My grandmother died a couple of years ago and I never shed a single tear for her. I felt terrible for my Mum, but felt no sense of loss for myself. In contrast, when I read that Prince had died, it felt like I’d been karate kicked in the stomach. The air evacuated my lungs, startling me with the impact. I spent the next few hours totally bewildered, unable to process the information (and not really wanting to). And later, in the shower before bed, I bawled like a newborn baby. Ugly crying. Tears mixing with shower water, eyes hot and burning, cheeks flushed. Wracked with grief. Unable to imagine a world in which Prince no longer existed.
How could I be so devastated to hear about Prince, and not grieve my own grandmother? Am I a monster? Possibly, but to explore the reasons behind this disparity I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last few days thinking it through. I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t choose who you mourn. You mourn when you lose something important to you, and I never had a connection with my grandmother, so when she died I lost nothing internally. On the other hand, Prince was someone who had dwelled in my soul. We spent time in my bedroom when I was a teenager and in my twenties (even going on a few bedroom dates in my thirties). But it was those adolescent years, I think, in which we were most intimately entwined.
A teenage girl’s bedroom is, in a way, just like a cocoon. It’s a place of safety and privacy, and it’s a place where transformation occurs. The changing of a girl into a woman, with all the attendant hormone tsunamis that go with that. I spent hours in my room forming as a human being, moulding into the adult I would become. Spilling my thoughts, desires and secrets into my diary. Reading. Examining my psyche. Examining my new boobs. Doing my homework. Trying to insert my first tampon. Dancing. Trying on clothes. Experimenting with makeup. Masturbating. Daydreaming, fantasising. And the entire time, listening to music. The soundtrack to my life. David Bowie, George Michael, INXS, Michael Jackson, Blondie, Stevie Wonder, Madonna and Prince.
But it was Prince, alone, whom I associate with my own burgeoning sexuality. I pity the young girls of today who only have Justin Bieber and the likes of Robin Thicke and Chris Brown to tease out their own understanding of themselves. These singers are adept at making women feel desired (and, let’s be honest, objectifying them in the process). Prince didn’t do that. Where he differed was in awakening our own budding desires and making us want him. He was overtly sexual but not in a way that was the least bit threatening, sleazy or aggressive (“I wanna turn you on, turn you out, all night long make you shout” – I Wanna Be Your Lover, 1979). Singers like Thicke sing about what they want to do to women in order to please themselves (sometimes even without the woman’s consent). Prince sang about what he wanted to do to a woman in order to please her (“Lemme show you baby I’m a talented boy” – Get Off*, 1991). The difference is vast. Prince often referred to women in his songs as his friends. He always insinuated a deep respect, and love, for women. And when you’re a teenage girl, there are no more valuable lessons to learn that a) men like that actually do exist, and b) you deserve to be put on a pedestal by the men you allow into your life (“I’ll do any and everything you want me to do, you know why? Coz I want you to have fun” – The Continental, 1992).
It was actually a little confusing to be so turned on by such a diminutive man wearing frilly women’s clothes (“I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand” – I Would Die 4 U, 1984). But that’s exactly where his power lay – he was sexy in a way that we hadn’t been conditioned to understand. He was feminine, he was masculine, he was super-freaky and we all wanted him to touch us. It was a learning, horizon-broadening experience to love Prince. I truly believe he informed my choice of men in life. I have always eschewed the archetypal “sexy” guy with a chiselled jaw and rippling muscles (ugh!), instead, being attracted to men who made me feel a certain way inside, regardless of their looks (“You don’t have to beautiful, to turn me on” – Kiss, 1986).
And by the same token, Prince tried to teach me another lesson. To not give a flying fuck what anyone thought of me. To do my own thing. To never apologise for being myself. To never apologise for anything I wore. I say he tried because it’s something I still struggle with. But he never apologised for anything. He just wore what he liked and we had to deal with it, and for that he will always be an inspiration to me. I remember one particular casual day at school when I was in Year 7. I was SO damn excited. My Mum let me borrow my favourite item from her wardrobe, a pastel yellow 1950s-style poodle skirt which I wore with a little short sleeved cardigan. I looked AMAZING. I could barely stop admiring myself in the mirror long enough to actually go to school. But when I got there, the ooohs and ahhhhs of sartorial adulation I was expecting to hear from my classmates actually turned out to be snickers, jeers and merciless teasing. At that time, I didn’t have the belief in myself that I (mostly) do now and the experience crushed me. By the end of the day, I hated that skirt, which is so terribly sad. Especially when I think back to what the cool kids were all wearing – parachute tracksuit pants (if you don’t know what these are, please look them up so you can fully understand the tragic nature of this story).
