The first thing I did when I heard the news of Prince’s untimely, shocking, barely believable death yesterday was to scream NO! This can’t be real, I thought. It must be a hoax. When I realized it was indeed true, I tweeted: "He was LIFE. He was SEX. He was ART. A person who can funk that hard is not allowed to die! #prince"
I sat on the floor and cried for a while, then stood up, queued up Sexy M.F., one of my all time favorite songs, and danced my ass off in tribute, letting out a sob every now and then. I am not finished mourning and I will not be for a long time.
I first heard his music in the early eighties, when I was barely a tween. Something struck me — I knew that even though Michael Jackson was all the rage and my friends were obsessed with him, I was pledged to Prince. MJ was good and all, but he didn’t make me swoon the way Prince did, even with his lyrics that I barely understood at the time.
Prince’s sensibility felt raw, even though the music was polished. Even when he created perfect, delicious pop songs, like Little Red Corvette or When Doves Cry, they pierced both my soul and my loins simultaneously.
What I loved about Prince’s music was that although it was overtly sexual, with songs like Darling Nikki that were so bawdy they caused Tipper Gore to launch her war on dirty lyrics, which gave rise to parental advisory labels, there was always a tenderness, a sweetness, a worshipfulness in his music. I didn’t understand any of this intellectually, of course, but it didn’t matter — I felt it in my body.
Not only did Prince celebrate desire and sing of bodies electric, he made it all into a funk spiritual that moved asses and souls simultaneously. I had no idea, until recently, that Prince was born a Seventh Day Adventist and later become a Jehovah’s Witness — he was apparently quite religious.
But he didn’t believe in sin, or at least he didn’t believe that sex could fit into that category. In the '80s, when sex literally equaled death for a growing segment of the population because of the AIDS crisis, this idea was beautiful and revolutionary. Not only did he elevate what society (and the Reagans) told us was smut, he understood that sex could bring you closer to God. Maybe it was the purest thing of all, Prince seemed to be saying. By making sex into a kind of church, and his songs the gospel, he destroyed the very concept of shame.
Even a song like Head, off his Dirty Mind record, celebrates a woman’s body in a way no other rock or pop song did in its day. I love me some Led Zeppelin, but women had no agency in their songs and appeared as dangerous succubae at best, objects to be used and left at worst. Prince told a different story — of women who wanted to get naked and enjoy their bodies as much as he did. Gone was the idea that men were the only pleasure seekers. For Prince, men and women were equal takers, and it was ground-breaking.
Not only that — he surrounded himself with female musicians, and although their sexuality oozed, it was with a sense of ownership. These weren’t half-naked nymphs dancing around a car in a hair-metal video: They were drummers. They were singers. They were keyboardists. Even though Prince was the star — at the center — these talented women got their due, and he launched their careers.
Madonna, with songs like Burning Up, also showed me that women were allowed to feel desire. But even that song (for which I choreographed a dance sequence I still remember) left me wanting, because the protagonist of the song (and video) ended up on her knees begging. Prince gave me songs in which women were getting reciprocal sexual attention, and loving every second of it.
That he was androgynous and still so damn sexy, that he made me feel both desired and desirous, that he was daring and transgressive, that he crossed racial and gender lines: All of this made me love him and never stop loving him. There was Bowie, and then there was Prince. Both men let us be freaks and geeks, but Prince’s modus operandi, it seemed, was to encourage us to all get our freaks on in the carnal sense. He seemed to be saying that denying these urges, denying pleasure, covering and hiding the body wasn’t just a waste of time — it was potentially harmful.
Prince even directed the scenes of my actual love life, in real time. When I met the boy who would become my first love in 11th grade, I was listening to Kiss on my Walkman. He asked what was playing, and when I told him, he scoffed. “Prince? That’s not real music.” When I launched into a tirade about the Purple One’s talents, his oeuvre, his funk sensibility and boundary-smashing genius, I shut that boy up fast. And that fight was the one that launched our love. It was the first of several competitions that would be harbingers of true love for me. Prince was there to show me that in the trajectory of my life, rivalry often leads to romance.
Incidentally, Sexy M. F. led to meeting one of my best friends. She saw me dancing to this song at a party and decided that she wanted to be my friend (because I danced to it with fierce, wild abandon, as one must dance to any Prince song). So Prince has brought me not just romance but long-lasting friendship.
But most of all, Prince taught me to listen to my body. He kept coming back to the idea that life was short, death was always potentially near, and there was never time to not heed your desire. He reminded us to laugh all night, dance all night, or f*ck all night, or preferably, all of the above.
Rest in peace, my sweet Prince. Thank you for un-shaming generations of music lovers and teaching us to listen to our bodies tonight, and every night.
Before you go, remember Prince's most moving quotes:
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