The first Prince song I ever heard was “When Doves Cry.” It was 1984 and my family had just moved overseas to Germany. As we all rode a big army-green bus from one base to the next in search of school supplies, I sat next to my brother as the song blared all around us on the Armed Forces Radio Network.
I was 8 years old. And as I listened to lyrics I was hardly mature enough to comprehend being sung over punctuated keyboard riffs, I felt Prince’s pain like it was my own. This was the first time I imagined myself as a character in a music video, staring intently out the bus window. I could picture my little grade-school self starring in the story of this conflicted singer. I was displaced, confused and wondered why I’d been left standing, alone in a world so cold.
That same year, I had my first boy-girl slow dance at the rec center. Stein Edwards, a darling Michael J. Fox wannabe, led me to the dance floor and I slung my arms around his neck and swayed back and forth to "Purple Rain." I had seen the movie posters, so by now I knew that Prince was a strange-looking fellow; an adult, for certain, but unlike any man I’d ever seen in person. The crushed velvet suit, the frilly cuffs — he reminded me of Puss 'n Boots, but with a guitar.
The 1980s were a weird and wonderful time to grow up, musically. Parents were, for the most part, quite separated from pop culture. They didn’t listen to the radio along with us or screen our Walkmans, and so we flew under the radar with a lot of our favorite artists. We didn’t have cable, but friends would tape MTV for us so we could see the latest music videos. I was too young to understand any of the sexual elements of Prince’s music, except to say that I knew there was something mysterious and forbidden about his lyrics. To me, "Raspberry Beret" was just a catchy tune about hats.
As I hit middle school and then high school, I was still mostly innocent. But I was also drawn to Prince’s sensual overtures. And the presence of female backing vocals not only presented great singalong potential, but also reassurance that this was a man who respected women. He had females in his band, even! I rocked the hell out of "Diamonds and Pearls," having not the foggiest of ideas why Prince asked if she’d be a happy boy or a girl.
Prince wrote a lot of songs mixing up all of what mattered to him, which included a hearty dose of both sex and religion at the same time. When I was in college, it made me feel so rebellious and cool to dance out to the pulsating beats of "Gett Off." I couldn’t name more than one or two positions, let alone 23 of them, but it made me feel free. And in a similar way, singing the lyrics to “7” out loud made me feel like I was breaking some commandments required of me. After all, this was Prince, singing about angels! It had to be blasphemous, I was sure of it.
The day Prince died, the local radio station played continuous Prince tracks, commercial-free. I took my time driving to the soccer fields, eager to soak up as many songs as possible. And as I blasted the soundtrack of my own youth throughout my minivan, (although muting a few bits and pieces, because kids) I sang along with this strange little man, this musical genius who pranced around in tight pants and heels.
"Women not girls rule my world." Preach on, purple one. Preach on.
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