So, watching Prince prance around onstage in a tight, flared onesie with his bare ass cheeks proudly on display was a sight of wonderment for me. On the one hand, I found his clothing pretty ridiculous (perhaps the same opinion my schoolmates had of my poodle skirt). But on the other, bigger, hand, his complete confidence and self-assurance made his outfits seem incredible. He just quite clearly did not give a damn whether we approved or not. And in doing so, we had no choice but to love everything he wore. I wanted to wear clothes armed with that kind of attitude. I still do.
Another memory from high school. When I was sixteen years old, my high school English teacher lost the plot and stopped teaching us English for a while. She went through a phase of playing us songs instead and dissecting the lyrics (no complaints from us). The nadir of her personal crisis was when we spent two whole weeks analysing Don McLean’s “American Pie” (I can tell you what each and every line supposedly means, and I’m still waiting for that knowledge to come in handy one day).
Anyway, towards the end of the project my teacher asked if anyone wanted to suggest a song that the class could interpret together. My hand shot up and I volunteered ‘Sign ☮ The Times’ by Prince, without even thinking. I had spent the last few weeks listening to the song over and over and over again, in thrall of it. It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I, on the other hand, was not cool. I was the opposite of cool. But I still KNEW that this was a fantastic song and I figured that choosing it for my English class was going to give me some major fucking props with the cool kids.
The next day I handed out photocopies of the song lyrics. I was so excited to share this song with everyone. I almost felt proud, actually visualising my life changing as a result. People would realise I was OK. They’d want to hang out and I’d become popular. It charms the hell out of me now, thinking back to what a vivid imagination I possessed, how much I craved approval and how deep and textured my internal life was, compared to my reality.
But guess what? The song was a bust. My teacher was mad that I had handwritten the lyrics and not typed them out (on a typewriter!!!!). And my classmates just didn’t get it. They hated it. They thought it was shit. I was teased (again). My teacher stopped the song half way through and the rest of the period was spent in private study. I distinctly remember feeling two very intense emotions about this. Firstly, I was seriously dumbfounded that my premonitions hadn’t come true. But more than that, I remember realising, “Oh my god, I’M the fucking cool kid here. These people don’t have a clue!” I mean, how can you listen to ‘Sign ☮ The Times’ and not love it? HOW? It was an epiphany. It was the beginning of not needing the approval of other people, of just believing in myself. The beginning of not having to follow the crowd. I was always going my own way anyway, but I’d always experienced so much angst about it. Not anymore.
Prince is tied in to so many of my emotions and memories and growth that in some way it feels like he is part of my DNA. I truly believe that I only know some parts of myself because of him. And so mourning Prince is like mourning a part of me that is gone. And that’s why I feel such an intense sadness that he has died. No, I didn’t know him personally (regrettably, I never even saw him in concert). He wasn’t related to me. But my grief is real. And so is the grief of so many others. Here are a few tributes:
Silvia – “First memory of Prince is the most poignant. I was in bed with my then macho young boyfriend watching MTV. Prince appeared singing ‘Purple Rain’, and my heart stopped. Literally. Physically he looked like my boyfriend, same colour skin, hair and mouth, but his energy was female, and his clothes just fabulous. Prince’s female/androgynous, raw, sexual energy turned me on so much it was almost uncomfortable. I was 17½ at the time. I never married that young man. I would have married Prince if I could have. His vulnerability, flamboyance mixed with sensuality made him very attractive to many lesbians too.”
Patrick – “In 6th grade Mom drove to my Catholic school to confiscate my ‘1999’ cassette because somehow she got tipped off ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Married’ has the word fuck in it. She comes into class and takes it. I never get it back.
