I guess at 30 years old I’m technically considered a millennial. I wasn’t of the privileged generation that got to see acts like David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and of course, Prince, in their hip-thrusting, pre-Jehovah’s Witnessing glory days. No, my generation learned those artists as we grew up, their songs tempting us from behind older siblings’ closed doors and turning our mothers carefree, their toes light as they shimmied across the kitchen.
I remember once, when I was no more than eight, asking my dad, “What’s the difference between Michael Jackson and Prince?”
My defense: they were both light-skinned Black men who could sing and dance well, and wore tight pants and make-up. Why was Prince considered the sex symbol, while Michael Jackson was maligned?
My father paused. “Well I guess the main difference is that it’s always been clear that Prince loves women.”
No further explanation was needed. The first time I saw Purple Rain most of the sex scenes flew right over my head, but I couldn’t ignore the way my stomach flipped when The Kid cocked his head and revved his motorcycle. Prince was enigmatic, and whether that translated to raving groupies or Tipper Gore-level disgust, people couldn’t help reacting to him.
As I got older, I was never quite able to pin down Prince’s allure, but I knew that it went further than your typical celebrity crush, that just as his symbol implied, he was an icon. He was a short and slight man, but his confidence and swagger caused him to dominate every room he entered. He did not shy away from towering platform shoes or winged, glittering makeup, yet his masculinity was never questioned. He taught us that while a packaged pop image may sell records, what people value above all else is authenticity.
My creative wanderings never led me to musicianship, but even as a hopeful writer, I couldn’t help but marvel at Prince’s artistry. He never backed away from a conversation, and celebrated sex without degrading his female costars. He unapologetically defied all expectations and conventions, and showed us that you’re never too old to reinvent yourself.
I was lucky enough to see Prince perform during his 21-concert residency at The Forum back in 2011. I’ll never forget, I still have the luminescent purple lipstick I purchased just for the occasion. It was the third night of the residency, and after guest appearances from Sheila E. and Whitney Houston the previous nights, I wondered what remaining tricks he might have up his draping sleeves.
I don’t think there was a moment in his three-hour performance where I wasn’t on my feet. Between watching Sheila E. and Prince make eyes at each other throughout “The Glamorous Life,” and enviously drooling as Prince invited several lucky fans onstage, I didn’t even risk a bathroom break. In true, over-the-top Prince fashion, he brought out the legendary Chaka Khan to accompany him during “I Feel For You,” and Sly Stone to uplift us with a lively rendition of “Everyday People.” He teased us with songs that he rarely performed since converting religions and, equally enchanted with us, danced back onstage for several encores. Thousands screamed in unison as his royal gaze washed over us adoringly, leaving us feeling as though we’d just been baptized in the holy waters of Lake Minnetonka.
It was impossible for me to digest the news that, at just 57 years old, Prince Rogers Nelson passed away yesterday morning. It was only a few months ago that he’d announced his “Piano & a Microphone” tour throughout Australia and New Zealand. Every time I saw him on TV his afro was glistening and picked to perfection, his lips fixed in the same judgmental smirk that’s been meme’d all over the internet. He seemed ageless, invincible.
At the same time, Prince has always given a stage to our most human qualities, turning our vulnerabilities, contradictions, and private yearnings into timeless art.
1999 has come and gone, but I like to imagine that Prince would want us to celebrate his life by partying like the turn of the century is once again upon us, with all of the anticipation and excitement we held, in fear and awe of this future that none of us dared to predict, but were so eager to be apart of. I think if he had his wish, we’d exist eternally in those few magical moments before the ball drops, when we’re clutching our loved ones close, eyelids squeezed shut, hopeful that once they fluttered open, the world would reveal itself as shiny and new, full of opportunity, of life.