrating for people who wanted to both speak and write about Prince. Writers, editors, and layout designers at magazines and newspapers wouldn't be able to type the actual name of the Artist Formerly Known As Prince. So Prince did the only thing you could do in that situation: He had a custom-designed font distributed to news outlets on a floppy disk.”
“Behind Prince’s exceptional talent and daring sensuality was a genuine love and adoration for women. While that sometimes translated to high-profile affairs with proteges from Vanity to Mayte Garcia, more often it meant that Prince was using his capacity as a genius artist to constantly elevate women as musicians, performers, collaborators and confidantes.”
“But in 1984, Prince wasn’t a criminal caricature relegated to R-rated blaxploitation flicks. He was grinding his hips and humping the stage on MTV. He was moaning wantonly on Top 40 radio—the radio American kids were listening to. In July of 1984, he was on the giant screen, larger than life in Purple Rain, licking his fingers, smoothing his hair, shimmying, writhing. To watch him perform was to be in his thrall; to be stunned into barely breathing or even blinking as he stroked his long purple instrument like he was rubbing his cock, the guitar solo transformed into masturbatory act, his head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth open, each note building on the next into an explosion of indecent abandon.”