In 1987, now a sophomore in high school, I purchase my first CD boom box. I buy two discs from the used record shop that day. Prince’s ‘1999’ and L.L. Cool J.’s ‘Bad’. I still listen to one of them.
Sometime in high school, my three brothers and I are cleaning our rooms. I am blasting ‘Sign O’ The Times’ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ comes on. Mom catches wind of the lyrics, comes storming into my room, turns off my player, and snatches away the cassette of…. ‘Around The World In A Day’ (which is the wrong album [and] I also have the CD). Check and mate, Mom.
As a seventh-grader, I am confused as to whether ‘Darling Nikki’ is using the magazine as a visual aide or an actual rolled-up masturbation tool. Also, as a Catholic kid in the 80s, I didn’t really know women got down like that. Thank you, Prince.
‘Purple Rain’ forever remains my favourite album of all-time, 32 years later, 3200 listens later. At 45, I still flash back in times of need to Apollonia purifying herself in Lake Minnetonka. No, seriously, thank you, Prince. The world is less funky without you in it. Dance. Music. Sex. Romance.”
H – “It snowed here in London [today]. One of my all-time favourite songs is ‘Sometimes It Snows In April. I would always play it on my record player smoking a joint out my bedroom window when it snowed in April. When he died I put it on and heard it for the first time with him gone. So beautiful. His music takes me to such a magical place. Never saw him live, wish so much I had. I love watching him live. Such an incredible musician and so god dam sexy.”
Michelle – “I was enamoured with him, with his lyrics, with his grooves, with his mystery – he was, essentially, HOTNESS personified. He sang about things so taboo to me as a young school girl that I didn’t even know what some of them were. But because he had somehow managed to publish them (I couldn’t understand how he could get away with such brazen sexiness) – it meant that I could sing them and explore what they meant. ‘I Wanna Melt With U’ – Hottest. Song. Ever.
But – there is so much more to him than rampantly explicit lyrics, to his music, to that particular album (which for me is a microcosm of his career). There is ‘Sacrifice Of Victor’ – which tells a story of racial vilification so eloquently you could be mistaken to miss the significance of the underlying message. There’s the love ballad of ‘Morning Papers’, there’s ‘Blue Light’, alluding to a couple who have lost their spark, but who were probably destined to fail from the beginning because only one is willing to try. More hotness from ‘The Continental’, ‘Love 2 the 9’s’, ‘The Max’ and rappin’ out ‘The Flow’. The entire tracklist still has a profound effect on me – and triggered my purchase of 13 other Prince albums.”
Jen – “I saw him in concert a few years ago and it felt like I was at some evangelical revival. Everyone was on their feet the entire time and I was testifying with the best of them. Hands in the air, eyes closed, singing along, sometimes with tears rolling down my cheeks. It really did feel like I’d been taken to church. His ability to move so effortlessly from one instrument to the next, his booty shaking prowess and of course his voice were second to none. He was hilarious as well “You better call in sick tomorrow, coz I gotta million hits”. His whole swag was sexy as fuck.
I cried immediately as I woke up to the news yesterday and struggled to believe that it was real. Like Michael and Bowie, I didn’t ever really think of Prince as being mortal. I guess his musical legacy will have him living on for generations but it’s ultimately jarring to think he was actually just flesh and blood.”
Pieta – “Gutted, robbed. Bowie, I considered him immortal and in doing that I had considered his morality. I never, not once, thought of Prince as being anything other than a shining dynamo. The guy was a fucking powerhouse of sex and talent and art, there was no one like him before and I’ll wager there never will be anyone like him again. Sexy motherfucker.”
Dee – “I’m so gutted I haven’t been able to even crank up the tunes yet. Since [my husband] Jack was killed true joy is such a rare thing for me. Prince’s concert in the Purple Circle with great friends and Flava Flav from Public Enemy was a couple of hours of joy. I just can’t believe I’ll never see and feel that again. His music moulded my sexual growth. His raw in-your-face sexuality was a visual delight and sensory pulse raiser. Musically there was so much more to come and I feel ripped off that I will never hear his genius evolve with age.”
