Last Year In “Some Bullshit”: Something I Will Never Comprehend

{This post was originally written on April 22nd, 2016, for the Broad-cast blog. Now that the Broad-cast is defunct, I thought I’d bring it over here to repost it on the anniversary. Not the anniversary of his death, though; the anniversary of the day so many of us spent remembering him via songs and videos and think pieces and GIFs, my god, the GIFs! So instead of the more staid approach I took with the photo illustrations to this piece on the Broad-cast, here I will be inserting GIFs. They may or may not be appropriate to the topic addressed in any given paragraph. I don’t care. Prince gave good GIF.}

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When Prince Rogers Nelson died yesterday at the age of 57, the world lost a musician of unparalleled talent. He played 27 instruments. His vocal range spanned an effortless four-and-a-half octaves. He released 39 studio albums and apparently had thousands of unreleased songs locked in a vault at his Paisley Park mansion. There are literally no other musicians alive today who can even approach Prince’s musicianship across so many metrics.

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But beyond Prince’s contributions to modern music, Prince also spend much of his career existing outside the strict boundaries of gender enforced by our culture. In his song “Controversy,” he addresses the curiosity of the public about his identity, posing questions that I know I was also asking as a young child when I saw him on my television: “Am I black or white/am I straight or gay?” As Alyssa Rosenberg said in the Washington Post yesterday, the deaths, in rapid succession, of both Prince and David Bowie have robbed us of two artists who “showed there’s no right way to be a man”:

“But if conventional notions of gender were only one of the things that didn’t constrain Bowie and Prince, their transcendence of this particular category is still a particularly significant part of their legacies. In the clothes they wore, the lean bodies they lived in, the way they positioned themselves in their music and art, their relationships to LGBT communities and in so many other ways, Prince and Bowie were living arguments that there is no one way, and no correct way for a man to dress, to move, to decide what he values, to choose who he loves or where he stands in relation to that person.”

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Prince’s former bandmate, Wendy Melvoin, said once that her first impression of Prince was that “He looked at me like a gay woman would look at another woman…We looked at each other for the first time and I thought, ‘Oh, I could so fall in love with that girl easy.’” Melvoin was among the many female musicians that Prince promoted relentlessly throughout his career, whether they were instrumentalists like Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, and Sheila E., to whom he gave prominent roles in his bands; or vocalists like Vanity, Apollonia, Carmen Electra, and even Sinead O’Connor, whose career-making breakthrough record, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, was written by Prince.

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In addition, Prince’s lyrics always promoted female sexual agency. In one of his earliest hit songs, “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, Prince’s desire for the woman in the song is built entirely around wanting to give her pleasure, and says, “I don’t want to pressure you,” as simple and clear a refutation of rape culture as we’re ever likely to get in a Top 40 song. Throughout the first two decades of his career, he gave voice to the idea that women could make their own choices about sex. For third-generation sex-positive feminists, listening to Prince approvingly sing about things like female masturbation was often a revelation. Writing for ESPN yesterday, Allison Glock pointed out that:

“He made slut-shaming irrelevant. By inviting women to be sexual on their own terms, to play with camp, to wear lingerie and throw down insane guitar licks, the women in Prince’s crew presented power in myriad forms, and showed they were in on the joke, beating sexist reductions to the punch and turning them on their ear musically and otherwise.”

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Prince also expressed a deep feeling of comradeship with women in songs like “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” where he laments that he will never be able to feel a certain level of closeness with his lover simply due to the expected male/female dynamics of a romantic relationship. His ability to flow between signifiers of masculinity (impeccably manicured facial hair and an often bare hairy chest) and femininity (heels, ruffled blouses, eyeliner, purple everything) was finally encapsulated by the glyph he created to replace his name during his contract battle with Warner Brothers — half male, half female, all Prince. This gender play made him not just an icon for the gay community, but very specifically the black gay community. In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, Tre’Velle Anderson writes:

“For black men, gender is a straight jacket, and day by day we find ways to live with our hands bound. Prince, however, found a way to break free. He shrugged off the confines of gender giving way to a persona that was masculine and feminine, and the world had to deal. Looking at how he moved through the world, seemingly without a care, I saw a way that I too could somehow balance these seemingly opposite identities.”

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But Prince’s comfort with androgyny during the first half of his career derailed after he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2002, following the death of his only child and end of his first marriage. Although he was apparently furious about the way he was portrayed in a 2008 New Yorker profile, he did not deny saying the quote that deeply confused a gay community that had seen him as an icon for decades:

“You’ve got the Republicans, and basically they want to live according to [the bible]. But there’s the problem of interpretation, and you’ve got some churches, some people, basically doing things and saying it comes from here, but it doesn’t. And then…you’ve got the Democrats, and they’re, like, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ Gay marriage, whatever. But neither of them is right…God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’”

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Prince had always been a believer. He had always woven religious language and imagery into his songs; indeed, “Let’s Go Crazy” is straightforwardly about enjoying the short time we are given on this earth to the fullest, while anticipating “the afterworld: a world of never-ending happiness; you can always see the sun, day or night.” Ann Powers mused on NPR that:

“Prince fans…first had to work through his dirty-minded outrageousness…only to find themselves confronted with the deeper provocation he posed. That was to move through the sensual into a spiritual, even religious space…which he brought to the level of profound spectacle. A promised land, on earth, made of intertwining grooves and limbs. Prince devotees committed themselves to starting there, in a kind of naked state. Beyond the explicitly political thread that delicately runs throughout his work, this was the way Prince fought for civil rights — he created musical environments in which propriety, the viral carrier of prejudice, fell under the curlicued sword of wise good humor and elegant lust.”

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The transition from a Christianity that reveled in the joyous embrace of “living in the now before the grim reaper comes knocking at your door” to one that made him forswear buttless jumpsuits and cease all live performances of songs like “Head” and “Darling Nikki” was jarring. Even for the fans who didn’t feel a kinship with Prince for his gender fluidity and overt carnality, fans who simply idolized his willingness to be deeply weird on every level without apology, a Prince who no longer wanted to gyrate into twenty-three positions in a one night stand seemed…wrong.

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But the people who raised their voices yesterday in an outpouring of grief were the ones who grew up on the Prince of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, who will always remember how his example pushed the boundaries of American ideas of gender. His recent music had become less relevant to pop culture, although he remained a singular figure who was revered throughout his industry. He also turned much of his energy to philanthropy, as his friend Van Jones revealed yesterday on CNN. Slowly but surely, stories have been trickling out over the last 24 hours of donations made in secret so as to conform to his new strict religious beliefs. Helping inner city kids learn to program computers. Donations to small local organizations like libraries. Fundraisers to help prop up local community organizations in Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles. While many of us may have seen an idol slip away from us on issues of gender and sexuality, Prince continued to support progressive ideas through undercover largesse.

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Prince was a figure of unfathomable impact in American pop culture. His loss seems unreal. Maybe tomorrow it will make more sense. For today, we can reflect on the things he did, the words he sang, and how they changed us.

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