Justin – “I’ve always loved his art from an early age. His voice. His instrumental arrangements. His showmanship. His compositions. He was a true master of his craft. Crossing so many genres and making them his own. Bringing together so many different people through their love of his art. I’ve always played so much from his catalogue during my DJ sets. I’ve been lucky enough to acquire some rare white label remixes (that I know he would throw a tantrum until he turned purple if he knew about). But such is the artistry woven by this man, that people around the world, even knowing the possible consequences from his Royal Purpleness if he were to find out, still risk it all, just for a chance to release their own remixes, interpretations and homages to this musical genius. I was truly lucky to have seen his last full stage production in Australia a few years ago. And we even got free upgrades from shitty seats in the nosebleeds, to second row from the front… RIGHT NEXT TO HIS PIANO! It is, without a doubt, the best live stage production I’ve ever seen. 2016 has taken so much creativity from the world already. The loss of his musicality will leave a great void in the world of sound.”
Natasha – “Prince helped me reach a sexual awakening in my late teens. I was a pretty repressed teenager, a good little Catholic girl from migrant parents (and their only child!!) Yet I would still read books like ‘Flowers in the Attic’ and really bad Mills and Boon books, while listening to Prince’s album ‘Diamond & Pearls’ on cassette tape. I would sit on my bedroom floor visually imaging all his songs on that album. Prince was a great story teller through his lyrics – 23 positions in a one night stand!!! I could only imagine two positions! I couldn’t get over how this tiny effeminate guy could be so god damn sexy!!! This was my first introduction to Prince and one that made a lasting impression on my psyche. He was a musical genius, his ability to continue to write amazing songs for both himself and others over his career is a staggering feat. I’m also so impressed by his ability to play and conquer any musical instrument that he turned his gaze on. A true legend that died too young, as they tend to do.”
Kath – “To me, growing up listening to the genius that was Prince, has made me feel so lucky to have had that in my life during my most formative years. He was naughty, screamed sex, soulful and so goddamn funky. To this day, ‘Baby I’m A Star’ is still one of my favourite songs to dance to and listen to while driving to work to fire me up at 6.30am! I saw his ‘Diamonds & Pearls” concert twice and will never forget it. He was so effeminate and tiny, and yet so sexy at the same time. A truly amazing talent and the world is better for him having been here.”
Mari – “I remember [my friend] Sam and I as teenagers dancing around to ‘Cream’ and ‘Gett Off’ in her bedroom – I don’t know if we’d folded her futon over to make room for two tall chicks dancing or what but I remember we had heaps of room and were dancing around laughing and singing along and I felt ALIVE. The music and the dirty lyrics made me feel sexy and I felt like I was on a ride that I didn’t want to end – ‘cause that’s what Prince did. Didn’t matter what he looked like, what you looked like, what anyone looked like – if you didn’t come to party, don’t bother knocking on the door. His sexual confidence was catchy as fuck! I’m reeling at his early death, I really am. I still can’t quite believe it.”
And from Melly (who was the first person I thought of when I heard the news) – “I have been trying to think about what to write… I have been too sad about his death that I have avoided thinking too much about it. And I haven’t listened to his music since because I tear up. But I read an interview with Sheila E. and she said he’d want us to celebrate him and his music, not mourn him, so I will.
The first record (and I mean vinyl) I bought was ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Purple Rain’ was the first movie I watched multiple times, ‘Purple Rain’ is still my most played record and it is still the original I bought. His music was everything to me growing up, as was he. I thought him sexy before I even knew what sexy was. The way he moved, the way he played guitar, the way he dressed – everything about him, I loved. And still do.
My wardrobe contained velvet coats with embossed buttons, shirts with flounced sleeves, loads of jewellery. I think I wanted to be him. Or Sheila E. Who wouldn’t want to play music with the genius. He played every instrument in the recording of ‘Purple Rain’, he inspired and created a musical style that is mimicked today. ‘Darling Nikki’ is one of my favourite songs from ‘Purple Rain’ – for its naughtiness, its outrageousness – but ‘Controversy’ is my all-time favourite. When it underwent a resurgence played at clubs in the early 2000s I always broke into a smile and into song. I can go on and on but I’ll finish here. My heart is saddened but my soul will always soar when I hear his music and I will always remember what his music meant to me.”
And so, goodnight sweet Prince. You will never be forgotten.
* I still feel a stirring in between my legs whenever I think of this song.